What have the developers ever done for us? Nothing, except the two schools, the university, the 2,000 new homes, of which 50% are affordable, the swimming pool, jobs, the cookery school, the community garden grown in skips, so it can be moved around, the floodlit sports pitch, the 20 restored historic buildings, the not-bad architecture, the creation of 26 acres of open space, with fountains and trees, in what were partly inaccessible backlands. Apart from that, nothing.
The development of King’s Cross in London, now about half complete, is the most substantial fulfilment yet of an idea that the best way to transform an urban area, and to improve the lives around it with facilities and investment, is for commercial development to take the lead, while working closely with local authorities and local communities. It requires property companies to act like de facto municipalities, while making a profit for their backers. The idea is a manifestation of what Tony Blair called the “third way”, and David Cameron the “big society”, without achieving that much by way of tangible results.
The alternative, as was achieved in Covent Garden in the 1970s, and in the Coin Street area near Waterloo since the 1980s, would be for local communities to form their own development groups, which would change sites incrementally. This is championed by Michael Edwards, a lecturer in planning at University College London, who has been campaigning on King’s Cross for more than two decades. What we get now, he says, “is a very upmarket kind of development, whose services and facilities are for educated, sophisticated people with money in their pockets”.
The modern tycoons in this area are certainly different from their Victorian predecessors, the railway companies who built the great stations of King’s Cross and St Pancras, with their associated tracks, marshalling yards and coal drops, which still define the area. Then, when they needed more space for their operations, they ejected the 2,000 residents of what is now the site of the British Library, greatly exacerbating the overcrowding in the surrounding slums, without so much as a multicoloured consultation leaflet in sight.
The spatial remnants of their casual infrastructural brutality made up the site of the current development, pieces of land left over by the radii of tracks, exploited for subsidiary uses, and occupied by sometimes magnificent structures such as the cast-iron gas holders that used to crown this bit of skyline, and the 1851 Granary Building, where goods were transferred between rail, canal barge and horse-drawn traffic. A canal, sunk into the land, added to the drama. Bits of inhabitation – a row of workers’ houses, an early example of philanthropic housing – attached themselves to the site’s surfaces and crevices. In time film-makers came to like it: see, for example, The Ladykillers.
By the 1980s, much of the industrial use had receded, leaving a part-wilderness with the unintended poetry that comes when mighty works recede, a Campo Vaccino of bricks, iron, weeds and mud. It was a place made of margins, but was near the centre of London. Not that it was all empty. As Mike Leigh’s High Hopesshowed, lives were lived here. People had homes, jobs. They did things. There was a nature reserve, formed out of wasteland. The area had a reputation, sometimes exaggerated but nonetheless based in reality, for prostitution and drugs.
The first attempt at comprehensive redevelopment, to plans by Norman Foster, was killed off by the recession of the early 1990s. The second, by the King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership, has been in progress since developers Argent were appointed in 2000 to lead the project. Argent’s stated idea was to understand the location and its issues before asking architects to design anything, to which end its chief executive Roger Madelin set about consulting the many interested parties. He went around by bicycle, talking to 7,500 different people, he says, in 353 different meetings.
Madelin also waxes eloquent about the site’s physical and other constraints: tunnels, tracks, service pipes, the canal, listed buildings, contaminated ground, a gas governor that, if wrongly housed, could explode. The site is restricted by viewing corridors, the rules that prevent new buildings interfering with views of St Paul’s Cathedral, in this case from Parliament Hill and Kenwood House. They mean that there can be no towers on the site, except on its northern end.
Argent had at least some time to deal with these complexities, as building the development couldn’t start until completion of the Eurostar line in 2007. Then came another recession, which nearly did for the whole thing. Now, however, it is growing rapidly. In 2012 it was announced that Google, the company that every large development in London wanted on its patch, would honour King’s Cross with its presence.
At its centre, in the Granary Building, is the University of the Arts, the fusion of six different colleges to make the largest school of its kind in Europe. In front is Granary Square, an open space comparable in size to Trafalgar Square, with fountains rising from its stone paving, clipped trees, and steps descending to the canal. Off to one side is the Camley Street nature reserve, retained and flourishing. The gas holders are to be re-erected nearby, three containing flats and a fourth left open, with a garden inside. Apartment buildings – sober, decent, brown-coloured, northern European in feel – are appearing, plus one shiny one by the architects de Rijke Marsh Morgan.
To the south of Granary Square, between King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations, there are office buildings by serious architects. They are oblong for the same reason that the gas holders were cylindrical – it’s the shape that does the job most efficiently – but, lest they be too boxy, some art has gone into their surfaces. David Chipperfield, in what by his standards is a skittish mood, has wrapped his in 396 cast-iron columns, with a sort of basketweave pattern moulded on to them, which are not actually performing columns’ traditional role of holding the building up. Allies and Morrison have lined the window embrasures of their largely white block with gold-coloured panels, so that they dazzle in the sunshine. These two buildings are subtle, intelligent and even sensuous ways of making generic office buildings.
