Coal Drops Yard: how Thomas Heatherwick has designed more than just a mall

How do you design a world-class shopping mall in a pair of fairly uninspiring oversized Victorian warehouses? Well first you design another shopping mall in a completely different country and understand that such buildings are more than just “cheesy shopping malls”.


Coal Drops Yard


That’s if you're the founder of Heatherwick Studio anyway. Thomas Heatherwick, the uber-influential architect (best known by many for the Olympic Cauldron he designed for the 2012 Olympic Games in London), is the name behind London’s Coal Drops Yard development at King’s Cross.

Close to Central Saint Martins and opening next year, it unifies two giant disused buildings that were once the  repository for coal transported from the North of England by rail before it was picked up and delivered to homes and businesses all over the city.

But speaking at the FT Weekend Festival in London, Heatherwick said that he was psychologically prepared for the project by a much earlier commission in Hong Kong.



Coal Drops Yard

The architect, who is a great believer in the need for “soulfulness” in public buildings, said: “We were asked to rethink a large shopping mall. It was just under 1m sq ft of space and with [a budget of] £156 million it was above everything the studio had done within the previous 10 years.

“The thing that was interesting there was the heat. This was one of the main cooling public places in the city [because of] the heat. This cool space was public space and this was a partnership with the city.”

HERITAGE MEETS MODERN

That work transformed the Hong Kong mall, he said, into something beyond just a place to buy more ‘stuff’. Which brings us to Coal Drops Yard that has been planned as more than a mall but also a place to meet and an events space. That concept of transcending the ‘just a mall’ tag is something Covent Garden has already achieved very successfully across town. But Heatherwick insisted that Coal Drops yard is very different.

For a start, it’s an area built on a Victorian heritage but one that is also taking on a more modernist style and he said it was important to both respect the original architecture, add something new and create a building people feel drawn to.

Yet he recognised how hard it was to turn “two long Kit Kat-like fingers of warehouse buildings” meant to store coal into a place where consumers would buy fashion and beauty products and would want to socialise.


The original buildings were rundown with a burnt out roof - Coal Drops yard


He said that the original assumption of many people was that “you take these two buildings, sandblast the Victorian warehouse structures, put bridges and shops in. Then great, it’s like Covent Garden.”

However, “Covent Garden already exists” and it had in-built advantages when it was transformed from a wholesale flower market to a mall. “Covent garden was a wholesale place so was about selling. For instance, the distances between the shops in the main buildings are similar to in a shopping mall.”

That wasn’t the case with these two very long buildings, each around the length of St Paul’s Cathedral and much farther apart. He said it was obvious the solution wouldn’t just be a bridge or two and that “it needed another floor, and a heart. I don’t know anything about feng shui, but two long sticks don’t create a heart.”

The challenge became to make that heart, “but the blessing was that there were these buildings full of character and spirit and wrinkles, things that you struggle with anything new to have,” Heatherwick explained.

That said, his love of the old buildings didn’t create an aversion to change: “We tend to defer to history too much. The Victorians weren’t even trying when they built these warehouses. They were just warehouses. A lot of the specialness is because of those [two] structures, [but] the idea that we just add a glass box and defer to the past seemed inappropriate.”


Thomas Heatherwick was faced with transforming a rundown Victorian area


He said the team needed to create a new roof as one warehouse roof had burnt out, so when thinking about the fact that an extra floor was needed and the two buildings had to be connected, the roof was an obvious way forward.

“We decided to take what needed to be rebuilt anyway, the roof, and to grow it, to allow it to stitch the two together to make a new space. This is what we’re building. It makes a space where Central Saint Martins can have their fashion show, or it’s a space that’s a defined point that two long buildings don’t give you when you’re arranging to meet your granny there.”

The work has been under way for around 18 months now and still has around a year to go but Heatherwick said it’s creating a “space that looks out over the city" and “stitches together the historic structure and the new structure.”

KING’S CROSS REVIVAL

It’s a vision that Heatherwick clearly believes in and certainly makes us excited to see the final outcome. But the mall will be as much about the tenants as the building. Early signs are that the retail mix will be just as interesting as the setting. Two of the earliest tenants among the 65 planned retail units, announced only last month, are niche local fashion businesses Cubitts and Lost Property of London. And the developer, Argent’s, said it wants the mall/event space to be somewhere people can discover “beautiful, carefully chosen things,” in the areas of  fashion, craft and culture.

Assuming it can find enough tenants of the right type to take space, and isn't forced to fill it with the usual global chains, it could expose small-to-mid-sized fashion businesses to a huge consumer group. Nearby King’s Boulevard is predicted to be seeing annual footfall of 19 million by 2019 and Coal Drops yard is likely to enjoy similar numbers.


LPOL is one of the first names to be announced for Coal Drops Yard - LPOL


In fact, the whole area is shaping up into one of London’s most interesting retail neighbourhoods. Brands including Carhartt Work In Progress, 18 Montrose, Merci, & Other Stories, and Jigsaw, have all either opened or are preparing to open in the vicinity. And Google last year opened its concept store selling YouTube stars’ merchandise at King’s Cross too.

As Coal Drops yard re-opens, this time next year could be one of the most exciting autumn seasons in London for some time… and we have Thomas Heatherwick to thank for at least a part of that.

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