Why King’s Cross is London’s New Center of Cool
The sooty tangle of railways and derelict warehouses around King's Cross was once the UK capital’s seediest quarter. Now, it’s home to an ambitious urban renewal project—and has become an unlikely model for the city’s future.
I remember the first time I consciously went to King’s Cross, on the northeastern edge of central London, and by “consciously,” I mean in the first sweaty bloom of swaggering adolescence, up for life and mouth wide open to suck up the big city. My friend John and I had traveled in by Tube from our natal homes in the north London ’burbs; we had £9 in cash between us and we were wired on amphetamine “blues”—speed pills that, at four for £1, were attractively priced for teenaged punk rockers in the late 1970s. We were en route to Jock’s Tattoo Parlour, and perhaps this fact alone— that we had to journey across town to be inkily inscribed—serves to separate that era from this one, when no gentrifying London neighborhood is complete without its own body-modification salon and most of the city’s inhabitants resemble Maori warriors going into battle.
Jock’s was a malodorous little nook on the scabrous section of the Pentonville Road that runs east from King’s Cross station. I say “runs,” because whatever the evolutionary end point of the massive redevelopment currently under way in King’s Cross, I doubt the thick miasma of debauchery and desuetude that hangs over this dingy dell will ever be dispelled. In 1977 the road was dominated by the strange Victorian turret of the Lighthouse Building and the Scala Cinema’s lone cupola—both structures that remain in place today. John and I breasted the crowds of office workers, warily eyed skulking prostitutes and drug dealers, then dived into Jock’s and stood there, quaking, in the gloomy cigarette-stunk interior.
The eponymous tattooist was a huge, bearded old biker who sat behind a wooden bench, upon which were arranged the electric tools of his trade. So far as I can recall, there wasn’t a clean needle or disinfected surface in sight. “Blimey,” Jock spat, “look what the f-ing cat dragged in. What’s up with you two—speeding, or what?” We teeth-chatteringly admitted this was indeed the case and Jock, not unkindly, took us to task: “I expect you little toerags are paying well over the odds, you should come down ’ere to get yer gear.” And with a flourish he pulled a huge plastic bag full of amphetamines from behind his bench. We quailed, suitably chastened, then bared our scrawny arms to receive £9-worth of his indelible artistry. Mine, the head of a black puma, has since been tattooed over.
Just shy of four decades later I decided to cycle across town from Lambeth, the south London neighborhood where I now live, up across the river and northeast to King’s Cross. A friend of mine, the artist Antony Gormley, was throwing his 65th-birthday party in his studio on Vale Royal where for the past 13 years he’s constructed vast and steely artworks based on the form of his own body. When Gormley first moved here, the area was still a characterful cocktail: one part scuzz to one part light industry, and two of outright neglect. “There is no comparison” to the neighborhood today, he told me over tea in his airy—yet severely functional—atelier, which was designed by David Chipperfield. “Parts of King’s Cross used to be like a bit of the industrial West Midlands transposed to London—there were those fantastic charcoal-patinated walls, with big granite copingstones.”
Gormley’s studio is about half a mile north of King’s Cross station. As in most great Victorian cities, London’s main rail stations were built in the late 19th century in a ring around what was then the city’s periphery: property rights in the center were too entrenched (and their owners too powerful) for the iron road to ride roughshod over them. In the immediate purlieu of Waterloo, sort of shady activities associated with mass transit proliferated during the latter part of the 19th century: the liquor and sex trades, gambling establishments, hotels-cum-brothels, pawnbrokers and shebeens.Left: St. Pancras International, which now houses the Renaissance Hotel. Right: Students from Central St. Martins, near the art school’s new Granary Square campus; James Merrell
But in this part of town there were no fewer than three mainline railway stations—Euston itself, St. Pancras, and King’s Cross—so the shades clustered commensurately, becoming thicker and darker than in any other part of the capital. Gormley and his wife, the painter Vicken Parsons, have mixed memories of the seedy seepage up the Euston Road: “There was a period when they flushed all the drug dealers out from around the station,” he told me, “and all the prostitutes and dealers came up this way. We came home one evening and a prostitute was entertaining her client on our front steps.”
King’s Cross has a bogus reputation as the site where Queen Boudicca fought with London’s Roman occupiers— a fiction enshrined in the local street name Battle Bridge Road. It actually takes its name from an odd, octagonal brick tower surmounted by a statue of King George IV that was erected at the intersection of Gray’s Inn Road and Pentonville Road in the 1830s and pulled down a decade or so later. The station itself was built in the early 1850s, and is a huge structure with a sweeping brick façade that, until the recent renovations, was obscured by a jumble of later accretions.
St. Pancras International, right beside King’s Cross, serves the Midlands region and, for the past few years, has been the terminal for Eurostar service to the Continent. St. Pancras is perhaps the most extravagant example of neo-Gothic architecture in a city with more than its fair share: during my childhood, its finials and spires and flying buttresses were coated with a thick, black slather of smog left over from industrial-era London’s countless coal fires.
