Coal Drops Yard puts the heart and soul back into British retail

Fantastic design and a focus on people make the new Kings Cross development stand out from the crowd

London’s landscape shifted slightly today. For this day marks the opening of Coal Drops Yard, the £100 million new addition to the ever-expanding Kings Cross project. Under construction since 2016, the development has seen the original Victorian buildings, built in 1850 to receive coal from the north of England and Wales, transformed into a brand new retail space, with over 50 stores, restaurants and bars.

And what a development it is. Designed by the multi-award winning Heatherwick Studio, and overseen by international property developers Argent, Coal Drops Yard is a compelling mix of old and new, with ingenious contemporary elements designed to sit alongside the Victorian structures, rich ironwork and cobbles of the original space. While the historic aspects are preserved, with studio spaces created from the curved arches of the coal drops, all-new features like the two curved ‘kissing’ roofs have been added to create a distinctly modern feel.

‘The most important thing is the human experience’

‘What we were interested in was trying to stitch together the old and the new, and to find a new language for how the two go together,’ explains Thomas Heatherwick, who helmed the renovation project. Details like how the new roofs are constructed with slates from the very same Welsh quarry as the original Victorian buildings ensure that old and new sit seamlessly alongside each other.

But it’s not just the impressive renovation that makes Coal Drops Yard stand out from the crowd. Moreover, it’s the design and retail teams’ dedication to creating a space with a soul, where people can gather together and brands old and new, big and small, get a chance to tell their stories.

‘I think there are so few developments on the planet where you can go and it still feels soulful. Often new developments sterilise and kill an area,’ says Mr Heatherwick. ‘Our interest is in creating an amazing space. The shopping is just the excuse. The most important thing is the human experience. To be with your fellow humans now it’s more precious than ever.’

‘I always kept the Spanish concept of “duende” in mind,’ adds Craig White, Senior Project Director at Argent. ‘It means the spirit that possesses a house. If there is no “duende”, there is no home.’

As well as creating a welcoming hub for visitors, they were also keen on making it an attractive proposition for brands big and small. ‘The leasing of Coal Drops was all about the people,’ explains Mr White, who led the curation of the 50 plus different brands setting up shop in the new development . ‘We created a set of guiding principles, which were all about enriching, delighting and uniting. For us, it’s not just about consumption. It’s about your experience of a brand and of how that brand will tell you a story and enrich your life.’

‘For us, it’s not just about consumption’

They’ve achieved this by working in partnership with the brands to create a proposition that shares the eventual success of Coal Drops Yard. ‘We wanted to share the risk, as it’s an unknown destination,’ explains Mr White. ‘We created a scenario where we ask brands to pay a base rent or 10 per cent of your turnover, whichever is the greater.’

The result is a collection of brands that signal the best and brightest of British design, as well as the coolest talent from around the world. Headliners include Paul Smith, Cubitts and Fred Perry, with food and drink from Alain Ducasse, Casa Pastor and Barrafina. But smaller brands are also represented, with the likes of Universal Works, Rains and Bonds adding a dash of coolness to the mix. Adding to the community vibe, many of the brands’ founders will be present day to day, with Tom Dixon opening his new workshop and studio, and the likes of Lost Property of London setting up their office space there. If you’re lucky, you might even Paul Smith serving customers at the weekend, too.

It’s rare – nay, usually impossible – to find a retail development that keeps heart, soul and community at the centre of their ethos. Somehow, Heatherwick Studios and the team at Argent have managed to create a space where you want to come and while away an afternoon – whether you plan on buying anything or not. They’ve achieved it with brilliant design and a thoughtfulness that keeps humans, and not mindless consumption, at the centre of the story. One to put on your must-visit list this weekend.