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King’s Cross takes shape

By Ruth Slavid
This is a significant year at the massive King’s Cross development in the heart of London. With planning permission granted at the end of June for the large new square and park at the centre of the development, the landscape for the scheme has reached a halfway point in terms of planning and delivery.

And it is not just any old landscape. From the beginning, Argent, the developer of the property (actually a joint venture with London and Continental Railways and DHL, called King’s Cross Central Partnership Limited) has put landscape at the forefront, seeing it as vital to the creation of a new place from what was for a long time a blighted area. What is fascinating is not only to see this coming to fruition, but also to appreciate how the thinking has developed and ideas have changed in the course of the project.

Argent already understood the importance of putting in infrastructure and landscape first. It had used this approach on Brindleyplace in Birmingham, working with the same masterplan team of Allies and Morrison, Porphyrios Associates and Townshend Landscape Architects – two very different architects plus a landscape specialist. At King’s Cross it was essential to create a ‘place’ from the beginning that would work for residents, users and those simply passing through.

The original masterplan, on which the outline planning permission was based, defines routes through the site and areas of public realm – in total 40% of the 67 acre estate consists of new streets, squares, parks and gardens. While the ambition is laudable, it would not work unless they were good streets, squares and gardens – but they certainly are.

Townshend Landscape Architects has retained its involvement throughout the project, but although it has designed some of the key spaces – Granary Square and the newly consented new garden – it is not responsible for all of them. The new public space has been designed by US practitioner Laurie Olin, for example, and Handyside Gardens, a narrow strip of garden leading down to the canal, by garden designer Dan Pearson. Pearson’s involvement extends beyond that. He is working with Townshend on the ribbon of planting that will lead from Handyside Gardens to Granary Square and also on an elevated area above the canal that is drawing inevitable comparisons with the High Line. It carries on to Gasholder Park and onto the roofs of two buildings, a school and the planned  ‘triplets’ housing.

There is a delicate balancing act. King’s Cross is meant to be a new city quarter, not a ‘development’ that is alien to all that is around it. Yet it also needs its own coherent character, and not to be a collection of whizzy moments with no peace and calm. So far it is definitely avoiding these pitfalls – there isn’t a ‘King’s Cross style’ like some corporate development, yet there is a sense of continuity.

Much of this is down to the calm choice of basic materials. The north-south routes through the scheme are all in place, lined with plane trees, creating a ‘spine’ and considerable development is complete along this route. At the southern end, nearest to King’s Cross station, are the office buildings of Pancras Square, fronting onto King’s Boulevard. The massive Google headquarters will go opposite these, and the way that Argent has dealt with its main entry route running through a building site is indicative of its approach throughout. It has put a great deal of thought into the design of hoardings and until recently the space was also animated at lunch times by the Kerb food stalls. When the next phase of building works required the hoarding to move out, narrowing the street, these food stalls moved to Granary Square.

You reach Granary Square by crossing the canal on a new bridge. Granary Square itself, fronting the canal and backed by the award winning University of the Arts building and by two fine restaurants, has come to typify the public space at King’s Cross. And yet its very success has led to some of the changes in thinking.

Simply paved in slender blocks of porphyry stone, Granary Square is animated by the people who use it – and by the four blocks of fountains, designed by Fountain Workshop, which can change in their pattern and colour. It is a delightful space, furnished with some temporary (although impressive) benches, and also with lightweight bright yellow metal cafe chairs. These latter were an experiment. Ken Trew, a landscape architect who is in charge of the public realm for Argent, explained that nobody knew when they were bought whether they would be stolen or not. The fact that they were not was hugely encouraging and has led to further planned purchases.

The original intention was that Granary Square could accommodate a range of events, including major concerts and other relatively formal occasions. But its success has precluded that. Major events which require shutting down part of the space for build-up and taking down would disrupt the happy and intense occupation of the space.

The other factor is how very hard the surfaces are. There is a bosque of pleached limes on the western side but that is the only planting. It is appropriate and successful, but it led Ken Trew to question how hard many of the other spaces should be. ‘As we bring each area forward,’ he explained, ‘we have to do a reserved matters application. We said to Robert Townshend, do we want to do something else?’