Now it has been thoroughly cleaned up, and as well as the trains, the building today houses the suitably named Renaissance Hotel. (A new Standard Hotel—the first outside the U.S.—is due to open across the street in the old Camden Town Hall building next year.) The King’s Cross rehabilitation project officially began here, radiating out to the north, filling in the disused shunting yards and engine sheds that lay alongside the train tracks with shiny, happy new buildings.Left: King’s Cross Pond Club, a naturally filtered swimming pool with views of St. Pancras International and the BT tower. Right: The newly refurbished departures concourse at King’s Cross station. James Merrell
In fact, the regeneration process began much earlier than we might suppose. The British Library moved to the site abutting St. Pancras station in the late 1990s. I remember visiting with its then director, who took me down into the just-completed underground stacks: eight subterranean, temperature-controlled floors, housing a portion of the library’s 150 million books. Colin St. John Wilson’s design was an effective compromise between soft Modernism and angular Gothicism that synced the library with its surrounding environment. It’s this harmony that the newer, far more extensive construction to the north needs to sustain if King’s Cross’s character is to be modulated rather than nullified.
The signs so far are good. Apart from the cartoonish Paul Day statue of lovers embracing that stands on the platform area, St. Pancras station is now light and modern—pleasing as well as functional. King’s Cross, next door, is something of a tour de force, with a huge new vaulted waiting area and a piazza out front where, with a certain inevitability, nice liberals are now selling artisanal produce. The walkway running from the station northeast to the new King’s Place building on York Way is, however, less successful: walking here by day, I’m always struck by how the little popup installations—a viewing platform, an espresso stall, food huts—seem to loom larger than the new buildings.
This is partly because of what the philosopher Walter Benjamin termed “vertical type”: in this case, slogans blazoned all over these temporary structures, exhorting us to buy and walk and observe and “inherit”— in short, instructing us on how to be flaneurs, as if we haven’t been doing this stuff all our lives. The boxy installations evoke the innumerable railway carriages that clattered northward from the three great stations—as well as the equally myriad narrow boats that oozed through the stygian waters of the Regent’s Canal. This evocation somehow counts against the brightly futuristic promise of the new building developments, and draws us back again to the area’s dark past. King’s Cross has this peculiar air, still, of enormous and surly gravity— the filth and effluent from the old gasworks that once operated here compacted to atomic densities—and an opposing levity: everyone is hurrying, everyone is going somewhere at speed.
The Guardian Media Group has its new offices in King’s Place, which also contains an arts venue and exhibition areas, plus the ubiquitous foodie overkill without which no new public building can pat its glassy, parametrically designed stomach and announce itself to be complete. This publishing company can be seen as the liberal counterweight to the 1 million square feet of office space Google is acquiring in King’s Cross Central (as the redeveloped locale is being styled by its developers). As a contributor, I occasionally go into the Guardian’s offices, and I’ve also taken part in live events at King’s Place, after which I’ve eaten in its restaurant, looking out at the great scum of oil and pigeon feathers that swirls over the waters of the canal basin—a nice contrast to the acres of blond wood and plate glass within.
There are shiny new restaurants everywhere, many of them—Caravan, Dishoom, the Grain Store—in striking old industrial spaces. Later this year Jamie Oliver is opening a canal-side complex in Goods Yard that will house his company headquarters along with a vast restaurant. Lisa Allardice, editor of the Guardian’s Review section, told me that when she moved here with the rest of the paper’s staff from the old Gray’s Inn Road offices, “The most exciting thing to do was a trip to the pharmacy at lunchtime.” Now, Allardice is a King’s Cross booster: “We can’t move for all the incredible buildings and bright young hipsters out on a Thursday evening.”Left:Indian street snacks at Dishoom King’s Cross; Right: Sculptor Antony Gormley’s studio James Merrell
Antony Gormley was more forthcoming about the downside of the rise of King’s Cross. While acknowledging the vibrancy and eclecticism of the crowds swirling around the new piazzas and along the new pedestrian walkways, he says: “The tragedy may be that in the financing of the area the land values have been inflated. Now the annual per-square-foot rental price is £80, whereas in the City of London it’s £70. The justification is the lie that if you come to King’s Cross you’re going to be part of the trendy avant-garde.”
One of the iconic British movies of the 1980s was written and directed by Mike Leigh, a filmmaker who continues to summon up London’s genius loci in his socially acute dramas. In High Hopes (1988), Cyril, a Marxist motorcycle courier, and Shirley, his girlfriend, live in an apartment block right next to King’s Cross station. I remember this building well: one of a pair that then stood on Battle Bridge Road, originally part of a group of five. The Stanley Buildings were constructed in the 1860s for railway employees, and were notable for their elegant ironwork balconies and exterior stairways. By the time I jittered down to Jock’s, the last two had become squats, mostly occupied by my fellow punks.
