Dixon Jones Architects’s perfect pitch at King’s Place
Two new major concert venues live in harmony with The Guardian’s new headquarters at Dixon Jones’ Kings Place building in King’s Cross
Can Peter Millican really be a developer? Suit-free and sporting a collarless buttoned-up shirt and a pair of round, thick-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses, he certainly doesn’t look like one. I check for the horns that are the usual telltale sign of members of his profession but he is keeping them remarkably well hidden. He doesn’t sound much like a developer either.
As he tours me around Kings Place, the mixed use development that his company, Parabola Land, has just completed a short walk from London’s King’s Cross station, he doesn’t mention net to gross ratios once. Instead, our conversation touches on such varied topics as his enthusiasm for the work of composer Thomas Adès and the farm Millican maintains at his home in the north-east of England.
Kings Place reads like a catalogue of Millican’s passions. This is particularly remarkable because the project is to a great extent a speculative office development. Its upper seven floors — everything above ground level — provide 26,000sq m of office space, the larger part of which has been let to Network Rail and the Guardian. However, the ground level and two floors of basement have been entirely given over to public facilities: a bar and restaurant; two galleries (one for sculpture and one for painting); and most extraordinarily, two major performance venues, the largest of which is a 420-seat concert hall.
Millican estimates that the value of the programme’s public elements exceeds what he might have been expected to contribute in terms of a section 106 agreement by a factor of four. Not a penny of public subsidy has gone into the £97 million development. Kings Place is, quite simply, an act of spectacular largesse.
That public-spiritedness is also writ large in the form of an extremely handsome piece of architecture. It is the work of Dixon Jones, which won the commission in competition against a decidedly varied shortlist of Porphyrios Associates, John McAslan & Partners and Swanke Hayden Connell. Millican bought the site eight years ago, when it was occupied by a far from lovely 1980s post office building. It has proved a canny purchase. At that point, the development of nearby St Pancras Station had just been green-lit but in the interim, Argent’s vast King’s Cross project — which will be built immediately opposite Kings Place — has secured planning permission, radically transforming the area’s fortunes.
Millican’s site lies within Islington, but on the border with the neighbouring borough of Camden — a situation that made for an extended planning process. This condition has also informed the building’s strikingly Janus-like temperament. To Camden in the west, it presents a wall of full-height glazing — a treatment that responds to the scale of the development that will soon emerge on the Argent site. This is a beautifully designed triple-glazed assembly, discreetly incorporating louvres behind the frameless single-glazed outer leaf. Given that York Way, the street the elevation addresses, is heavily used by traffic, the arrangement provides a significant acoustic benefit. It also serves an environmental function, alternately offering an insulating blanket of warm air or, if the vents at roof level are opened, a thermal chimney which draws air from the office floors. The low-energy air distribution system that this facilitates required the introduction of an unusually deep floor structure. As the building’s height was fixed by the 30m restriction that extends across the whole of Islington, an entire floor of office space had to be sacrificed in order to make the strategy work.
One further refinement has been made to the facade: a gentle undulation which extends along the full length of the external glazing. Looking at the plan, this gesture appears all but negligible. Each 3m-wide sheet of glass incorporates a rise in curvature of a mere 30mm — but viewed tangentially down the length of York Way, the wave has a very pronounced effect indeed. Further nuance is established by the complex play of reflections on the glass, and by the introduction of a caesura-like recess which denotes the centrally located entrance.
Not a penny of public subsidy has gone into the £97 million development
To north and east the site is bounded by canals, on the far side of which are brick buildings of a much finer scale than those that will stand to the west. Kings Place responds to this tighter urban grain by breaking down its massing into two distinct elements. The York Way frontage and the elevation to the narrow service alley to the south close a seven-storey block of L-shaped plan. Set into its re-entrant corner is an eight-storey cylinder. The two parts are connected by glazed bridge links, with the space between serving as an atrium that extends up the full height of the building.
Standing on the towpath on the far side of the canal, the cylinder reads like the barrel of a hinge, connecting the short elevations that extend to either side. There is no full-height glazing visible here; the walls are uniformly clad in a richly pitted Jura limestone, punctured by a range of different window types. The varied fenestration serves to undercut the symmetry of the composition. The east facade is a grid of double-height openings, each of which features a balcony — imagery that teases the viewer with the notion that this might, in fact, be a block of studios. The double-height order also makes an appearance on the north elevation, but here it is juxtaposed with a large expanse of masonry which occupies the centre of the facade, and with a stack of strip windows at its western end.
This feature helps to resolve the meeting of the language of the canal elevations and that of the York Way facade. At their junction, a series of projecting balconies alternates with the strip windows, while the glazed facade is carried beyond the return elevation, stressing its curtain-like quality. There is a streamlined exuberance to all of this which contrasts with the stolid nature of the canalside elevations, and brings to mind the zippy commercial modernism of the twenties such as that of Luckhardt & Anker or Mendelsohn. The implication is clear: dowdy King’s Cross is fast becoming a metropolitan hot spot.