Allies and Morrison were, with classicising architect Demetri Porphyrios, responsible for the masterplan of the whole development. Both they and Argent stress that the most important aspect is to get the spaces between the buildings right, more than the structures themselves. The main elements are a broad boulevard lined with the office blocks and the future Google, which leads to Granary Square, from where a straight leafy avenue is to run north through the brown housing to the furthest end of the site. Smaller streets and squares attach to this main armature.
It is a series of incidents, quite loosely linked, that tries to connect where it can with surrounding districts, using the traditional elements of European cities: streets, squares, avenues. Zaha Hadid has called the result boring. To which Professor Jeremy Till, of the University of the Arts, retorts: “These comments say much more about Zaha than they do about King’s Cross. Here the association of excitement with avant-garde form-making proves redundant.”
Till is right, in that the last things you need are extravagant shapes and mannerisms in the presence of structures as powerful as the great stations, the granary and the temporarily absent gas holders. But there is a tendency to normalise, to make a fundamentally extraordinary place too much resemble the received opinion as to what good quality urban space looks like. Take Granary Square, a bold and well-considered space, but paved in tasteful porphyry. Combined with planting and fountains – both nice things to have in themselves – it diminishes the industrial fabric, especially the Granary Building. If it were, say, paved in dark brick, the relief of the fountains would be all the more effective.
There are also the Stanley Buildings, “improved industrial dwellings” of the 1860s, now awkwardly attached to a block of serviced offices, a use to which they have themselves been converted. There can be a mismatch between the architectural variegation and the uses contained: Camden council has located its headquarters here into an unobtrusive building, whereas Chipperfield’s block is the one that looks like a town hall.
The tendency to smooth over makes the not-yet-revealed final designs for the Google building crucial. The cute-and-creepy tech giant is not a normal company, and its site is not normal either – narrow, as long as the Shard is tall, with changes of level and interruptions by railway structures. The task for its architects, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, is to make its multiple unusualness manifest, without resort to tricksiness or funny colours. They need to design the project of their lives.
But if the worst thing that can be said about the architecture of the King’s Cross development is that it is a bit tame, there are many worse things that it could have been. Nor is it surprising, given the multiple complexities with which developers and architects dealt, if they were cautious in their design. Their priorities are hard to fault – making open spaces more important than individual buildings, giving prominence to historic buildings, making connections where possible to surrounding streets, creating a series of places with distinct characteristics.
The bigger question is how well it fulfils the goals set out by Peter Bishop, who when the director of environment at the London borough of Camden worked closely with Argent when it was drawing up the scheme. Bishop says that it has “to feel like a piece of London” to achieve “a social mix”, to have an influence beyond its boundaries and “to be a public bit of London”.
As far as making the place a “piece of London” goes, or at least a vital, not-sterile district, the urban and commercial masterstroke was to bring in the University of the Arts. The university was able to commit to moving there at a time when credit-crunched businesses were not, and its presence is now an attraction for (especially) Google. It also fills the location with instant activity, as thousands of lively students flow in and out.
As to making it “a public bit of London”, the development has gone to some lengths to make it different from Canary Wharf, whose well-defined boundaries are protected by conspicuous security measures. Granary Square is a publoid, rather than public space, publicly accessible but still privately owned and managed, but Bishop says that Camden has the right to take over other streets and spaces in the development. Given that much of the site was formerly closed off, this is far from being the sort of privatisation of the public domain for which other developments are rightly criticised.
As to “social mix”, Madelin points to the affordable housing in the rarely achieved proportion of 50%, to the various public facilities, the training programmes associated with the development, and the fact that children from surrounding estates run through Granary Square’s fountains unchecked by security guards. There will also, he happily says, be expensive housing, but their residents “will walk the streets and you won’t be able to see that they are very, very wealthy”.
Robert Milne, secretary of the King’s Cross Development Forum, also raises concern that a change of management policy could make the open spaces less inclusive. It is certainly essential that the future managers of the project maintain both this openness and its architectural quality. Milne also objects that the supermarket chain chosen for the site is middle-class Waitrose. Madelin says this was because they were most open to getting involved with community projects, and that the likes of Aldi or Lidl will come too.
Critics of the King’s Cross development say that “it is by no means the worst” (Michael Edwards). Argent’s claims for their good works mostly stand up to examination, and it is impossible to find the outrages of exclusion and bad design that happen in other works of “regeneration”. I’d go further – it is on the way to being a great achievement. Are there other ways of achieving its social objectives? Yes, although I don’t think anyone can confidently say that there would have been more affordable homes, communal facilities, or jobs, if it had been done any other way.
The bigger concern is rather this: there is too little sign of other large developments in London, or other British cities, pursuing social goals to this degree. In the stacked-up units of luxury housing now being waved through by Boris Johnson’s lieutenants, you see nothing of the richness of King’s Cross. An essential part of its success of has been the balance of power between developers and local authorities, in this case Camden, but councils are now so undermined and weakened that that balance no longer exists. King’s Cross is in danger of being the last of its kind.
Article from The Guardian. See original article below: