From Victorian Industry to the Future of Retail: Thomas Heatherwick on Creating Coal Drops Yard

The end of October saw the opening of a long-awaited project in London’s Kings Cross area. Created as a retail and design destination for the digital era, Coal Drops Yard fuses hyper modern engineering with Victorian industrial design to create a structure quite unlike any other. Lucy Ingham hears from Heatherwick Studio founder and legendary British designer Thomas Heatherwick to find out how the project came to be 

Credit: Hufton+Crow

There are few retail destinations that are truly breathtaking, but the newly opened Coal Drops Yard is one of them. Designed by Heatherwick Studio, the structure is a dramatic hybrid of Victorian industrial design and neofuturistic modernity, yet it also has a deeply warm sense of space that makes it a joy to move through.

Located in London’s King’s Cross area, the project is the jewel in the crown of an extensive redevelopment project. Overseen by developer Argent, it is transforming a long run-down former Victorian industrial area into a design destination for the UK’s capital.

Many of the buildings in the area have seen novel transformations, such as the conversion of the nearby Granary into the home of Central Saint Martin’s college of art and the installation of a residential structure inside the Victorian gasholders, however none quite match the ambition and triumph of Coal Drops Yard.

Combining 100,000 sq ft of retail areas with vast public spaces, it is at its core a retail destination, but for Heatherwick Studio, whose offices are just a stone’s throw away, it has also been a labour of love.

“Architects in Britain don't get to work in Britain: we have to fly everywhere else in the world. And so we were doing that, we were getting projects in other places, and then suddenly we were commissioned to do a project here,” explains Thomas Heatherwick CBE, founder of Heatherwick Studio and legendary British designer whose other work includes the new Routemaster bus and the London Olympic Cauldron.

“And so we felt enormous stewardship somehow, and responsibility for this location.”

Credit: Hufton+Crow

From Victorian roots: The history of Coal Drops Yard

When Heatherwick Studios was initially presented with the project, they were faced with refurbishing and transforming two dilapidated Victorian industrial buildings that formed part of what once was a hub of industry in the UK’s capital.

“This whole area is a phenomenal piece of Victorian ambition; the spirit that was there in Victorian times building these structures, and this mixture of water – with the canals that had been built – rail and road all coming together in this intense location,” explains Heatherwick.

“ There was a magic in these existing buildings already: all the idiosyncrasy. You've got to hand it to the Victorians: this was their Ikea shed of the day 

The two structures were built to support the city’s intense demand for coal in the 1800s, as the final port of call for freight trains carrying the fuel from mines to the north. The eastern building came first, completed in 1851, with the second following in 1860.

“The trains would come in and they would drop coal from the north of England. They would drop through hoppers and then drop into waiting horses and carts below where the coal was bagged up,” he says.

“And the bagged up coal was then taken around and dropped into all the cast iron coal holes in the pavements that we know all around London.”

However, this use only lasted for 27 years before strengthening road networks saw them replaced. The buildings were then used as warehouses and for light industrial purposes, with manufacturers such as glassmaker Bagley Woods and Company making a home there.

As the 20th century progressed, their uses became seedier, hosting a series of nightclubs, including the notorious Bagley’s in the 1990s, alongside spaces known for criminal activity.

“They were quite notorious, much-loved spaces,” says Heatherwick.

However, the original structures remained more-or-less intact, playing host to an ever-changing carousel of industries and purposes.

“There was a magic in these existing buildings already: all the idiosyncrasy. You've got to hand it to the Victorians: this was their Ikea shed of the day, and we were blessed with thousands of industrial buildings across the country that are truly flexible, reusable structures with all this variety of different spaces,” he enthuses.

“So I think me and my team felt that we were custodians of just trying to cherish the variety that the building could give, the idiosyncracy that these buildings could give, and work with that. “

Credit: John Sturrock

Creating a heart: The design challenges

When Archant first brought Heatherwick Studios onto the Coal Drops Yard project, they were clear the space was to be used for retail, but had very different expectations for how it could be transformed.

“The initial discussion that we had was the request that maybe we could design two bridges that would connect together the eastern and western Coal Drops, and I think the thinking had been that the brick would be cleaned up and shop units would be put in,” says Heatherwick.

“ We had these two structures like broken Kit Kat fingers, these two sticks which were the ends of the prongs of the serpentine tongue coming from the north of England that didn't necessarily make any heart to it 

The studio was fresh from Pacific Place, a project in “shiny, blue skied, shoulder padded Hong Kong”, which had given them considerable opportunity to explore the challenges posed by the retail environment. And it was this that allowed them to see the opportunity that Coal Drops Yard presented.

“We'd had a chance to work from the largest scale, strategically, on how we could take this building in Hong Kong that had been built in the 1980s and then jump it forward to be suitable for the next 20, 30 years,” he says. “We had worked for the large scale but also down to the smallest scale: balustrades and buttons as well as reconfiguring the public flow.

“It meant that then when we were thinking about these unusual structures we were thinking: how could we make something that isn't like a shopping mall? Because a shopping mall is an enclosed thing with limited entrances. How could we make something that was a true shopping street for London that was porous, with many, many routes and entrances in and out and through?”

However, structurally the development posed its own unique challenges.

