London’s Coal Drops Yard has come a long way since the 1850s when, as its name suggests, it was purpose-built for receiving and storing coal delivered by rail from northern England. Having since been used for light industry, warehousing and a nightclub, the pair of Victorian viaducts had become derelict before they were abandonment in the 1990s. Fast-forward to October 2018 and Coal Drops Yard is one of the most exciting revitalization projects in the city courtesy of King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership and local architects Heatherwick Studio who have transformed the two dilapidated buildings into a contemporary retail quarter that celebrates the site’s industrial heritage through a bold architectural gesture while offering a brand new shopping and dining experience.
Despite their original humble function as storage facilities for coal, the two ornate cast-iron and brick elongated structures showcase the sombre grandeur of Victorian railway architecture so it therefore vital for the architects to preserve the site’s historic character. At the same time, the brief demanded an intervention that would connect the two buildings and draw people to the site. After trying several ideas involving adding something new, it became apparent that for any new element to work it could not be separate from the existing building fabric. As Lisa Finlay, group leader at Heatherwick Studio, explains, "it was only when we started to merge the language of the old with the new, and that's when we started to have multiple ideas of things emerging from the existing forms”. And emerge they do, as the existing gabled roofs swell towards each other, gently touching above the yard in between.
By stretching out the gabled roofs of the two existing buildings, the architects have ingenuously created a new upper storey that offers panoramic views of King’s Cross to the south and Cubitt Square to the north, courtesy of the full-height structural glass panels that wrap around the space in a staggered configuration. Although it looks as if the roofs effortlessly billow towards each other, the new cantilevered structure required a complex structural solution. Concealed behind aged brick and iron, 52 new steel columns were inserted into the existing buildings, shored up by concrete walls and cores in order to invisibly support the floating new storey.
In order to seamlessly integrate the new with the old, the roof tiles for the new roof were sourced from the same Welsh quarry as the original Victorian building for a consistent blue-grey hue. Similar attention has been given to all the materials, drawing on a palette of aged ironwork, soot-stained brick, slate, timber boards and stone setts for the cobbled yard, which reflect the rich textures of the historic site.
Heatherwick Studio’s bold intervention not only increases the venue’s floor space and gives the project a central focus, it also creates a sheltered, 20 metres high public plaza where concerts or performances can be hosted. The plaza is part of a meticulously laid out circulation plan featuring entrances at both ends of the viaducts and a series of streets linked horizontally and vertically to each other by numerous bridges and stairs and. With 55 shopping units of varying sizes accommodating an eclectic range of retailers, from fledgling pop-up stores to large-scale units for established brands, and a selection of new restaurants, bars and cafes, Coal Drops Yard offers visitors an experience as distinctive as it looks.