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Juxtaposed Rawness: The Granary at King's Cross by Steffan James Turner

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

No longer audible are the piercing whistles or pulsating hisses of a bygone era; billowing, smog-creating clouds of tainted white have vanished from this once iron-laden landscape. Yet, what remains at King’s Cross is a vibrancy; hastening, much like a steam train accelerating away from its platform. The beating clink of wheel on track displaced with the thud of construction and an air of renewal. At the heart of the new 67 acre development stands a ziggurat, a striking homage to the area’s industrial heritage; Lewis Cubitt’s granary building, built in 1852 as part of a wider plan to rival Stephenson’s Euston, has undergone a refurbishment, but it is the space within, and the materials used to fashion it, which are celebrated.

Venturing beyond the reception hall, where sleek yet brazen cast iron columns perforate a canopy of oak, the eye cannot refrain from wallowing in the vastness of the main lobby. Completed in 2011, in time for the re-housing of Central St Martin’s, and designed by Stanton Williams to foster cross-curricular exchange of ideas, this immense internal thoroughfare, travelling east to west, boasts an amalgamation of materials, old and new, drenched in sunlight and filled with fervent voices. The walls are sheer. Neck-achingly sheer. To the south, the granary wall is encrusted with coarse brick and emblazoned with the triangular outlines of ghostly gabled connections. Its palette of ochre is fragmented by an open lift shaft, somehow absconded from a 1980s shopping mall. Light dances on this wall, producing an array of shadows which cease to let the eye rest. This jagged face is in stark contrast to the smooth concrete of the contemporary northern wall, which, although clinical in complexion, offers a convivial ambience through the reflection of sunlight and the subtle use of warm lighting at night; ideal conditions for perspicacious conversations.

Being in the very centre of this temple-like space, there is a feeling of envelopment; Echoes are exchanged for a considerate reverberance, as if all the conversations in the school are discernible. A sense of belonging is amplified as student after student criss-cross their way through the lobby, from 19th century to 21st century. This contrast provides a dynamic energy, inviting the inhabitant to engage with the very mass of the building, while the rawness and modest use of stereotomic materials provides the inhabitant of this powerful space with a three dimensional carte blanche; a cavernous shell in which installations are placed, fashion shows performed and exhibitions enjoyed.

The adaptability and flexibility of this cultural hub is striking. Whilst walking around the perimeter, underneath the studios which extrude from the walls above, the mind is allowed to explore the endless possibilities of moulding that very space into anything and everything. It is this adaptability which is at the heart of the immense nature of this lobby, resonant of the historical usage of the granary. Flanked by 4-storey high glazed walls, students stand, sit and recline in various positions. They fill the void with dialogue and emotion, in return for utilising its openness as inspiration for their own creative work, an exchange which is analogous throughout the building.

However, a feeling of disparity exists. Shiny metallic security barriers, although necessary, have strangely become the focal point at ground level in this massive space, dismantling the warm atmosphere with harsh, coruscating reflections. When the eye catches these permanent installations, and then looks through to the private building beyond, with its unadorned concrete floor and austere network of staircases, echoes are drawn back into the space, as if trapped in a prison.

This reaction does not linger. The space will not allow it. With outstretched fingertips, the inhabitant is drawn to touch again the rugged walls, to compare with those that are unblemished, to explore the heroic scale of the space with renewed interest and to appreciate the opportunities which it offers in ultimately nurturing creativity.

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