“The key thing seems to be we had these two [structures] like broken Kit Kat fingers, these two sticks which were the ends of the prongs of the serpentine tongue coming from the north of England that didn't necessarily make any heart to it,” he says.

“And just the scale: that eastern Coal Drop is the same length as St Paul's Cathedral, and so I think that it was easy, because in plan they look long and skinny, to misunderstand the scale. So there was this strong linearity, like skis.”

The other problem faced by Heatherwick Studios was taking a space designed for industry and making it work as a retail environment.

“We’d certainly learnt, working in projects where there was a shopping dimension, that shopping malls have a particular distance, which is a social thing,” explains Heatherwick.

“Typically in a shopping environment you might have 10 to 13 metres between one shopfront and another shopfront, because that's the distance you can recognise someone's eyes, recognise who someone is.

“But in this we have 26 metres at the northern end, and 39 metres at the southern end. And so it struck us that actually the issue was bigger than two bridges. It felt to us that the challenge was to create a heart that would hold you and glue everything together and make you more likely to pop in, and make something that brings people together.”

Credit: Luke Hayes

Two become one: Stitching the structure together

The solution to this heart was the addition of the dramatic, futuristic structure that crowns the building’s original Victorian fabric, adding an additional storey to the development.

“I think one of our key first conversations with Morwenna [Hall, COO of Argent] and the team was a suggestion of: could we introduce a third level? Because it felt by introducing the third level there would be an extra element that could stitch these two buildings together simultaneously, frame a central space rather than it just feeling linear heartless location,” explains Heatherwick.

“ We had this urgent notion that we should try to use the existing fabric of the buildings to solve the problem of making a central stitching element 

“But then when we were thinking: well, how do you stitch these together? This isn't the Acropolis where everything's a glass box. It felt to us that there was a collision between the geometry that was north-south and the move that would connect east-west and it felt that a rectangular box would completely fight with the directionality of these two very linear structures.”

The solution was in part achieved through the desire to involve the original structure.

“We had this urgent notion that we should try to use the existing fabric of the buildings to solve the problem of making a central stitching element,” he says.

“The roof had been completely burnt out on a big chunk of the eastern Coal Drop structure, and so there was a need for rebuilding the roof throughout. We started looking at ideas of ways we could use the roof to make that element, instead of dropping a box on top, using the Welsh slate from the original quarry to stitch together and create new space.”

However, the solution was not achieved overnight, but was instead evolved through collaboration with the building’s other stakeholders.

“We had meetings with Camden planners and with Historic England, and there was positivity, but then there was this kind of 'hmm' and questioning,” he says.

“And normally building designers quite often want to say how annoying the city planners were, actually the city planners made our project better. Their questioning, their collaboration with us, allowed us to go away, rethink and regroup and find a way to manifest the duality, instead of totally stitching these two build things together.

“Based on that, we evolved this idea of taking these two Kit Kat fingers, the roofs, and growing them so that they then stitch together and simultaneously make the space that we're in now.”

While the design solved the spatial challenge, it presented a significant construction challenge.

“Building a project where we've got these historic structures, you can't add extra load onto these,” he explains.

“We needed to put 104 columns through, and so this is like a stadium roof but it needed to stitch through the existing structure onto new foundations in order to not overload the existing building. So we have had this two-and-a-half years of intensive construction.”

Credit: John Sturrock

Sense of place: Making more than a shopping centre

While the resulting design is certainly dramatic, it also provides brilliantly effective spatial flow for visitors that takes the space beyond a conventional shopping environment.

“We felt that it was key to let people flow; movement was absolutely key,” he says.

“All around here there have been pieces of shopping elements within surrounding buildings as part of his whole new district. So when we had these two buildings facing each other at quite a distance from each other, part of our work was also to try to take a hotchpotch of different levels within these two industrial structures and to try to rationalise them enough, but not too much, so that they could actually work and allow people to flow through, and become a functional public place for London.”

“ To us, the shopping is the excuse for a place; the most important thing is the human experience 

Creating a sense of space was especially important given the ailing bricks-and-mortar retail sector in the UK. It is a bold move to open a new retail space when so many high street shops are closing, and any destination that succeeds in such an environment has to offer far more than its predecessors.

“Our interest was in making an amazing place,” he says.

“To us, the shopping is the excuse for a place, and in a time when church used to be a place where people would come together; or libraries were places where people came together,; or community centres where people came together, and in a time when retail is dying, very largely, because you can stay in bed and get a PhD; you can stay in bed and get a gadget and buy anything you want, the most important thing is the human experience.

“To be with your fellow humans is more precious than ever, and you don't have to go out. So somewhere has to mean something and not be a generic duplicate, which maybe could be got away with 20, 30 years ago before the digital revolution.”

Credit: John Sturrock

A new language for redevelopment

The resulting building manages to blend the old and new in an entirely novel manner, creating an approach to redevelopment that Heatherwick hopes others will follow.

“It was thrilling to find that Historic England is ambitious. Britain has so many historic buildings, and we can't just have single formulas for how we handle them,” he says.

“But we need to keep finding new languages and ways to work with [historic buildings].

“What we were interested in was really trying to stitch together the old and new and find maybe a new language for how those can go together.”