READING TIME: 7 MINUTES
It’s been two years since Coal Drops Yard opened to the public. Since then the shopping district, part of the King’s Cross urban regeneration project, has received its fair share of commentary surrounding its relevance in a saturated market of retail destinations. Still, no one can deny that Thomas Heatherwick, the scheme’s designer and founder of Heatherwick Studio, has done a stellar job of bringing this once derelict industrial site into the modern age. To repurpose a disused plot into an amenities filled complex is a risk that only pays off once people start interacting with it. Has it paid off? Before I discuss, it’s worth exploring what it used to be like.
A pair of Victorian warehouses, built in the 1850s, were used to house millions of tonnes of coal arriving from the North of England, which would then be redistributed across London through the nearby Regent’s Canal. As coal consumption steadily declined over the twentieth century the site fell into disuse, occasionally being used for storage and, most notoriously, for hosting illegal raves. In 2014, UK property developer, Argent, commissioned Heatherwick to breathe new life into the space. Four years of work culminated in its official opening in 2018, and that brings us to today.
While Granary Square welcomes you first, you’ll have to head left to arrive at the actual complex consisting of three sections: Yard (ground floor), Viaduct (middle) and Upper. Yard holds most of the restaurants and is abuzz with activity, Viaduct is where the majority of retail stores are and Upper is occupied exclusively by Samsung. The ‘kissing’ roofs are the most noteworthy feature. Resembling two clams meeting in the centre (below), it’s been slated with the same Welsh slates used over 150 years ago. Arched openings cut through various parts of the building allowing for natural ventilation, including easy access onto different floors.
The entire layout feels more organic and relaxed than both Westfields, which I found to be quite tightly planned in terms of shopper movement. This doesn’t mean that Coal Drops Yard doesn’t encourage you to buy, they do, but it’s less in your face. People create their own experiences here and that’s important to note.
The experience matters
The overwhelming majority of retail units are let, though a few remain unoccupied. Footfall has picked up since the lifting of lockdown and what’s interesting is that small businesses with niche consumer interests (e.g. plant shops, bespoke jewellers) attract more shoppers than well-known brands. This sense of positive entrepreneurship is teeming in the area with the importance placed on customer experience being the common thread running through every store.
Samsung is where experiential retail* is at its most obvious. They’ve taken the time to think through crafting an experience for their customers, and it’s evident in the lighting and decor placement. Sweeping ceilings, characterised by clean lines, mimic the late Zaha Hadid’s distinct style. Interactive in-store sessions stimulate the desire to explore further features that will (hopefully) lead to a purchase. Here, the experience is crucial as the key selling point. Though this is just one side of the picture. You’ll notice in the image below how Viaduct is much quieter than Yard.
From my observations, people mostly come here for the cultural offering and to grab a bite. King’s Cross is one of London Design Festival’s Design Districts, and Coal Drops Yard drew decent crowds last month. The expectation to pay a considerable amount for a bar of soap or a teapot doesn’t appeal to everyone. As Rowan Moore, architecture critic of the Observer, opines: “Anyone can go there, if they like, to gawp at the Heatherwick kiss or watch their fellow citizens, but there’s not much to make them linger if they don’t want to shop.” It’s clear that the developers are appealing to a certain type of customer who can afford to buy such items. Great for the ones who can but what’s there for the average individual like me?
A High Line-esque linear park
An elevated linear park located towards the far left of the complex provides plenty of green space echoing the High Line in New York. It’s a beautiful feature, laid with perennial shrubs, measuring 25-30 feet wide allowing for effective social distancing. It’s also a great vantage point to view the ‘kissing’ roofs.
Beneath the facade
As architecturally impressive as it is, the site’s history appears to take a backseat. Sure, its brick facade and industrial exterior are instantly Instagrammable but that’s superficial. Features such as freight depot numbers (below) and iron columns seem to be a half-baked attempt at showcasing authenticity, with many useful essay boards tucked away almost like an afterthought. These comprehensive mini essays were a highlight and it’s a shame that it took some digging to find them alongside double arched facades dotted around. It’s these quirks that truly give it its charm. Shopping destinations such as Westfield lack the rich narrative that Coal Drops Yard has in abundance. A failure to capitalise on this may hinder the long-term strategy of connecting with customers, especially if the aim is to champion ‘authentic conversations and enriching experiences’.
Coal Drops Yard is a giant exercise in people-centred placemaking** and it’s doing well two years on. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic altering shopper behaviour from in-store to majority online, face to face interactions are needed for our public spaces to continue functioning. Coal Drops Yard is a success in bringing people together, but the reality is that most come here for the leisure and cultural aspects, and aren’t sold on buying overpriced tea towels. The continuing challenge for developers will most likely be the full occupancy of all retail units, attracting shoppers and ensuring profitability.
Moving forward, it’s important to engage with the public and get their views on how they want to use the space. People can see through vague mission statements dressed up in marketing jargon, so the two-way dialogue must be genuine. If the full range of amenities on offer aren’t drawing enough footfall, then a re-evaluation on how that needs to change is required. That may take a few more years.
*experiential retail – an immersive in-store shopping experience that prioritises customer engagement, not just sales
**placemaking is such a broad term that it’s tricky to summarise in full here. The link should be useful for further reading