I’ve only lived in King’s Cross for four years, but I’ve already got ‘superlative fatigue’. I can only imagine what it’s been like for residents of ten years or more contending with ‘Europe’s largest regeneration project.’
Autumn heralds a key moment in the King’s Cross Central development — the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (CSM), housed in a renovated and extended granary building, is due to welcome 4,500 students in just over two weeks. It’s unleashed a new wave of superlatives, as I found when I went on a site tour with other locals earlier this month, led by the joint chief executive of the developer Argent, Roger Madelin.
In the coach on the way to the site, sitting in Euston Road traffic, Madelin provided a steady stream of not-so-trivial trivia: “It is, we’re told, the largest art and design facility in the world — outside of China.” he points out, drolly adding: “We don’t know if there’s a bigger one in China, but we have to say that.”
The handsome six-storey CSM building (pictured) now gives this industrial and transport ‘ground zero’ a heart, or a centerpiece. But it will be eventually be dwarfed by a forest of 20 or so buildings to the northern part of the development, which was the first stop on the tour. However it’s hard to picture at the moment, a handful of apartment buildings in various early stages of construction sit on the edge of a large stretch of gravelly desolation, along with an old sawtooth-topped warehouse that’s sadly due for demolition. Nevertheless, Madelin reels off a list of housing types and numbers: 143 apartments in one of the buildings he points to, 40 for ‘frail elderly’, 20 ‘special needs’ apartments. Some more affordable housing along York Way, along with 117 ‘non-affordable’. It’s also around here that the already infamous the 27-storey student accommodation tower will be located, but not finished until autumn 2014.
The tracks of High Speed 1 skirt the northern edge of the site. A Southeastern train dawdles and then stops. “I know it doesn’t look it, but that’s the fastest-accelerating train in the world. It runs on the same track as the Eurostar, but stops a lot more, so it needs to accelerate quickly…[it’s what enables] the journey time from St Pancras to Stratford to be six-and-half-minutes.” says Madelin.
We’re also shown the beginnings of combined heat and power station, the siting of a primary school and a possible police station. It’s also going to be the resting place of the recently dismantled Gasholder no.8, the last of an original group of 14, is “up in Yorkshire being sandblasted and painted — and will be put back here to wrap around cylindrical residential buildings.”
Back outside the CSM building, Madelin is keen to paint the picture of what he sees as a new cultural quarter for London. Next to the part of the building he touts as the “world’s largest school of sculpture” (which has produced the likes of Anthony Caro and Antony Gormley) is a beautiful old Victorian glass canopy, and under it, a squat building from a similar era that used to store potatoes. Here, he says, are plans for a food store (not a supermarket, he stresses), cooking school, wine school and of course, a food market. There are ambitions to have some sort of market in place before Christmas. And events. Lots of events. This is London, after all. And Madelin adds that one of the requirements for CSM was that they would hold at least 200 events a year that were open to the public. He also sees this as a place for niche food happenings: “There’s 265 different types of tomato, so why not have a tomato festival here. There’s a lot of demand for this type of thing.” Fitting for an area that was once the arrival point for much of London’s food supply.
Madelin tells us that 50 per cent of fashion at London Fashion Week (LFM) is from CSM graduates. King’s Cross has lured the influential school and students from the West End — could it eventually usurp places like Somerset House to hold LFM events?
Out the front of the Granary building, the much-vaunted square (its size still wearingly being compared to that of Trafalgar Square) is taking shape and due for completion next summer. A new road: ‘The Boulevard’ is starting to scythe its way from just outside the new King’s Cross concourse building, up to the new square. Its opening date is 22 November.
Like an episode of Grand Designs on steroids, I wonder: Will they get it right? All the ‘biggests’ and ‘bests’ and claims such as the Boulevard being the first new road in London for a century (really?) are beguiling, but ultimately beyond the point.
The same can be said for the water feature in Granary Square billed as what will be the largest fountain, by area, outside of Las Vegas. There’s where any comparisons with such a city should end, as it’s the biggest worry for this development — that it becomes an event-based theme park on an inhuman scale.
Rather, there’s inspiration closer to home, which, like King’s Cross, was borne out of a regenerated former industrial area. The Southbank shows that it actually is possible to 'get it right' and create an open, accessible and egalitarian cultural quarter.
The next few months will start to reveal just where King’s Cross Central is on the Vegas-Southbank spectrum.