The question was whether to bring more green in to future developments. Trew was struck by the public enthusiasm for Piet Oudolf’s planting at the 2011 Serpentine pavilion, designed with Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. As a result, he said, the team started to look for something different. ‘We looked at a lot of landscape consultants. They were all a bit samey – a lot of box hedges and a bit of herbaceous planting. It is all right where it is appropriate, but we have a lot of residential development. We felt it should be more seasonal.’ There is a lack of public accessible gardens in London, Trew believes, and he was keen to provide some.

Having looked around, the team decided to try working with Dan Pearson, who is a magnificent plantsman. ‘We thought we would see what happened,’ Trew said. Handyside Gardens was a challenge for him. It is a long narrow plot, with restricted clearance above a railway tunnel, which meant that some of the beds had to be raised to achieve a decent soil depth. It has the newly completed Arthouse apartments to one side, shielding it from busy York Way, but the other boundary is at present a hoarding to a busy construction site. It contains seating, incorporated into the beds rather than separate, and some play equipment aimed at younger children. It could have been a disaster but it is really lovely, a little gem.

At present, it doesn’t connect up well, since the path along the canalside that will lead to Granary Square is not yet open. Trew admitted that he regrets that there are not more visitors, but at least this has given the planting the chance to establish. One reason the garden is so little used may be because of the presence of a gate at the northern end. It is low and elegant and easy to open, but it gives a sense that one should not go through. I felt discouraged by it, even knowing that access was allowed, and a casual visitor is likely to be even more put off.

But the collaboration has worked well, and is to continue, with Townshend and Dan Pearson marrying their skills to give the more horticultural approach that Ken Trew is seeking. The Pearson-Townshend design and planting is made possible by Argent’s commitment to maintenance. The seasonal planting that Dan Pearson does is more demanding to look after than grass and box hedges, but the developer understands what is involved and is happy to do it. And it will keep Dan Pearson involved over the years to help as the designs need to evolve.

Dan Pearson said, ‘What is interesting about Argent is their commitment to quality and their vision of a landscape being something that has considerably more depth in terms of interest than an average landscape might have.’

Even with quarterly maintenance visits and the top-notch maintenance team, he has had to forgo some approaches that he would commonly use ina private garden. There are few annuals and few plants that will self-seed promiscuously, for example. ‘We have to provide the lived-in feeling in a more public way,’ he said.

The mood will change as one travels along, he said. Handyside Garden is influenced by the industrial heritage and linear nature of railway lines. As one approaches the canal, there will be a more watery language, and on the viaduct, which Dan Pearson insists will NOT resemble the High Line (‘there will be a greater sense of order, with hedges to echo the buttresses’), there will be a drier feeling.

Robert Townshend said, ‘I think in three years time, when the whole of the north bank of the canal is complete it will be a pretty fantastic piece of planting, and that will be down to Dan.’ He is obviously relishing the collaboration and says there will be further collaborations with other horticulturalists. ‘I think there will be more iterations of the same idea.’

What is really interesting about King’s Cross is Argent’s mixture of farsighted vision and a willingness to change. It has known from the beginning the type of place that it wants to create – engaged, green, a part of the city with high-quality landscape and architecture. It has the commitment to carry this through – long-term stewardship and coherent planning. So, for example, as new areas for development take shape, Robert Townshend is involved in advising the architects on animating the streets. For example, he cautions against having large areas of glazing on ground floors of office buildings. Occupants tend to feel over-exposed, and as a result either keep the blinds shut or put
up reflective film – exactly the opposite of what was intended.

But at the same time Argent has an intelligent attitude to time. This is shown in its embrace of the temporary, such as the Skip Garden which has already had a couple of sites and has become involved with local restaurants, and in a willingness to wait to get exactly the right seating for Granary Square, rather than rushing for an OK solution. It put up a living wall on the edge of canal, which was considered to be temporary. But Ken Trew says that it will stay ‘as long as it lasts’. If that is for 20 years he will be delighted. But there is a solid wall behind it in case things go wrong.

