King's Cross station main concourse

Station to station: in praise of a reborn King’s Cross

With its problems of prostitution and drug-dealing, King’s Cross in London had reached the end of the line, but £3bn of investment and an influx of artists and creative minds are changing the perception of this former no-go zone

By Lee Gale

GQ.co.uk, 2013

In the not-too-distant past, when trains operated in pizzazz-free “rail blue”, King’s Cross in London was Hell’s waiting room, a den of iniquity with a dilapidated rail terminus and derelict goods yard at its core. It was unwise to hang about in N1. Travellers from the north arrived at the station, moved with the crowd towards an Underground exit and kept a tight guard of the money in their pocket. 

Scams abounded. If you were courageous enough to venture along York Way in search of a fair-priced Marathon, you’d be approached by a triumvirate of lowlife. Pushy vagabonds offered complicated, yet oddly believable, reasons to borrow money; shivering, haunted prostitutes with unwashed hair asked if you’d like a good time (this appeared a rhetorical question); while fast-acting football hooligans darted and observed, asking inane questions, attempting to place regional accents prior to a blitzkrieg of violence. This was a place you endured, rather than savoured.

King’s Cross has been in decline since the Thirties, a time when road haulage offered itself as a viable alternative to rail. But even before the tracks were laid in 1852, King’s Cross was a notorious district of dustmen’s yards, characterised by cinder heaps and piles of horse bones. Deprivation and crime were so deeply ingrained in the fabric of King’s Cross that an earthquake followed by a firestorm would have been a kindness. But as the last tremor of any strength to hit the capital was in 1580 (magnitude 5.5), the opportunity of effective social revival, delivered by nature, was slim. 

It’s amazing what £3bn of investment can do. The transformation of King’s Cross from a cesspit of criminality into a dynamic London district of artists, designers and world-class architecture sounds like a work of highly implausible fiction, but if you drift away from the newly refurbished platforms of King’s Cross or St Pancras International and wander along Pancras Road, the evidence is overwhelming. Energy-efficient towers and premium apartments are quickly rising among the renovated Victorian buildings of the former Railway Lands. This once-tainted district is now, against all the odds, becoming a beacon for modern city living.

Network Rail’s £560m revamp of King’s Cross station is nearing completion after eight years of well-concealed upgrading. Its centrepiece, the new Station Concourse, features a 985-ton, steel, wave-like diagrid-shell canopy, reminiscent of steam billowing from a Sir Nigel Gresley locomotive. The roof structure, designed by British architects John McAslan + Partners, is a fluid, awe-inspiring addition to the coolly clean, fuss-free brickwork of Victorian engineer Lewis Cubitt’s mainline terminus. 

At the Station Concourse’s edge curves the sumptuously renovated Great Northern Hotel – also a Cubitt construction, built in 1854. This five-star boutique destination was once viewed as a national treasure, the world’s first great railway hotel, with its Italianate façade and thick, fireproof walls. After a £40m re-fit, it’s once again a polished jewel, and already giving the gothic St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel across the road some serious competition. 

“The Great Northern Hotel’s location is incredible,” says its owner and operator Jeremy Robson, seated in the splendour of the hotel’s new Plum & Spilt Milk dining room. “This is the gateway to Europe and the arrival point for the east coast. Being candid, until Eurostar moved to St Pancras from Waterloo [in 2007], I couldn’t envisage what might happen here because it needed so much infrastructure-based investment. It’s not just the station; if you look at plans for the area, and the buildings going up, the people who are being drawn here are very creative types.”

Parallel to the Suburban Train Shed at King’s Cross station, a new London street arcs through a plantation of cranes. King’s Boulevard is the opening to King’s Cross Central Limited Partnership’s £2bn regeneration of the former goods yard, a 67-acre site that will, by 2020, provide millions of square feet of office space, shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, homes, parks and – importantly – galleries. Art attracts money; just look at Mayfair. 

King’s Cross is emerging as a new creative hotspot, a place where artists and dreamers can thrive. The sculptor Antony Gormley, known primarily for “Angel Of The North”, was an early settler, moving into his warehouse-studio in 2004 (its position is a gunshot away from where The Ladykillers, Britain’s finest black comedy – starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers – was filmed in 1955). Thomas Heatherwick, who designed London’s new Routemaster bus and the 2012 Olympic cauldron, has been based on Gray’s Inn Road in King’s Cross since 2008, and before that had premises in nearby Acton Street. 

Mere feet from the train station, among the hard hats and Day-Glo overalls, Google’s new £1bn UK headquarters will shortly be built, while a brief hike up the incline of King’s Boulevard sits the new home of Central Saint Martins, the world-renowned art school. Its 4,200 students have taken over the solid-block Granary Building – another Cubitt creation – that once stored rail-delivered Lincolnshire wheat for use by London’s bakers. 