Leigh’s movie charts the rise of the yuppies under Margaret Thatcher’s government and their gentrification of London’s run-down inner-city areas. The climactic scene has Cyril standing on the roof of one of the Stanley Buildings and inveighing against these changes, while in the middle distance the skeletal silhouette of a gasholder looms. Today, that gasholder is all that remains; the last Stanley Building has been refurbished and pressed into service as a retro-style office block. If Cyril were up there now and could see what’s happened, he’d probably fall off the roof in surprise. I nearly fell off my bike the other night when the floodlit jets of water laid out in a gridlike formation in front of the new Central St. Martins building burst into life. Pedaling in between their surreal splashes, I marveled at the sheer vastness of the old granary buildings that have now been converted into a campus for London’s University of the Arts—and marveled still more at the plastic stacking chairs upturned on the studio workbenches inside. When it comes to life-drawing classes, it seems it’s a case of plus ça change.Left: Evening drinks on the roof of a canalboat and new waterside seating off Granary Square; Right: The mirrored panels of Gasholder No. 8, a disused Victorian gas tank now converted into a public art piece. James Merrell
King’s Cross Central is taking form around a series of 10 public spaces, including three new squares. The fine views of St. Paul’s Cathedral and central London from the north side of the site are to be protected, and while some buildings will be as high as 27 stories, there’s also a lot of low-to-mediumrise. The area is bounded to the east by York Way, a grim runnel of an arterial route; to the west by the train line out of St. Pancras; and to the northwest by the curving line of the high-speedrail connection to the Continent. Yet the most important transport the developers have at their disposal is none of these. Rather, it’s the canal towpath linking the new “place” (which is how contemporary developers bizarrely style their creations, as if all that came before was void and without form) with Camden Lock, a mile or so to the east. Long the epicenter of face-metaland- henna-tattooing-by-appointment for European teenagers, this complex of street markets and eateries will, I predict, eventually merge with King’s Cross Central, so that visitors will be able to complete a great east-west passeggiata, with retail and snacking opportunities every inch of the way.
I may sound a little cynical, but trust me, I’m not. The debate about London’s built environment is focused at the moment on the grotesque sight of capital fleeing from unstable regions of the world to take spatial form on the city’s skyline. Row upon row of bar-code-façade “luxury flats” are being built, while the provision of affordable housing in the city—even for key workers—keeps declining. The optimistic developers’ view is that no matter how shiny and new the starchitects’ infill of the roughly triangular 67-acre King’s Cross Central site, the grimy and the old will continue to inform it. The project has had its share of controversies, including the alleged exclusion of tenants with mentalhealth issues from what little affordable housing is on offer. Yet compared with the big new London developments that are exercises in “placemaking” entirely de novo, I think King’s Cross Central does have a real chance of knitting with the ancient fabric of the city, so that soon enough it will seem lived-in—and may even come to possess that most evanescent of urban phenomena, “character.”
Of course, this will only be a passing phase—before long, like in a plot of a Stephen King horror novel, that “character” will begin to grow stronger and mutate, cloning itself into an entire cast of separate characters. And as King’s Cross Central continues to feed off the raw economics and attendant atmospherics of its three rail stations, so all the activities its welltended and monied new spaces are designed to prohibit will slowly, insidiously, begin to reassert themselves.
No, I’m not cynical about King’s Cross Central, because I know you can’t keep the essential scuzziness of King’s Cross down for long. It may take 10 or even 20 years, but eventually the jittery teenagers will return from the ’burbs, and they’ll find Jock’s lineal descendant waiting for them, a crooked grin bisecting his raddled old face.
The Details: What to Do in King's Cross, London
St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel After more than 30 years of neglect, the old Midland Grand Hotel has returned to its former glory as the Renaissance, sparking a revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood. Doubles from $365.
Caravan A global-small-plates hot spot housed in a Victorian granary behind King’s Cross station. caravanrestaurants.co.uk; small plates $5–$13.
Dishoom Another Victorian warehouse—this one converted into the Indian-street-food chain’s most impressive London branch. Entrées $9–$17.
Grain Store An upscale restaurant on Granary Square that gets glowing reviews for its vegetable-centric menu. Entrées $9–$32.
Rotunda Bar & Restaurant The modern British menu and terrace overlooking Regent’s Canal make this a local standout. Entrées $17–$33.
British Library The U.K.’s national library holds a collection of 150 million volumes, with rare artifacts like the Magna Carta and Beatles manuscripts.
Gasholder Park This old natural-gas repository has been developed into a public park with a lovely lawn and canopy overlooking St. Pancras Lock.
King’s Cross Pond Club A public swimming pool designed as part of the King’s Cross Public Art Program.
Kings Place A multi-use venue down the road from King’s Cross station offering two world-class concert halls, art galleries, and a waterside restaurant.