The facade of the drum is different again: a four-part floor-to-ceiling window marches relentlessly around it, conjuring a distinctly industrial character. Walk a kilometre west along the towpath and you encounter one possible source for the imagery in the form of a suite of 19th century gasholders. However, the drum form has been a recurring motif throughout Dixon Jones’ work. One of the student accommodation tower houses the practice built in Aberdeen in 1993 is cylindrical, as was its winning entry in the Venice bus station competition of 1990. In Ed Jones’ and Michael Kirkland’s 1987 Mississauga Civic Centre, the form serves as the council chamber. Early modernist projects such as Loos’ Chicago Tribune Tower scheme and Asplund’s Stockholm Library proposed the cylinder as part of a repertoire of large primary solids arranged in dynamic juxtaposition, and Dixon Jones’ output has always suggested a strong affinity with that work.
What Loos and Asplund offer is essentially a highly abstracted classicism and, quasi-industrial stylings aside, that is very much the guiding sensibility at Kings Place. Our reading of the cylinder in these terms is encouraged by the fact that the glazing at ground and roof levels has been recessed, establishing a colonnade and belvedere.
While even after the events of 9/11, the lobbies of US offices are customarily accessible to the public, the culture in the UK has always been very different. It therefore comes as a great surprise to discover that almost the whole of the ground floor of Kings Place is open to visitors. The atrium itself is remarkable for being entirely side-lit by way of the glazed bridge links and a clerestory set immediately below the solid roof. Ranged about is the sculpture gallery, which addresses the street; a subsidiary foyer, from which the offices are accessed; and the restaurant, which occupies the ground floor of the cylinder. Millican’s farm, incidentally, will be supplying the beef.
The principal means of access to the basement levels is a long scala reggia-style escalator, a device Dixon Jones has used at both the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery. The plans on the ground floor and the two basements are each quite distinct, so as we descend we are afforded a dynamically evolving series of views.
This is the first bespoke concert hall to be built in London since the Barbican in 1982
The first basement, which is only accessible by stair or lift, is devoted to the display of paintings. A black-box environment has been sited directly beneath the cylinder. It is not perhaps the most successful space in the building, being compromised by a number of closely packed columns, but further hanging space is provided by a gallery — in both senses of the word — which wraps around the generous foyer a storey below.
As with the sculpture gallery, the painting gallery will be a commercial concern, but Millican, an art enthusiast, will maintain a strong curatorial involvement. If the first show, a large display of the work of Albert Irwin, is indicative of the quality of the exhibition programme that he is now planning, then Kings Place promises to be a significant addition to London’s art scene.
Millican’s first love, however, is music. The extent of his ambitions for Kings Place as a performance venue is suggested by the fact that he has persuaded two of London’s best orchestras, the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, to establish their headquarters there. The smaller of the two performance spaces is flat-floored and will serve as a permanent rehearsal room for both orchestras. In rehearsal mode, a 70-piece orchestra can comfortably be accommodated, while performances can be staged for an audience of up to 200.
If you are planning a visit to one of the 100 concerts planned to mark the scheme’s opening in October, then do try and catch something in Hall One. This is the first bespoke concert hall to be built in London since the opening of the Barbican in 1982, and is very much Kings Place’s star attraction. Acoustic considerations dictated its overall form: a shoebox of almost double-cubic proportions. There is a Tube line running directly beneath the building, so the whole room has been supported on rubber shock absorbers to ensure that no sound is transmitted. The dominant surface is oak veneer. Amazingly, the architect was able to source a tree large enough to provide material for the entire interior.
The walls that encompass the seating are completely lined in timber, and to mitigate acoustic glare these incorporate a series of randomly spaced recesses. Halfway up the room’s height, just above the heads of anyone sat at balcony level, this treatment is exchanged for a regular and insistent distribution of timber-lined columns, with the adjacent wall set 600mm back and painted a recessive grey.
At ceiling level, every second column meets a beam of identical appearance, establishing a wooden cage above the audience and performers’ heads. This gesture powerfully articulates the room’s primary geometry and offers a compelling contrast to the freer treatment of the lower level. It also enables the character of the space to be adjusted to suit the performance. For example, the reverberation time can rapidly be reduced from its usual 1.6 seconds — ideal for orchestral work — to one second — better for amplified sound — by the simple act of drawing a curtain along the gap that runs between the columns and the wall. The colour of the walls can also be changed between, or even during, performances by combining the red, white and blue lights sited within the gap.
Kings Place undoubtedly represents a major act of faith on the part of its developer. The plan is that the music programme will be supported through ticket sales and by letting the two halls for conference use on weekdays. But Millican acknowledges that the financial equation may require some fine-tuning. If the experiment proves successful — and Dixon Jones’ tremendous building offers plenty of cause to think that it will — Kings Place will have got the redevelopment of King’s Cross off to a fantastic start. Is it too much to hope it is a model others might follow?
Client Parabola Land
Architect Dixon Jones
Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine
Project manager Gardiner & Theobald Management
Employer’s agent & quantity surveyorGardiner & Theobald
Structural & mechanical engineer Arup (Newcastle)
Acoustics ArupAcoustics Facade
Glazing Felix UK
Facade stonework Trent Stone
Concert hall interior Swift Horsman
Photos by Richard Bryant/Arcaid