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The experience is everything: Coal Drops Yard, London, by Heatherwick Studio

The crowning jewel at King’s Cross Central, Heatherwick Studio’s Coal Drops Yard is yet another in a litany of cultural hubs cum shopping arenas that are carefully choreographed confections of disingenuous ‘authentic’ experiences

Coal Drops Yard is a diamond in the rough: the prize jewel in the King’s Cross Central development, the crowning achievement of a multi-billion pound regeneration scheme that has parasitically emerged from the husk of London’s vast derelict railworks. The project is a kind of industrial-themed strip mall, poorly disguised as a bustling local marketplace. Its wide open spaces are peppered with ersatz independent businesses, each housed in a vintage vehicle: coffee is served from a 1960s Airstream caravan, Aperol and crêpes come from a 1950s Citroën van, flowers are sold from the bucket of a Dutch bicycle. There is a sanitised vibrance – where ‘carefully curated’ is a bourgeois dog whistle for class-conscious homogeneity. The concessions are an even mix of chains and ‘concept’ stores from Aesop to Nike, Tom Dixon to Sweaty Betty, and Barrafina to The Community Store. The offering includes some unexpected shops, such as Facegym, ‘the first ever gym studio for your face’, but the concrete need for this concept remains unclear. 

Coal Drops Yard was designed by Thomas Heatherwick, a man who has come to specialise in occupying that uncomfortable junction between culture and commerce in a variety of uncomfortable ways (from New York’s canned Pier 55 to his Escher-like Vessel at Hudson Yards, or the ill-fated Garden Bridge in London). That said, Heatherwick has done a fine job here. The plan is uninspiring (it is a mall, after all), but there are some nice, formal gestures, and the quality of the detailing (both design and fabrication) is unusually high for London. The planting and landscaping softens the brown brick considerably; a wildflower and native-grass meadow unfolds between cascading dining terraces and the sparkling canal. But the perverse attraction of Coal Drops Yard has little to do with its design and everything to do with its aesthetic, its cultural programming, its marketing language and its proposition about what (and who) the contemporary city is actually for. 

Coal drops yard in london, uk by heatherwick studio drawings

Coal drops yard in london, uk by heatherwick studio drawings

The driving ambition is to present a quarter filled with ‘authentic experiences’ (their words). Authenticity is ‘realness’, and not the same as reality – it is an elusive feeling that rolls moral righteousness into apparent spontaneity. At a time when the individual is constantly being manipulated and exploited by political and economic agents, authenticity is supposed to be liberating. To feel authentic, we want to think we are supporting hard-working, deserving, ethical and entrepreneurial creators in a free-market environment that has not been designed from above but has emerged as a consequence of gradual, resilient commerce. It’s quite postmodern in that sense. Unsurprisingly, the aesthetic of Coal Drops Yard draws heavily on the identity of European provincial cities (themselves perceived as modern-day evolutions of medieval marketplaces). 

The language deployed by the development to describe itself confirms this as true, and the project website says: ‘Coal Drops Yard is challenging the trend of faceless, endless, mass supply and demand by redefining what “consumption” means. Because to consume something fully, you must be fully engaged in the experience. And the experience is everything.’ In this ‘place where art, commerce and culture come together … we offer an experience that’s out of the ordinary, that goes beyond being a place to buy’. This insultingly disingenuous text couches anti-capitalist rhetoric in vaguely managerial terms, and continues the fine marketing tradition of using emotionally manipulative corporate manifestos as advertising points of difference. 

Existing coal drops yard thomas heatherwick architectural review 01

Existing coal drops yard thomas heatherwick architectural review 01

Source: John Sturrock

The refurbishment of antiquated structures fallen into disrepair – such as the two Victorian sheds at Coal Drops Yard – is particularly appealing to developers who covet the aesthetic authenticity of old brick structures

You’d be forgiven for thinking this style is as old as capitalism itself. In fact, the origin of the genre can be dated to the mid-1990s, some time before Apple’s 1997 Think Different campaign but after Pret a Manger’s 1995 restructuring (although not the only companies to adopt corporate manifestos, they were the most successful). Apple’s infamous ad copy ran: ‘Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules … And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.’ Today it rings hollow, but back then it did hit home. 

In 1995, Pret a Manger launched a radically new type of campaign that focused on the moral superiority of the company itself, rather than how its product was superior to that of its competitors. Pret championed ‘natural’ ingredients and the donation of unsold stock to charities. Its crusade against additive ‘nasties’ tells us little about the quality of its sandwiches, and everything about the fads and neuroses of the market segment it hoped to tap. Gone was industry – we were all becoming ‘creatives’ and immaterial workers, struggling in competition against each other to attain ultimate self-actualisation. Solution: help yourself out of precarity, and buy an Apple laptop. Gone too was social welfare and the nanny state – we could no longer rely on governments to take responsibility for things such as climate change or poverty, let alone care for us if we were to get sick. Solution: do your bit, and go and buy an ethical sandwich or an organic smoothie. 

