If you go down to King’s Cross today, you’re in for a big surprise.
The once derelict area surrounding London’s bustling King’s Cross station has opened the latest part of its extensive £1bn, 8 million sq ft reinvention.
The newest addition to the area’s newly minted postcode, N1C, is Coal Drops Yard, or – as Anna Strongman, partner at developer Argent, calls it – “the new retail heart for King’s Cross and London”, which opened to the public today, 26 October.
And it is certainly impressive. Descending a ramp from Granary Square, there is a sense of being transported into another world. A vast cobbled courtyard greets you – luxuriously expansive, it is easy to imagine the south-facing space as a buzzing, sun-filled leisure hub come summer, particularly when Strongman reveals it will be filled with seating and market stalls.
The courtyard is framed by the site’s restored railway arches and black wrought iron. It is almost like a Victorian film set thanks to its authentic yet pristine restoration, but modern touches are sympathetically spliced in with gleaming glass and shiny metal.
We wanted to make something that was a true shopping street
Thomas Heatherwick, Heatherwick Studio
The two main buildings, erected in 1850 to house coal that had been transported from the north of England into the capital, feature new roofs that glide over both buildings and elegantly sweep up, meeting over the courtyard to create floating glass pods above. The unusual roof is almost otherworldly – it is tiled with slate from the same Welsh quarry as the original 1850s building, but twists into an abstract curve. It is a bold and beautiful design-led statement masterminded by architectural firm Heatherwick Studio.
This addition creates three levels across the site. Walkways, staircases, viewing platforms and ramps guide shoppers up and down, in and out – a deliberate move to “stop it feeling like a linear, heartless location,” explains Heatherwick Studio founder Thomas Heatherwick: “We wanted to make this something that isn’t like a [traditional] shopping mall, which is enclosed with limited entrances. We wanted to make something that was a true shopping street, with many routes in, out and through.”
Coal Drops Yard is a sturdy, rugged and almost masculine environment, which honours the site’s heritage but with a contemporary, design-led gloss. This feeling is reflected in the brands and businesses that now call it home, described by Argent’s Strongman as a “community of shopkeepers, restaurateurs and a few bars” across its 55 units, two-thirds of which opened last week.
While there are some exceptions, most of its brands share a common thread and many fall within a certain lifestyle bracket. They focus on craft and heritage, mixing the traditional with the modern, with a premium outdoors-meets-urban style.
It also has a menswear focus and I can even imagine the “Coal Drops man” – he buys his bespoke glasses at Cubitts, his shoes at Joseph Cheaney & Sons, chinos at Universal Works, polos from Fred Perry and coats from Lavenham. Basics such as T-shirts can be found at bigger stores from brands such as Cos, and suits at Paul Smith.
He also buys special items from independents such as Lost Property London, which manufacturers its bags in east London, or Outsiders Store, which offers a contemporary, premium take on the classic outdoor trend.
He gets his hair cut at men’s grooming salon Manifesto, uses Aesop soaps, and buys furniture at Tom Dixon and magazines and books from independent Bonds.
Alongside the hearty restaurants and bars, many open from breakfast to dinner, the mix of businesses create a true and targeted lifestyle offer: food and drink, clothes and homeware, grooming products and gymwear.
There are womenswear stores too, such as Emin & Paul, lingerie brand Beija London and independent retailer S120, but they do not form the core Coal Drops Yard’s offer.
The variety of spaces is also interesting. Standard railway archways create intimate units, while bigger stores are made by combining several together – shops range from 500 sq ft to 12,000 sq ft. This allows larger businesses to offer new concepts, such as Fred Perry’s medium-sized store, which focuses only on its collaboration products rather than its mainline.
Second, rather than bigger and smaller businesses being separated, Coal Drops Yard blends them. Paul Smith is opposite small independent S120, while Cos is a few doors down from lifestyle store Bonds, which only launched last year.
Lower Stable Street runs alongside the outside edge of the development and is a sunken, more intimate back street. It houses much smaller units for emerging brands and more established names looking for new, smaller stores.
If you spend time with us, we want you to have a lovely time in return
Craig White, Argent
This almost higgledy-piggledy mix of units is unusual for shopping precincts, but really does help create a sense of discovery as you browse. Each new store is different in size, shape and format, which pulls you in and inspires you to explore.
“We wanted to make sure that we have units that are only 15 sq m [160 sq ft] – tiny – to allow a student graduating from [the nearby Central Saint Martins university] to be here and be given a space,” says Heatherwick. “There are [a range of sizes], so that we could give a variety of human experience and opportunity for the diversity that I think we all yearn for in places.”
The integration of leisure and experience at Coal Drops Yard and the surrounding developments, whether it be restaurants or just attractive public spaces, add another layer to the offer, and one that promises to help pull in the crowds.
“In a time when retail is dying, very largely because you can stay in bed and buy anything you want, the most important thing we are finding in all the projects we are working on is the human experience,” says designer Heatherwick. “You don’t have to go out [now], so somewhere has to mean something and not be a generic duplicate that maybe could have been gotten away with 20 years ago before the digital revolution.”
Craig White, senior project director at Argent, echoes this. “[Coal Drops Yard had to be] rewarding for your time, because time is the luxury now. If you spend time with us, we want you to have a lovely time in return.”
“When it came to leasing Coal Drops Yard we created a set of values as some guiding principles – enriching, delighting and uniting,” adds White.
Although “experience” might be retail’s favourite buzzword du jour, with its unique community of brands, inspiring setting and appealing lifestyle offer, I would say Coal Drops Yard has delivered.