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Heatherwick Studio's 'kissing buildings' create a stir in London

Heatherwick Studio reimagines a pair of derelict Victorian warehouses into a vibrant new retail destination in the Coal Drops Yard in London city.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Jun 02, 2019

Heatherwick Studio brings together their first major project in London in the form of Coal Drops Yard - a major new shopping district in the King’s Cross neighbourhood. The project falls into the ongoing 67 acres mixed use development of the precinct that involves transforming its underused industrial fabric into a distinct urban magnet.

  • An aerial view of the Coal Drops Yard in the King's Cross neighbourhood Image Credit: Luke Hayes
  • An aerial view of the Coal Drops Yard in the King's Cross neighbourhood Image Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Front view of the Coal Drops Yard, a major new shopping district in LondonImage Credit: Luke Hayes


Commissioned in 2014, the designers were tasked to rethink the Coal Drops – a landmark site from the 1850s, which once savored the prime of being the coal store of Victorian London. The marshalling yards of the industrial revolution, the grand brick viaducts were originally built to receive coal by rail wagons from North England for distribution across London by road carts. With the decline of coal production over the years, the splendor of the historic site faded, its ornate cast iron and brick structures gave way to blackened shells with a century of deposited soot. The site that served light industry and warehousing, had become home to counter-culture artists and nightclubs before it was partially abandoned in the 1990s.

These amazing Victorian structures were never originally built to be inhabited by hundreds of people, but instead formed part of the sealed off infrastructure of London. - Thomas Heatherwick, Founder, Heatherwick Studio

Adroitly intervening in the derelict architecture, the designers addressed the brief by preserving the site’s vestiges of the past in a contemporary vein. Being long time residents of King’s Cross, this became an advantage and an added opportunity. “We wanted to celebrate the unique texture and history of the industrial buildings while also creating a unified new public space and retail destination,” said the design team helmed by architect Thomas Heatherwick.

  • Interiors after the restoration Image Credit: Hufton+Crow
  • Exteriors after the restoration Image Credit: Luke Hayes


The two warehouses as Heatherwick puts it, were “like vast chocolate Kit Kat fingers held apart at an angle.” The prospect of turning the long, linear site into a lively retail precinct where people could gather and circulate with ease was rather an inventive challenge.

Our challenge was to radically remodel this Victorian infrastructure to meet the needs of a model urban development without losing what made them special. - Lisa Finlay, Group Leader, Heatherwick Studio

Instead of drawing a solution from outside, the team looked for possibilities within. The concept was drawn from the inherent eccentricities of the original viaduct structures, understanding their intended functions and how they adapted over time. The studio adopted a light touch to keep the site’s distinct character alive where new additions were sensitively drawn on the existing palette of aged brick and iron work, slate, timber boards and the cobbled yard of stone setts.

  • The merging roofs create a new upper storey and a public courtyard below Image Credit: Luke Hayes
  • The interiors of the new upper storey Image Credit: Hufton + Crow
  • Full-height structural glass panels arranged in a staggered, serrated pattern enclose the upper storey Image Credit: Hufton+Crow


A wider restoration of the site saw the adaptation of the existing roofs as the primary intervention. A new 35-metre-wide extension was designed to flow seamlessly from the original gables, seemingly creating the illusion of two buildings lightly touching in mid-air. Making this imaginative roof form possible required a complex structural intervention where an ingenious freestanding structure was weaved within the heritage fabric. Fifty-two new steel columns were threaded through the existing buildings, concealed behind aged brick and iron and shored up by concrete walls and cores. The coalescing roofs helped define the public courtyard below, offering fluid patterns of circulation, and introduced a new upper storey that offer panoramic views of the distinctive King’s Cross precinct.

  • The yard comprises of horizontal and vertical streets in the form of multiple staircases and connecting bridges Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • The yard comprises of horizontal and vertical streets in the form of multiple staircases and connecting bridges Image Credit: Luke Hayes


With 100,000 sqft of new retail, dining and event spaces, the project is conceived as a series of horizontal and vertical streets linked horizontally and vertically. The layout offers diverse units, ranging from 160 sqft to 20,000 sqft that accommodate both established as well as emerging brands alongside cafes, restaurants, bars and open spaces. The entrances at both ends of the viaducts and multiple ingress points into the yard via bridges and staircases create a largely fluid and accessible space. The yard hosts concerts and cultural events and provides a stage for people’s interaction as well as an inclusive, open landscape to sit, relax and unwind.

From a lost wasteland to becoming a reflection of the city’s rich past and a promising future, the journey of Coal Drops Yard has been a fascinating one – built on layers of innovation, creativity and an underlying concern for creating meaningful architecture.

  • Site plan Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • Yard level plan Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • Upper viaduct level plan Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • East West Section Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • East West Section, Looking North Centre Image Credit: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

Project Details

Name of the project: Coal Drops Yard
Location: London, UK
Client: Argent LLP
Year of completion: October 2018
Area: 100,000 sqft
Architect: Heatherwick Studio
Core design team: Thomas Heatherwick (Founder), Lisa Finlay (Group Leader), Tamsin Green (Project Leader)
Project team: Jordan Bailiff, Einar Blixhavn, Erich Breuer, Darragh Casey, Jennifer Chen, Dani Rossello Diez, Ben Dudek, Andrew Edwards, Alex Flood, Daniel Haigh, Phil Hall-Patch, Steven Howson, Sonila Kadillari, Michael Kloihofer, Nilufer Kocabas, Ivan Linares Quero, Elli Liverakou, Freddie Lomas, Jose Marquez, Mira Naran, Ian Ng, Hannah Parker, Monika Patel, Luke Plumbley, Jeff Powers, Thomas Randall-Page, Emmanouil Rentopolous, Angel Tenorio, Takashi Tsurumaki, Pablo Zamorano
Developer: KCCLP / Argent LLP
Heritage consultant: Giles Quarme & Associates
Structural / Façade engineer: Arup
M+E / Sustainability: Hoare Lea
Lighting designers: Speirs and Major
Cost consultant: Gardiner and Theobald
Delivery architect: BAM Design
Slate manufacturer: Welsh Slate Ltd

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