Central St Martins, King’s Cross, London, by Stanton Williams
Stanton Williams’s conversion of a listed granary building in King’s Cross reimagines the industrial landscape for a new creative generation, writes local artist Richard Wentworth
Twenty years ago two of the most celebrated London art schools, St Martin’s (as in “in-the-fields”) and the Central School of Arts & Crafts, entered into an arranged marriage as Central St Martins. In the October 2011 heatwave they moved, as one, from their central London sites to the terra nova of Argent’s latest development, immediately north of King’s Cross St Pancras, on the administrative border between Camden and Islington.
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CSM, as it is newly known, is now ensconced in an enormous purpose-made playground, conjured by Stanton Williams from the 1851 Lewis Cubitt Granary building along with a generous array of adjacent elements — a true range of buildings with a marvellous narrative.
The concatenation of the Regent’s Canal, Eurostar’s new tracks, the two stations, and the long-abandoned marshalling yards has created a place unlike any of London’s other ex-industrial hot spots. The sheer force of the commercial and industrial impulse to bring the railways to the centre (well, nearly) of London is writ large, knotted tightly into the canal. Everywhere you look, you see signs of old transport muscle.
It is a horizontal version of Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus staircase picture
Fish and coal and grain and potatoes (and Queen Victoria) disembarked here. Thomas Hardy helped prepare the St Pancras site, and wrote about the exhumation of bodies in the Old St Pancras graveyard. The whole area is a memorial to labour by hand, a site rearranged by navvies (“the navigators”), a place of digging and cutting, emptying and filling, piling and gathering. Dickens describes it bluntly in Dombey and Son.
The thirties, the war, air raids, and the optimism of the 1948 nationalisation of the railways are all embedded in its 70-year decline.
Three memorable events presaged the exhilaration of 4,000 students arriving on a single united site: the making of The Lady Killers by Alexander McKendrick in the 1950s, the take off of a Harrier jet in a plume of coal dust in the late 1960s; and Artangel’s staging of my Area of Outstanding Unnatural Beauty in 2002.
This is a place of “made ground” where you move up the freshly rearranged incline, out of the crutch between the two great termini.
The Granary Building, originally “afloat” Venetian-style so that the grain barges could tender below, has an American presence against the open sky — an obvious destination. Its authority (all the better without signage) is only questioned by the little wings added later to east and west. Were we bold like those in the 1850s, we would lose them.
Moving across the new bridge over the canal, you meet ambitious earthworks — the makings of a new public square, soon to be fountained. The handling of the Granary Building is matter-of-fact, and it has scrubbed up well. As usual in warehouses, the inner scale surprises; originally a place of material, not people. With a minimum of interference this now works as the library, administration and research offices. As a first-time visitor, you get glimpses beyond and realise that the chunky Granary Building is little more than a cork to an enormous spatial bottle behind.
It is impressive to sense the scale of this endeavour and the glassy approach to it all. The impression is of an airy turbine hall à la Tate Modern, not hubristic, but fully conscious of the processional forces at work. It rhymes with the couplet of stations and their concourses. The work is commitedly planar and orthogonal, plain-speaking (as Lethaby claimed for his Central building on Southampton Row), not so much a 19th century world of canvas and cordage, but frank and robust in most things.
The agony of trying to join one shed to another, as exemplified by the colliding canopies over the Eurostar tracks at St Pancras, is played out in the full-height concourse where old Granary meets new sliced white. The passage of the public, east/west, crosses the to and fro of the students, north/south. This will become a memorable place, now known rather severely as the Crossing, but hopefully set to be nicknamed by the students as familiarity kicks in.
The back face of the Granary is a piece of Prince Charles’s true cross: a plaid of alteration, adjustments and contingencies; fine signage, new Flettons, old distemper; an unlifted face, a pleasure. The technical and architectural struggle to get past and present to meet here is one more line on the face. Looking north, you see a fine essay in planes and reveals, soffits and bridges. You can feel how much Stanton Williams has troubled itself with surface and proportion — not at all a Westminster tube station Metropolis thing, much more a moral slidey screeny Japanesey thing.
The agony of trying to join one shed to another is played out in the full-height concourse where old Granary meets new sliced white
It reads as colourless, which is both good and bad. Stainless steel is more than a metaphor here. Once upon a time there was a window tax — could we not now tax this most un-19th century of materials? Bring back iron!However, the sheer sense of human traffic in Stanton Williams’s building — of glimpses, glances, and the delight of the metropolitan street, of “colourful” people (it is an art school) and the social ease of the young — dominates the overall first impression. With such an enormous and generous site, you feel what fun (and what a responsibility) it must have been to find a flexible form for an art schoolmaking such a long-term commitment. Plato’s grove, the idea of the park, the cloister, the arcade and enfilade — they are all here. This is a real gathering place, a vast, warm, horizontal version of Oskar Schlemmer’s populated Bauhaus staircase picture. You can learn here, and you will remember it.
As you ascend, more and more is revealed, like glimpses of London basements. Imagine that you were a visitor here on some arbitrary business. You would instantly become curious about this space or that space, a workshop here, a theatre there; a seminar here, a huddle of friends there. The sense of exchange, of flexibility, of sharing, of gathering, convening and collaborating is imaged again and again. The building moves you, literally. Worn terms like “landing” and “flight” are refreshed, as you are led on, and up.
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The promise that this is a heavily populated creative place made of encounter and eventuality is confirmed at every turning. The higher you go, the better the light — you get good views of
London skies through the ETFE envelope — and the airier the experience. There is an illusion here, because the building is only four storeys; a trick of playing with the verticals and horizontals, one imagines.
To the east, past the piled up workshops, workrooms and studios, lie the best terraces in London; a deck so large that you are reminded that it was the sea that invented London. The scale of the views, the possibility of grasping the constituents that make up this city state, is a gift like no other — a huge slash of history and mutability set out for the curious student.
Parade is a word which derives from the Spanish paredes — to walk between walls. One forgets that the fortified commerce of the city absolutely forbids trespass: ports, bonded warehouses and airfields; do not take your dog for a walk in that park called Heathrow. The terrain behind King’s Cross was exactly one of these forbidding zones. Now it has the prospect of being a site of procession and parade. Stanton Williams has addressed this very well.
Architect Stanton Williams, Developer Argent, Client University of the Arts London, Structural engineer/ CDM coordinator Scott Wilson, M&E Engineering Atelier 10, Lighting Spiers & Major, Quantity surveyor Davis Langdon, Landscape architect Townsend Landscape Architects, Facade consultant Arup, Main contractor Bam Construction
Richard Wentworth is an artist and long-time resident of King’s Cross.