In a mass of high-profile architecture at King’s Cross, there is one clear standout project, says Rory Olcayto
The best thing about Argent’s King’s Cross isn’t John McAslan + Partners’ steampunk extension to King’s Cross station, or the reborn St Pancras and its shopping mall street. It’s not PRP’s brick housing tower, or the one by MaccreanorLavington Architects that looks a bit Hans Kollhoff. It’s not Glenn Howells Architects’ student accommodation (how fast did that go up?!). It’s not Carmody Groarke’s Filling Station (why did it quit selling pizzas?). It’s not King’s Boulevard with its glow-in-the-dark seats. (Although new streets - a very rare occurrence - are always wonderful things.)
It won’t be Stanton Williams Architects’ King’s Cross Square with its stripey flagstone paving when it finally opens later this year. (Seriously, why has it taken so long to complete?). It’s not going to be David Chipperfield’s office development, despite its cast iron columns. It’s not the Allies & Morrison block alongside it (the very definition of ‘forgettably good’). And it won’t be AHMM’s Googleplex, even if half of London’s youngsters will surely want to work there. And no, it’s not the University of the Arts London - that other Stanton Williams King’s Cross project (it loses marks because the ‘internal street’ has been ruined by a glass barrier that blocks curious strollers). It’s not Feix & Merlin’s roller disco either, even if its chain mail chic - it’s gold - is really rather fetching.
It’s not the clever masterplan - 50 new buildings, 2,000 new homes, 20 new streets, 10 new public squares, 67 acres - again by Allies & Morrison, that just like the Olympic Park, has a brand new postcode. No, the best thing about Argent’s King’s Cross is the amazing Granary Square, London’s finest new public space.
Designed by Townshend Landscape Architects, it has been open for just over a year now. It occupies the land in front of the granary building that houses the relocated art school. It’s big, around 8,000m², which makes it similar in size to Trafalgar Square, although the similarities with London’s most famous public space end there. Take the fountains. The ones in Trafalgar Square may be designed by Edwin Lutyens, but their placement has more to do with reducing public space and the threat of riotous assembly than encouraging citizens to linger on a hot summer day. In Granary Square, the opposite is true: the fountains are what makes the brand new space so public. All summer it has felt like a beach. (It’s better than a lido because it’s free, less cramped and less formal all round). Children - and quite a few adults too - turn up in swimsuits and trunks to lark around for hours. Local families gather on the scattered deck chairs, or under the grove of lime trees alongside, and often stay all day, picnicking until the sun goes down. Richard Rogers would love it - it’s a real people’s meeting place.
At night the fountains become something else entirely: a multi-coloured sculpture of sorts, swooshing, misting, hissing. A firm called the Fountain Workshop made them; 1,080 individual water jets set in four large bays. Each jet has its own pump and light, and can be programmed to ‘dance’ along a range of different heights. And the bays can be set to function as simple mirrored pools.
There is of course a rub. Unlike Trafalgar Square, Granary Square, like the rest of Argent’s King’s Cross, isn’t really public. In fact, Camden Council had to negotiate a legal agreement to secure full public access to it. It’s a private space that we’ve been granted access to. Fingers crossed the owners never change their mind.