Coal Drops Yard

Originally part of Lewis Cubitt’s plan for King’s Cross in central London, this pair of elon- gated Victorian warehouses was built between the 1850s and 60s to store and transfer coal across London, delivered by rail from northern England.

The studio was commissioned by the King’s Cross Development Partnership to revitalise the site into a retail quarter.

The grandeur of the two-storey coal drops had faded with the demise of coal production. Crowned with slate hipped roofs, their ornate cast-iron and brick structures had become partially derelict, serving light industry, warehousing and nightclubs before partial abandonment in the 1990s. We wanted to celebrate the unique texture and history of the industrial buildings while also creating a unified new public space and retail destination.

Our challenge was to transform the dilapidated buildings and long, linear site into a lively retail precinct where people could gather and circulate with ease . To develop the concept, we drew on knowledge gained from designing Hong Kong’s Pacific Place shopping mall. We proposed to extend the inner gabled roofs of the warehouses, which would link the two viaducts and define the yard, as well as creating fluid patterns of circulation. Rather than adding another rectangular element between them that would have collided with their geometry, the existing roofs rise and stretch towards each other until they touch above the public courtyard. This intervention forms a new upper storey and gives the project a central focus.

From the elevated vantage point, visitors can survey views south to King’s Cross and the Crick Institute, or north to Cubitt Square. Beneath, the new roof creates a sheltered twen- ty-metre-high space for people to linger in as well as providing a venue large enough to host concerts or performances.

An amalgam of old and new, the roof form and patina is specific to the site. The new 35-metre-wide extension was designed to flow seamlessly from the original gables and create the illusion of two buildings lightly touching in mid air. This required a complex structural solution. To create a self-supporting intervention that also preserved the integrity of heritage elements, 52 new steel columns were threaded through the existing buildings, concealed behind aged brick and iron, and shored up by concrete walls and cores.

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Each of the curving new roof ribbons is formed of 20 steel sections bolted onto four trusses and tied back to the columns. Framing the top floor’s panoramic outlook are 64 panels of full-height structural glass arranged in a staggered, serrated pattern. The cladding of the new roof includes over 80,000 tiles and the roof slates are drawn from the same Welsh quarry as the original Victorian building to give a consistent blue-grey hue.

Alongside the primary design adaptation of the roof is the wider restoration of historical structures. The studio sought to enhance and adapt existing buildings as much as possible. Adopting a light touch, where necessary, new additions drew on the palette of aged ironwork, soot-stained brick, slate, timber boards and the cobbled yard of stone setts. Together with more recent signage and graffiti, these rich textures are retained, preserving the Coal Drops’ distinct character.

Giving 100,000 square feet in total for shopping, dining and events, the retail quarter is conceived of as a series of streets linked horizontally and vertically. In contrast to the homogenous experience of a shopping mall, the 55 units vary in size and accommodate a range of retailers – from fledgling pop-up stores to large-scale units for established brands. Entrances at both ends of the viaducts and multiple connections into the yard via bridges and stairs create an accessible space that encourages people to pass through and around the project naturally.

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