Coal Drops Yard is a mega-project to revitalize the area behind the King’s Cross station in London. The English designer and architect Thomas Heatherwick talks about it, while offering his thoughts on the society and the social networks
Project Thomas Heatherwick - Photos courtesy of Hufton + Crow, Luke Hayes, Marcus Hawk
Article Massimo De Conti
“My passion is the human element and the public world we share,” says Thomas Heatherwick, an English designer and architect in the spotlight for some years now thanks to cutting-edge projects that often work to bring people together, such as museum spaces or new double-decker buses. Behind the famous station at King’s Cross in London (a new hot spot in the capital, home of the Central Saint Martins art school and the future headquarters of Google designed by Heatherwick in collaboration with the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels/BIG), Heatherwick has approached what he calls “two Kit Kat fingers” by adding a new roof, with a sinuous, playful form, as if a giant hand had pressed its two portions, joining them in a ‘kiss.‘ Made with a structure in steel, glass and wood “worthy of a football stadium,” the roof creates a new plaza, the Coal Drops Yard.
An urban place for social life, with the same outdoor area as Centre Pompidou, created by renovating a pair of long Victorian warehouses. For Heatherwick this is not just any zone: he has lived here for almost 20 years and has his studio here. It has taken two decades for him to rise to his present level of acclaim, “to be credible and to have opportunities,” also thanks to the digital revolution, which has changed everything.
Where would you be without the digital revolution?
Good question. I am certain that my practice would be a much smaller firm. We have worked for a good number of organizations that would not exist without this revolution, such as Google, for example (for which Heatherwick is completing projects in California and London, in collaboration with the Danish firm BIG, ed).
On a deeper level, the digital revolution has diminished the importance of the physical world. Suddenly, for example, it seemed we no longer needed books, but now they are back in style, made better and sold in bigger numbers than ever before: people actually love physical things, design, quality, odor.
How did the roof of the Coal Drops Yard come to be?
It came from the fact that we had these two buildings from about 170 years ago, built to store 8 million tons of coal, not for people. If you design a new street for shopping in the place, certain human dynamics are created, like those found at their extremes in the shopping malls that exist all over the world. We had this pair of strange buildings, too far apart to be visually interesting or for a conventional type of use. So we had to intervene, to help people to gather there. What I found interesting was the fact that there is no ‘core.’ If I said “let’s meet at the Coal Drops,” where would we meet?
So you created a center…
We should also realize that the English climate is not like that of Italy: here it rains often, and this covered plaza creates a shelter and a focus at the same time. I am not a Feng Shui expert, but those two separated buildings really did seem to need a ‘cure’ that would unite them. We did not want to stick a new element over them, so we joined the two parts of the roof that had to be reconstructed in that portion. So we have created 2000 square meters of new sheltered area, with this open space below.
How important is the spectacular gesture, in architecture?
Grand gestures as an end in themselves have no importance. What counts is thought, which in some cases is manifested in a striking way. I should add that we have a very limited budget with which to do this project. London has a long tradition of shopping centers created in old Victorian buildings – such as Covent Garden – so it was necessary to create something that was somehow a breakthrough, captivating, unprecedented. It was important to sense the depth of history without being imprisoned by it.
You have said that you like to design social spaces. What is the impact of the virtual ones – the social networks and the new media? Do you think they can be a vehicle to amplify the voices of architecture?
They display and spread new things at an incredible speed, but often they show only the image and not the ideas that lie behind it. This is a danger, because people respond in an immediate, superficial way, which becomes an end in itself.
Speaking of major changes and sustainability, what type of project could change the world?
We are still looking for a true answer to this question. The exciting thing is that the architecture and design of the world around is the most complex thing you can think about and achieve. One brain, on its own, cannot take on such a commitment.
What is thought of as sustainable – not just the quantity of energy utilized by a building, but also the process that has generated it, its social impact on the lives of the people involved – continues to change in keeping with the more or less accelerated pace with which we learn new things. I think it is important for people not to despair, but to maintain optimism and faith. To not get paralyzed, but to evolve and gather the stimuli from the new social dimensions.