We meet by a sculpture of Ozymandias in the atrium of Kings Place, best known as the new home of the Guardian newspaper in Kings Cross. But unlike the protagonist of the Shelley poem, which is concerned with the hubris of mankind, this office building’s architects and developer have something more philanthropic and inclusive in mind.
“The office building should be part of public life; part of cultural life,” says Jeremy Dixon of Dixon Jones architects, whose previous work includes the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery,“then we would have a completely different relationship between the building and the community.” From our position at a long wooden table on the ground floor we can see the odd Guardian employee milling around on the floors above. The relationship between Dixon Jones, developer Peter Millican, director of Parabola Land and design and build firm McAlpine is companionable: “This building is Peter’s own personal thesis. I think it’s like an eighteenth century land owner building a house and gardens to a neo-classical ideal,” Dixon says.
For those who have desperately sought somewhere to meet friends or business contacts in this part of town, despair no longer. Here you can grab a coffee in the atrium in the morning, have lunch in the circular brasserie or the other restaurant-cum-conference space, and according to Green and Fortune CEO John Nugent, the brand behind the catering options, it’s not a bad place to hang out for cocktails on a Friday night either. “We are getting a lot of the local community in, from Mums with buggies to OAPs, which is great.” says Millican.
In keeping with Millican’s desire for a building to culturally enrich the city, art works are exhibited liberally throughout the building. As you descend to the second basement level via the escalators, there are a selection of pieces dedicated to musical performances. Kings Place is home to two orchestras – the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Sinphonietta, both of which have their offices on the canalside of the building.
Back in the basement, a foyer links the two halls: one smaller, seating 220 is also used for rehearsals and a larger one, accommodating nearly double that.
This is the first concert hall to be built in central London since the Barbican Concert Hall in 1982.
Now here’s a story those environmentally conscious Guardian employees will love: the acre of wood veneer used for the interior of both halls comes from a single oak tree, named Contessa, from a forest in southern Germany, which was felled, according to tradition, in relation to the cycle of the moon.
This part of Kings Place is designed as a building within a building, like a shoebox, and is constructed on rubber stilts. Dixon Jones worked with Arup’s acousticians to create flexible sound effects, depending on the type of event taking place. A curtain can be drawn behind the columns in the upper part of the hall for electronica or spoken word performances or left open for orchestral pieces. The wall behind the columns can also be uplit in different colours for added drama. Returning to the ground floor level, the sense of calm is palpable. This is all the more remarkable given the building’s location on York Way, where traffic and pedestrians take their chances with cement mixers and other construction vehicles, plus an angry army of white vans. Even walking down to the adjacent Regents canal path to get the best views of the rear of the building, the noise dissipates remarkably quickly.
The building is conceived as a cluster of elements to reduce its scale in relation to the waterside, as requested by the council planners. The circular drum element is connected to its quadrilateral parts by a series of bridges, which restore continuity to the floorplates, as well as lighting the atrium. There are seven floors of large plate office space, half of which are occupied by the Guardian Newspaper and Media (GNM) Group while on the ground floor, there is continuous access to the waterside from the two restaurants. It feels like a more civilised version of nearby Camden Lock at the moment, with the panoply of narrow boats and ducks. Let’s hope it doesn’t suffer an invasion of hash sellers, Japanese punks, teenage European tourists and overpriced pancakes come summer. While this side of the building is clad in the same Jura limestone as the atrium flooring, the south and west elevations have a distinctive curved glass exterior. “It’s inspired by shallow curves and perspectives; stone walls on a landscape,” explains Dixon. Each three-metre piece of glass of the triple layer wall was manufactured in Venice and has a bend of just 3cm, helping to keep the building cool in summer while retaining the heat in winter.
Guardian employees have a separate, and rather less grand, entrance to the building, next to the Pangolin art gallery. Past the suspended primary coloured letters spelling out the newspaper’s name, and up another escalator, the reception here is naturally on a smaller scale than its neighbour, but what’s surprising is the furniture specification. While the public atrium is filled with muted maroon, brown and black furniture, here there’s acid green and shocking pink chairs. And Castilglioni, or would-be Castiglioni Arco floor lamps. It would seem that the 90s advertising agency look is having a revival. Walking around the perimeter of the floors where the break out spaces are located, the place is dripping in designer furniture. Surely this is a little at odds with the paper’s left leaning agenda and emphasis in its sustainability report on its cycle rack provision and recycling policy? There’s an oversized standard lamp here, a Jasper Morrison Cork stool there, and enough Vitra to add a zero to any furniture budget I would have thought. Alan Rusbridger, the paper’s editor, is a fan of the canary yellow Tufty Time, Patricia Urquiola’s large-scale seating system, located in the conference room, “We have morning meetings in here – on some days up to 100 people. Before there was a real hierarchy, but now women and younger members of staff speak more. This is the first time a newspaper has had such an open relationship with the public,” he adds as we survey the arts department hard at work across the floor and clearly visible from the atrium below. “Journalists are a difficult, cynical, hard to please bunch and there was a huge process of consultation.” TP Bennett’s interiors division, who were appointed to work on the scheme, created a space very much geared up for the digital future. There are seven recording studios and twenty four editing desks. For the workstations, Rusbridger adds, “We have a high density, trestle table approach. The newsroom is devolved into specialist pods across both the newspapers and the web. In addition to the functional writing and editing areas, there are plenty of rooms of assorted sizes and soft areas for writing, impromptu conversations, reading and brainstorming. The long cafe bar seems to be working particularly well.” A combination of solid and glazed partitions to meeting room fronts allow access to daylight and views from the corridors, yet provide the necessary privacy. In a nod to the newspaper’s heritage, in the back route to the editor’s office, there are four door frames from the corridor of the Guardian’s original home in Cross Street, Manchester.
Getting down to economics, Parabola Land has not only attracted GNM, but also Network Rail, Logica and footwear company Wolverine whose brands include Merrell and Caterpillar, which is no mean feat in today’s tough financial climate. Says Millican, “The concept was to create an architecturally inspiring mixed-use development which, without recourse to public capital funding, would deliver a major new arts centre next to King’s Cross/St Pancras and offer something to the local community.” Both GNM and Kings Place have outreach projects in place, so that when the cement mixers have gone and the local cafes have abandoned their fry ups for builders in favour of focaccia for media types, connections to the community’s origins will hopefully not be lost.
Situated just 150 metres from an international transport hub, Kings Place is, of course just the beginning of a major redevelopment, with some 30,000 new office workers expected in the next few years. Dixon is confident Kings Place will hold its own though. “I want to turn the clock forward five years and see what happens, as it grows up like a child and moves away from me. I really think it will still challenge all the other projects going on.”