Coal drops yard thomas heatherwick architectural review 03

Coal drops yard thomas heatherwick architectural review 03

Disposable income is the chief determining factor in the heavily curated realm of this reimagined mall: a central piazza retains the trappings of free public space, but the marketing language reveals that all activity here has been tooled towards consumption

The Coal Drops Yard text tries to build on the success of woke, alternative, disruptive business branding, but there’s one simple reason developers shouldn’t use this approach: unless you are a genuine not-for-profit or ethical business, with real estate everyone smells bullshit. We already know too much to swallow such corporate swill. The anger and angst in Britain today runs too deep; we can all see our democracy is weak, our identity is fragile, our basic social fabric is under immense strain, and every countercultural or revolutionary move we make is immediately subsumed by capitalism, transformed, packaged and sold back to us. It is inconceivable that anyone from the target demographic of Coal Drops Yard would read the description and believe a word of it. Personally, I don’t know anyone who would both consider shopping there and accept that the honest ambition of a mall is not to sell you a product. If, as they say, ‘the experience is everything’, it is only because our attention span has become a natural resource to be violently exploited. 

The cultural events at Coal Drops Yard are presented under various brands. In reality, they are a subset of a massive nine-year-long arts programme called RELAY, intended by developers Argent to ‘enliven the new public spaces’ and transform King’s Cross into ‘a destination for discovering international contemporary art that celebrates the area’s heritage and its future’. There is an even-handed, unexciting mélange of photography exhibitions, pottery workshops, free music gigs and temporary art installations. It is at least a point of difference from the majority of ‘faceless, endless mass supply-and-demand’ venues. 

Existing coal drops yard thomas heatherwick architectural review 02

Existing coal drops yard thomas heatherwick architectural review 02

Source: John Sturrock

Existing coal drops yard thomas heatherwick architectural review 03

Existing coal drops yard thomas heatherwick architectural review 03

Source: John Sturrock

Without a doubt, Coal Drops Yard is more culturally engaged than generic malls such as Westfield. That is because it is significantly more expensive; the costs for all the free events are met through the charging of prime rents for a higher construction cost and material finish, in turn justified by greater footfall at a better location. There may be some outreach by Coal Drops Yard, but there is no reason to think its cultural programming is intended as a form of social mobility. Poor people can’t spend at their shops. The ultimate message is not altruistic or anti-capitalistic at all, but one that Dickens or the Medicis might have recognised (and Machiavelli certainly wrote about): culture belongs to the rich. That experience is everything.  

Unsurprisingly, the development has not been a commercial success. In fact, footfall is low enough to pose an existential threat. In Drapers magazine, one retailer said: ‘I don’t think we can last much longer than the first year if things don’t pick up considerably. I haven’t got the luxury to wait for two years until it becomes a destination’. This hits at the heart of the fantasy: you can’t engineer authenticity and you can’t design urban resilience. Ecosystems are mind-bogglingly complicated meta-organisms, and they take several generations of adaptation to achieve delicate stability. The mistake made by Argent at Coal Drops Yard is just a localised example of the folly of ‘sustainable’ capitalism itself. Once a city’s environment has been destroyed, it cannot be reconstructed – only repaired through deep time.  

Homogeneous ecosystems are structurally fragile. Anything created in a single act is ‘already finished’ and therefore immediately out of date, simply waiting for market trends to shift and leave it abandoned. Ironically, this was the lesson of Modernism that has never been learned by corporate real estate and retail. Le Corbusier’s Unité could not become a universal model because it was fatally inflexible. The same is true for the American mall, and the British out-of-town shopping centre – with their big-box mass retailers, cineplexes, food courts, video arcades and bowling alleys, it only took Netflix, Deliveroo and Amazon to lay waste to an entire vision of life. And this is also true for the many cities like London, which have been systematically denuded of all vitality by developers aiming to replace residents with consumers.

Coal drops yard thomas heatherwick architectural review drawings

Coal drops yard thomas heatherwick architectural review drawings

Click to download

The death of the high street is a direct consequence of their attempts to centralise all economic activity within the rigid boundaries of their own properties. As Coal Drops Yard puts it, the urban realm is understood by real estate as a place where the only possible activities are to ‘eat, drink, shop’. Argent’s superficial reflection that the missing component in developments such as More London, Stratford and White City is ‘culture’ has simply extended its authoritarian regime, not contributed to underlying resilience. Argent’s dedication to the ‘street-market experience’, smothered by an ill-defined ‘community spirit’, is a Potemkin urbanism; no wonder the whole venture is failing, as is right.

There is no route out of this conundrum apart from collapse and progressive recolonisation. Developments like Coal Drops Yard might succeed in their second, third or fourth iterations, but not in anything resembling their current form. I take no pleasure from this prospect, which will wipe out many livelihoods. Nonetheless, as climate change forces our societies to radically adapt in the coming decades, the erasure of late capitalism is something to which I am sincerely looking forward: that experience is everything.

Coal Drops Yard in London, UK

Architect: Heatherwick Studio

Photographs: Luke Hayes, unless otherwise stated

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today