Argent is willing to change as time goes on, to sense a developing mood and to learn, not from its mistakes because there seem to have been few, but to see how things could be even better and to appraise the changing roles that the spaces it has created could play. If you are making a place, it is the people who use it that will decide how it functions. That is a simple truism – but one that many developers struggle to grasp. Argent is to be commended for having done so.

What’s next for King’s Cross

At present what you can see if you walk around King’s Cross are well-designed streets, the great set piece of Granary Square, the charm of Handyside Gardens, the local landscape at the base of some housing, a new bridge (there are more to come) some temporary installations – and that is about it. But there is a lot more planned. Here is some of it, described roughly going south to north.

Giant tree
In Battlebridge Place, outside the exit from the Underground and at the start of King’s Boulevard,  a large pin oak will be planted as a feature tree. This is coming from Germany, and a team from the UK went to select it. Trees in German nurseries are often ‘engineered’ to be symmetrical for ease of transport but this one has been selected for its more natural appearance. Planting large trees can be hazardous, but those at King’s Cross should do well, since the developer is following Robert Townshend’s stipulation that every tree pit should have a capacity of at least 12 m3.

Pancras Square
Due to open later this year, this is tucked behind the new office buildings by David Chipperfield and Allies and Morrison and in front of the council building and swimming pool being constructed to designs by Bennetts Associates. Conceived very much as a local space primarily aimed at the office workers, and which may also provide a cut through from the station, it takes advantage of the drop across the site of 7m. Water features, designed to be calming and to mask noise, will prevent different aspects when seen from above and below.

The ‘High Line’
The name may be cringeworthy but the intentions are great. A raised walkway on top of arches looms by a historic wall next to the canal. It fronts some buildings which will be turned into a restaurant and pub (apparently by Jamie Oliver) and is also likely to provide an alternative cycle route to the towpath below. Dan Pearson is designing the planting, taking into accounts the restrictions – in some places there is no additional load capacity or structural depth available for soil, and there has to be sufficient access for fire trucks.

Gasholder Park
There are four gasholders that are being retained but in new positions, as they were displaced by the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Three are still being restored and when they come back to site as the ‘triplets’ will form the enclosure for housing, designed by Wilkinson Eyre. But the first is already on site and will contain a park that will be a simple circle of grass surrounded by a colonnade with some planting, again by Dan Pearson. It will make the most of its enclosed nature to become a peaceful place, with the intention that at some times of day it will be used for activities such as Tai Chi.

New public square
Originally designated as Cubitt Square, but currently without a name, this was one of the two spaces to receive planning permission at the end of June. Designed by American practice OLIN, it measures 78m by 49m and is intended to accommodate up to 2,250 people for events. To the west of the central spine, it will face a major cultural building (details are still under wraps) and will have seating, planting and fountains on its eastern side. Despite the vast dimensions of the square, Olin has designed these so that they will offer some privacy and intimacy.

New park
Again currently without a name (it was previously known as Cubitt Park – you get the pattern), this has been designed by Townshend Landscape Architects and also received planning permission at the end of June. Situated in the northern, predominantly residential, area of the development, it is a deliberately simple space which will be largely grass. Measuring 136 by 40m it will be a place for families and recreation. There will be some sculpting of land into gentle mounds, both for visual interest and to prevent the entire park becoming one large football pitch. The flat areas between the mounding should just about be able to accommodate a five aside game. An avenue of plane trees on the eastern side will provide a visual link to York Way, the major road that runs along the site’s eastern boundary.

Temporary swimming pool
On the northern part of the site that will eventually become the new park, and surrounded by construction activity, a temporary outdoor ‘swimming pond’ is being created. Opening this autumn, and intended to remain for 18 months, it has been created by Dutch architect Ooze working with Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrc. With an irregular form and surrounded by planting, it will be chemical free. It sounds fantastic – Argent may have to cope with some discontent when this temporary feature is removed.

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