As the country emerges from lockdown, the public spaces of what, not so long ago, was an urban no-go zone are the very picture of urban regeneration. Deyan Sudjic gives his verdict on what’s been achieved and what’s been lost.
Granary Square offers a range of spaces, from the formal approaches to Central St Martins, marked by fountains and carefully groomed trees, to banked steps on the edge of the canal.
As London emerged from the long drought of lockdown, the public spaces of the King’s Cross railway lands sucked in the crowds, hungry for sunshine, and an adrenalin shot of life-giving urbanity. The place looked the picture of generic urban regeneration with ancient cobblestones, artisan coffee, Citroën vans offering street food, fountains dispensing measured jets of water with razor-sharp precision, along with such site-specific elements as a collection of recycled cast-iron gasometers. It even has a Waitrose with an in-house wine bar, frequented by one or two well-known architects.
It was easy to forget that this was once an urban no-go zone. The area had been an indigestible blockage in the fabric of London since the 1830s. It forced lengthy northward detours to east-west journeys across inner London because only a single road crossed it. Charles Dickens portrayed the coming of the railways in Dombey and Son.
He described the triangle of land stretching north from Euston station and Lewis Cubitt’s neighbouring great yellow brick King’s Cross terminal as an enclave of “streets hanging in mid air”, cut off by the railway, houses “sliced in half, and a neighbourhood full of disruption and chaos”. After the Regent’s canal was completed and the railways arrived, it became a busy, industrious, but fenced off complex of dock basins, marshalling yards, and warehouses. When the canals died and the railways faded, the fence stayed in place. The area had an extended half-life of dereliction that took half a century to finally shake off.
Lewis Cubitt’s work provides the starting point for the new King’s Cross. In the years after 1852, he designed the station, the neighbouring Great Northern Hotel and the complex of buildings to the north. John McAslan + Partners spent almost 15 years transforming the station, sweeping away the clutter of crude additions and reorganising access to the trains. The practice’s work forms the civic face for the development behind.
As recently as 2005, even George Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece, the St Pancras Hotel was still a rotting hulk. Behind it, away from the lights of the Euston Road, was a wasteland of discarded hypodermic needles in doorways and bonfires of burning rubbish. Eurostar finally begin running trains into the magnificently restored St Pancras International in 2007, a triumphant rebuke to the squalor of the Gare du Nord at the other end of the channel tunnel line. It was longer still before Central St Martins’ students took over their new home in the former granary building.
The transformation has been a long time in the making. It is a process that has been marked by the twists and turns of the British planning system, as well as violent shifts in architectural taste. St Pancras station itself was considered a candidate for demolition in the 1960s before becoming a Grade I-listed landmark.
Station to station
The key step in the transformation was the decision to connect King’s Cross and St Pancras with the Eurostar line to serve the north, along with a southern terminal at Waterloo. The development of the railway lands with offices was intended to pay for it all. This was a model that had worked well enough with the Broadgate scheme at Liverpool Street station. The first studies involved the same team. SOM and its London partner, Bruce Graham, worked on a notional plan. Then Norman Foster took it on and produced a bravura design with a park at its heart in the manner of John Nash’s Regent’s Park, ringed by low-rise terraces with a pair of 44-storey towers at the northern end.
The scheme did not survive the scaling back of Eurostar’s ambitions to a single terminal. Argent, which had made its mark in Birmingham, took over the development and deployed the same team it had used at Brindley Place to create a masterplan that was bad-mouthed by everybody from Peter Cook and Zaha Hadid to the well-organised local opposition. The former thought it was too bland, the latter said it was too greedy.
Now that it is nearing completion, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the many ways in which the new King’s Cross is a success. Its roster of architectural talent includes David Chipperfield working in cast iron and Eric Parry using Corten. At its best – the Granary Square area south of the art school, Coal Drops Yard, and the towpath of the canal that traverses the site – the development really works. The glimpses of water, the romantic backdrop of Gilbert Scott’s gothic pinnacles and the unexpected pedestrian connection with the St Pancras churchyard and John Soane’s tomb are truly memorable.
It’s easy to forget that this was once a wasteland of discarded hypodermic needles in doorways and bonfires of burning rubbish”
The scheme is weaker at dealing with the most difficult question the masterplan faced: how to deal with the intimidating presence of two massive monuments, the stations. There could be no question of making them disappear under a Broadgate style deck. Allies and Morrison’s masterplan is an attempt to create a dense grid of solid urban blocks. Shoehorning those blocks between the two railway behemoths is a task that was not made any easier when Google gatecrashed the masterplan and demanded to be allowed to drop a third monster into the mix in the shape of its Bjark Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick-designed groundscraper.
Toward the southern end of the site, the sheer pressure of all this new building leaves you gasping for air and dreaming of the wide-open spaces of Foster’s abandoned idea for a central park. And to the north, where most of the residential elements are concentrated, you can hear Cook’s mocking complaints about blandness ringing in your ears.
King’s Cross was the focus of the campaign against the so called privatisation of public space. Like Broadgate and Canary Wharf, it is guarded by private security firms and subject to elaborate restrictions on what visitors may or may not do. King’s Cross attracted particular attention for adding facial recognition technology to its armoury. But the area is now more public than it ever was when it had a boundary fence, and has acquired a sense of being a place that people enjoy experiencing.
It’s not the gargantuan scale of the emerging Google building, the supposed blandness of the northern edge of the development or even the rules and regulations governing the use of the public spaces that bother me. What is still lacking for now is a quality that is harder to define. Anthony Minghella’s film Breaking and Entering, starring Jude Law as a landscape architect with his office in a sandblasted brick warehouse in the midst of the area as it was in 2005, makes a good try at capturing it.
It cannot hope to acquire the elusive, sometimes uncomfortable quality of unmediated city life without the passing of time”
That version of King’s Cross mixed vitality with the darker side of urbanism. The film captured the way that the area worked as a multilayered environment in which very different groups of people existed side by side in the same space but hardly acknowledged each other’s existence. There were middle-class professionals during the day in a place which, by night, was overtaken by Albanian drug dealers and Nigerian cleaners. It was a portrayal of the elusive, sometimes uncomfortable quality of unmediated city life that a space as carefully choregraphed as King’s Cross cannot hope to acquire without the passing of time. But patience is the most precious ingredient of all in the making of a slice of an authentic city.