Coal Drops Yard, the Heatherwick Studio-designed shopping and eating destination, will open its doors to the public tomorrow bringing a new “retail heart” to the King’s Cross district.
Set in former Victorian coal yards, this retail destination is like no other in the capital. And, while in its complete state with the retailers and food and beverage outlets all in situ (with some still rushing to complete their store fits in time for tomorrow’s grand opening) it looks like a natural place for a new generation of “shopping mall”, the space presented many challenges as well as opportunities.
Speaking at a press preview today architect Thomas Heatherwick, whose practice has been based in the area for 20 years, explained that typically shopping malls have retail shopfronts that are between 10m to 13m apart “here they are 25m [apart] at the northern end and 39m at the southern end“.
In addition the 50 retail spaces vary in size from 15sqm to 2,000sqm but Heatherwick saw this as an advantage, as did Argent which oversaw the lettings process of the site. It enabled Argent to offer units to smaller brands and emerging designers who might otherwise not have the opportunity to have their own store.
Set, as it is, just metres away from Central Saint Martins college, which has given the global fashion industry so much talent, this seemed like the right thing to do. In a move that you are unlikely to see at, say your average Westfield mall, Argent has offered flexible leases and spaces to brands and designers ranging from just a few months to several years in the Lower Stable Street area of the site, which is designed to be a dynamic and ever-changing experience.
In the two main Coal Drops buildings, which Heatherwick describes as two KitKat fingers and which he has joined together with an ingenious “kissing roof”, the retail mix has been hand-selected to focus on craft-led, independent brands, such as Lost Property of London, Cheaney and Tracey Neuls, along with some household names.
“Retail is dying because you can stay in bed and get a PHD and you can stay in bed and buy whatever you want; the experience [of Coal Drops Yard] is the critical thing.
However the latter all created bespoke concepts for the site, such as Paul Smith, Fred Perry and H&M’s COS. And, as if to further underscore the difference from your average mall, the site is anchored not by Marks & Spencer, but by Wolf & Badger, which offers an evolving mix of independent brands and designers.
While it might seem magnanimous of Argent to focus on an independent and differentiated retail mix, there’s a certain degree of commerciality in that decision too. As Heatherwick pointed out, giving consumers more of the same isn’t going to get them out of bed in this post-digital age.
“Shopping is an excuse for a place,” Heatherwick explained. “Retail is dying because you can stay in bed and get a PHD and you can stay in bed and buy whatever you want; the experience [of Coal Drops Yard] is the critical thing. It can’t be a generic duplicate that you could possibly get away with 20 or 30 years ago before the digital revolution.”
And certainly upon entering the site, even on a misty and cold Autumn morning with workmen still bustling around with tool boxes and brooms, you get a sense of intrigue and history that your average mall can’t offer. It might also evoke a sense of nostalgia among those shoppers now in their 40s and 50s who used to come clubbing in the site, which was once home to the famous nightspots, The Cross and Bagley’s in the 1980s and 1990s (some of the paintwork from the interior of Bagley’s has been retained).
It would be quite possible to spend a whole day at Coal Drops Yard, though it isn’t a huge site compared to a super-mall (there is around 100,000 sq ft of retail space in total), as the retail and food and beverage mix will take you through from breakfast to lunch to early evening drinks and plenty of the stores offer reasons to stay and hang out, such as lifestyle store Bonds. which also contains a coffee bar and a friendly resident bulldog who makes it hard to want to leave.
You can also spend time looking at the mesmerising original brickwork and ironwork and appreciating all the clever and thoughtful details that Heatherwick is known for. For instance the slate on his “kissing roof” comes from the same Welsh quarry as the slate on the original roofs and left-hand slaters were employed to get the exact desired effect on one half of the roof. The inside of the roof will be home to Samsung and, as it was still being fitted out, we weren’t allowed in but the best views of the site and the surrounding are will certainly be had from this unique vantage point.
When it is open, along with all the other interesting stores and food outlets, it is bound to draw the crowds and there are plenty of sources to draw them from. Many high profile companies have HQs in the area (or are soon to have them) such as Google, Havas, Louis Vuitton and The Guardian newspaper, and there are thousands of students, residents and travellers passing through this important hub on a daily basis.
In addition Facebook is set to take 600,000 sq ft of commercial space across three buildings in the area from 2021, which will provide another footfall boost in a couple of years’ time.
The whole of the 67-acre King’s Cross site has been regenerated over the past 10 years but what the hasn’t meant is gentrification. There are 2,000 homes in the ares but they are a mix of private, rental, student and affordable housing and the idea is that the area should bring them all together via the nearby Granary Square and its food outlets and fountains, the canal and of course Coal Drops which, with its many entrances and exits, hopes to attract people from all walks of life.
Heatherwick certainly sees the sense of “heart” as the most important aspect of the site, over and above the shopping. He says: “Shopping is an excuse for getting out, whether you buy anything doesn’t really matter to me – I shouldn’t really say that! – but it’s all an excuse for getting together.”