Heatherwick Studio Transforms Derelict London Rail Sheds Into Retail Destination

Dubbed Coal Drops Yard, the project required adapting industrial buildings—intended for trains, horses, and carts—for people. The design team employed outdoor stairs, elevators, and walkways throughout the site's three levels.
coal drops yard architecture heatherwick studio

In the 1850s, freight trains would pull into the upper level of these buildings and drop coal through an opening in the floor to be carted off to a rapidly growing London. The architects connected the various retail floors through ramps and stairways and unified the two structures with a swooping roof. Courtesy Luke Hayes

The area surrounding London’s King’s Cross rail station has always been in transition. Its industrial might declined in the postwar years, and by the 1980s and ’90s, its cavernous warehouses became notorious for both nightlife and crime. Even Tony Blair, in 1997, called King’s Cross “quite a frightening place.”

Times have changed. A decade of development rehabilitated crumbling Victorian structures into trendy restaurants, shops, and housing. Most recently, Heatherwick Studio has transformed a pair of derelict rail sheds into a captivating new retail destination, Coal Drops Yard.

In spite of the site’s lively century-and-a-half history (bookended by stints as a coal drop-off point and as a rave venue), “it has never been publicly accessible,” explains Heatherwick project lead Tamsin Green. Working with Argent, which is redeveloping King’s Cross, the architects proposed converting the brick warehouses into one-of-a kind shops enabling the space, says Green, “to be really enjoyed for the first time.”

One of the primary challenges was adapting the industrial buildings—intended for trains, horses, and carts—for people. The team employed outdoor stairs, elevators, and walkways throughout Coal Drops’ three levels. Original structural arches, meanwhile, became handy retail niches. But the architects knew fancy shops wouldn’t be enough of a draw: “We needed to do something which would signal that there was something happening,” says Green.

The result is the building’s hallmark feature and flashiest display of structural wizardry: its undulating roofline. The architects, working with Arup, “peeled” back the slate roofs and exaggerated them, so that their sweeping edges kiss above the central courtyard.

But Heatherwick also left historical details throughout, like decorative beams and faded numbers denoting train bays. “We’ve tried to maintain the story of the buildings,” says Green, “but we’ve also not shied away from being bold.”

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Categories: Architecture