Coal Drops Yard: The retail heart of King's Cross

London's newest and most anticipated shopping district opens with a striking design by Heatherwick Studio.

Coal Drops Yard, the highly anticipated, Heatherwick Studio-designed shopping and lifestyle development at the heart of King's Cross in London threw open its doors to the public in October. The vibrant new shopping district brings together more than 50 new and established brands, including Paul Smith, Joseph Cheaney, The Sports Edit and Miller Harris, in a reimagined set of historic buildings and arches that sit adjacent to Granary Square and Regent's Canal.

Originally established in 1850 to handle the eight million tonnes of coal delivered to the capital from the North of England each year, the two-storey brick and cast iron structures of Coal Drops Yard were later adopted for light industry, storage and nightclubs until they fell into disuse by the late 1990s.

The design

Now, the historic buildings have been restored and transformed into a new public space and retail destination by local design firm Heatherwick Studio.

'Rather than making a box element colliding with the geometry of the existing roofs, the gabled roof of each building rises up and stretches towards the other, meeting to form a new upper storey that gives the project a central focus,' explains a spokesperson for Heatherwick Studio. The glazed space provides an elevated viewpoint over London, while the sheltered double-height space beneath creates a heart to the development that can also host concerts and performances.

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Image: Luke Hayes

'The challenge was to create a heart that would hold you and bring people together,' said studio founder, Thomas Heatherwick, ahead of the opening. 'It was important for us to find a way to stitch the old and the new, and find a new language.'

At the same time as creating the new elements to the project, the studio lead a sensitive restoration of the Victorian structures and cobbled yard to preserve their historic character, while adapting them to create an unusual mix of retail and cafe spaces.

'These amazing Victorian structures were never originally built to be inhabited by hundreds of people, but instead formed part of the sealed-off infrastructure of London,' notes Heatherwick.

'After serving so many varied uses throughout the years, we’ve been excited by the opportunity to use our design thinking to finally open up the site, create new spaces and allow everyone to experience these rich and characterful buildings.'

The stores

The stores and restaurants are located in canal-side arches facing cobbled courtyards, within the original 'coal drops' themselves and across a series of raised iron viaducts.

Larger statement stores sit at each street corner, with one dual-aspect space (set to be occupied by Samsung in 2019) crowning the street, located directly beneath the striking 'kissing' rooftops.

'This flagship space in the heart of Coal Drops Yard will embody the spirit and creativity of our brand and will allow visitors to see, hear, and experience all we have to offer,' says Younghee Lee, CMO of Samsung Electronics. 'Samsung KX LDN represents our brand philosophy of 'Do What You Can't' with a remarkable scale, experience to push our imagination, and design and cultural environment to the edge of what's possible. I am excited to have this showcase to grow as a true landmark in London.'

The stores showcase one-off concepts, created using the unique heritage spaces they sit within as a muse and an inspiration.

For The Sports Edit's store, for example, 'industrial luxe' quickly became the golden thread inspiring the design of the boutique, merging the brand's aesthetic with the architecture of Coal Drops Yard.

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Developed in collaboration with Design4Retail and located on the viaduct level, the storefront is framed by the grand arches, which is characteristic of the site, while the interior features exposed brickwork and corrugated panels to give the store an industrial feel. This is enhanced by mesh metalwork, and complemented by warm timber tones, soft neutral shades and the inclusion of foliage, which create a sense of wellbeing.

On the yard level, Joseph Cheaney has also unveiled a new store concept that is sympathetic to both the brand and the location.

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Designed by Checkland Kindleysides, the interior is inspired by a Pullman carriage in a train tunnel. The skeletal structure, engineered from metal and timber, creates a vaulted framework from which to hang merchandising, while a large 'cutting' table in the centre of the store provides additional opportunities to present the collections.

'Cheaney and Coal Drops Yard have much in common; deep heritage combined with a contemporary overlay to excite the adventurous consumer,' says William Church, joint MD at Joseph Cheaney.

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Other tenants include Danish rainwear company Rains, Italian footwear brand Superga and British fashion retailer Wolf & Badger, which has opened a three-storey concept store in the building that once housed legendary nightclub Bagley's. 'Great stores are about more than just shopping and we've always wanted to create a space like this to present a dynamic and differentiated experience to our customers,' said Henry Graham, creative director and co-founder of Wolf & Badger, prior to the opening. 'With this launch, we are curating a destination where art, culture, gastronomy and events can all come together under one roof to complement our signature selection of ethical, unique and unusual products.'

Lower Stable Street - a sunken street between Stable Street and the main Coal Drops Yard - also opened in October with 11 smaller spaces set to host pop-ups, live events and experiential stores from a creative collective of established and up-and-coming brands.

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Image: Luke Hayes

The market-style street is curated by independent magazine, KIOSK N1C and offers a mix of long and flexible leases, allowing it to reinvent itself multiple times each year.

The Lighting

Speirs + Major has drawn inspiration from its original masterplan for King's Cross (2006), and from Heatherwick Studio's architectural response, to design a lighting scheme for Coal Drops Yard that is rich in shadow play, with high levels of contrast and close-set grazing light that expresses the rhythmic nature of the original railway architecture.

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Much of the lighting is wall-mounted; an understated approach designed to define the periphery of the open spaces while blending into the spill from the retail units. One of the bolder moves was to leave the middle of the central area relatively dark. Softly reflected light from the overhanging soffit of the anchor store provides a low base level of illumination, against which the illuminated archways of the retail units glow brightly, animated by the silhouettes of people walking past.

'We were fortunate to have very early involvement and a highly collaborative relationship with Heatherwick Studio, which allowed us to integrate the light fully within the architectural and landscape design,' says Mark Major, principal at Speirs + Major. 'Having also completed the lighting designs for the adjacent Granary Building, Gasholder Triplets, and Gasholder Park we were able to harness our unique perspective of the lit context and design the light for Coal Drops Yard as a key part of the visitor experience across the wider area.'

The lighting design also included a set of non-prescriptive tenant guidelines to help ensure that the lighting in the retail units has a positive impact on the scheme as a whole.

Commenting on the new public space, Anna Strongman, Coal Drops Yard development manager and partner at developer Argent, says: 'Coal Drops Yard is a bold vision delivered by a dedicated team with a diverse set of skills. This diversity will be mirrored in those who visit - Coal Drops Yard has something for everyone, and will always offer a reason to return. It is an extremely complex project, one that successfully unites the area's heritage with Heatherwick Studio's progressive architecture, creating stimulating spaces for both the brands and the people that will bring these buildings back to life.'

Main image: Hufton+Crow

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