“Central Saint Martins is the core of the King’s Cross development,” explains Michael Pinsky, co-curator of RELAY, a project that’s helping turn King’s Cross into a contemporary-art stronghold. “For some time, the Gagosian Gallery has been here, but other galleries such as AVA [All Visual Arts] and Large Glass are both showing artists of international repute, while the Art Fund [the charity that helps museums and galleries buy works] is moving next to Central Saint Martins. With such a strong foundation, and with Google planning to move in, we expect King’s Cross to be extremely dynamic from a cultural point of view.”

Visitors at King’s Cross have already felt RELAY’s presence. “IFO (Identified Flying Object)” by French artist Jacques Rival, a 30-feet-high, rainbow-lit birdcage with a Tweety Pie swing, has stood in a variety of spots on Goodsway  since October 2011 (it can be moved by crane). With its neon hues, “IFO” draws the gaze from the station’s platforms, working as a visual invitation to explore Granary Square’s first wave of cafes and restaurants. 

RELAY’s latest commission works on a far grander scale. “Across The Buildings” by Swiss abstract artist Felice Varini is a collection of metallic geometric shapes that unify when you stand at a particular viewpoint. Victorian, it isn’t, but like most aspects of the revitalised King’s Cross, contemporary and heritage knit together perfectly well. 

Varini’s giant canvas will undoubtedly provide positive exposure for King’s Cross, but the Station Concourse’s lattice canopy is the area’s true masterpiece. Waiting patiently by the “funnel”, where the curved roof rises theatrically from the ground, stands its architect, Hiro Aso. Employed by John McAslan + Partners, he has been the lead architect of King’s Cross station since 2005. McAslan has delivered a transport hub of international renown, comprehensively refurbishing and modernising every nook and cranny of Cubitt’s terminus.

Aso was born in Tokyo, but has lived in London since his school days. When asked if he’s familiar with The Parcel Yard, a new pub on the Station Concourse (with period railways fittings, it’s surely the capital’s finest ale house), Aso replies, “Well, I should, I found its location – in 2005, it was a piece of Victorian heritage that had been hidden behind fire-boarding for decades.” The Parcel Yard also supplies sublimely strong cappuccinos from 8am.

Using an iPad, Aso reveals the full extent of the station’s restoration, with its sympathetically refurbished Main Train Shed, a new booking hall in the Station Concourse, the renovated Eastern Range with it’s quirky platform zero (“we named it this because it’s mega-expensive to re-sequence signalling and facilities to do with track, says Aso”) and the soon-to-be-completed Southern Square, a plaza the size of Leicester Square, replacing the dreary booking hall that was erected as a temporary measure in 1973.

“Do you know what’s really lovely?” asks Aso. “When we enter stations, we’re always hassled. I’m grumpy when I enter a station. But when we opened the new concourse and passengers came through all grumpy, when they looked up, their expressions changed. And the honeymoon period extends thanks to the passenger profile of the station. Commuters are creatures of habit, so maybe it won’t last so long for them, but we have a substantial proportion of first-time visitors, long-distance travellers, and you can see that excitement when people wander through the concourse. I think it’s wonderful.” 

The delays and cancellations of First Capital Connect might still feel like a well-aimed kick in the teeth when they strike, but hold-ups provide the opportunity to linger and appreciate. Burger King has vanished, but cafes and accessory outlets have arrived. Under the canopy, there’s tranquillity, assisted by automatically adjusted lighting. And if there are signal problems in the Finsbury Park area that leave you in a frenzy of rail-system hate, there’s the chance to venture into the midst of the building site and sample the menus at Caravan on Granary Square, Shrimpy’s on Goods Way (in a former BP petrol station) or The Fellow, a fantastic gastro-pub on the much-changed York Way (try the Argentinean white Rioja; fruity, fresh, extremely palatable).

“The regeneration of the King’s Cross area is simply incredible,” says London Mayor Boris Johnson, “with the twin jewels of King’s Cross and St Pancras stations standing proud as the gateways to an almost 70-acre site of new buildings and streets, public squares, businesses, cultural locations and heritage sites, as well as many new homes for Londoners. The stations, the restored industrial buildings, the inspiring Victorian structures and surrounding lands have been handled with great ingenuity, sensitivity and foresight. And as a thriving seat of learning, how fitting that such an iconic site of the industrial revolution is now home to Britain’s future scientists, designers, thinkers and innovators. King’s Cross station is delightfully inspiring and easily a match for the architectural marvels of St Pancras. For me, the Station Concourse is the ultimate steel-and-glass homage to the string vest.”

There’s already a relaxed atmosphere in today’s King’s Cross. Maybe that’s because few people have discovered the area – it’s quiet at night – or it could be the sound of the 1,080 choreographed fountains by Central Saint Martin’s Granary Building. Computer-generated street images of King’s Cross in 2020 predict a Barcelona-esque idyll, a mix of assiduous office employees and stretched-out coffee-drinkers, hard at work or hard at chat, and not a prostitute, vagabond or football hooligan in sight. In the Eighties, any improvement in King’s Cross would have be applauded, but this is change on an unimaginable scale. For King’s Cross, a new journey is underway, driven by artists, architects and creative minds. London’s gateway to the north is no longer a place to dread – it’s now a destination in its own right.  

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