It’s dawn, 6:25 am: rush hour in London. A fountain’s water jets rush out of the ground into the crisp morning light of the rising sun. People pour out of the train — a typical big city crowd — young kids off to school, a business couple, art students with blue hair. One individual, however, solemnly crosses the King’s Cross station turnstiles wearing only a red Speedo, goggles and flip-flops, a white towel thrown over his shoulder. Together with commuters, the athletic blonde nonchalantly makes his way up a pedestrian path lined with blooming young trees. The crowd vanishes, leaving only a figure in a red t-shirt and matching cap to witness our protagonist elegantly dive into the gleaming waters of an artificial red and white striped pond. In the backdrop: a blue sky lined with idle cranes, a construction site, St-Pancras station and, further still, the BT tower. This is the opening scene of the latest promotional video for King’s Cross Central (KXC), London’s largest, totally private regeneration project.
The fortunes of this post-industrial area started changing rapidly in 1996 with the decision to move the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) from Waterloo to St Pancras, and the eventual investment of 2.5 billion pounds into the transport infrastructure around King’s Cross. Soon after, in 2006, the King’s Cross Central revitalization was finally approved — a space technically governed by its own rules, since the local council forfeited ownership. At 67 acres (about 50 football fields), the behemoth site is a city within the city. Although privatisation on an urban scale is by no means new to London, KXC is unique in its ambition to reinvent the role and character of these developments, redraw the boundaries between public and private and, ultimately, challenge our understanding of what constitutes a city.
In various parts of London, as well as in other European and American urban centres, large-scale privatisation has oftentimes created what Niklas Maak describes, in his biting Living Complex (Hirmer, 2015), as “zombie cities” — unaffordable, aseptic neighborhoods cut off from city life. Broadgate, a late 1980s business centre within London’s City, exemplifies this insular and exclusive form of ‘traditional’ private urbanisation. It boasts three internal courtyards and a gate delimiting its boundaries. High-end retail caters to high-salary office workers on lunch break — fitness centres, salons, seafood bars, and watch shops. The public toilets are open strictly during office hours.
King’s Cross Central aspires to be exactly the opposite. Unlike Broadgate, it vows to attract visitors of all types and ages, catering to all aspects and stages of urban life, offering “something for everyone.” You might be a foodie looking for “elegant fine dining” and a taste of “London’s best street food,” or instead a fashionista eager to indulge in some “retail therapy.” Art installations and exhibitions cater to culture vultures, while the more athletic types can join Run KX: the local running club is tailored to all abilities, following a route “designed to give you a flavor of this exciting part of London.” If you feel you fall somewhere in between these two categories you could always immerse yourself, like the man in the red Speedo, in “a piece of innovative Land Art” at the King’s Cross Pond Club, the “first ever man-made freshwater public bathing pond,” which is titled “Of Soil and Water.” For between £3.50 and £6.50, the pond offers a “relaxing vantage point” from which you can “enjoy a piece of nature in an urban location.”
King’s Cross promises a comprehensive and totalising urban experience. The 1,900 new residential units have a nursery, two primary schools, a public library and a prestigious art college, Central Saint Martin’s, in walking distance. At the center of it all is Granary Square. Referred to by the promotional website as “the heart of King’s Cross,” the “magnificent public square” is roughly the same size as Trafalgar square, making it the largest open space in this part of the city.
To reach it, exit King’s Cross station and walk along the pedestrian King’s Boulevard (soon to be Havas and Google’s London address); cross Goods Way and the canal over the newly built bridge. From here you can get an overall view of the square: a smooth curb delineates the porphyry pavement of the large pedestrian area, framed by a road where speed is limited to 5mph. Further ahead, flanking the Northern end of the square, 4 parallel rows of sculpted trees cast their shade over some furniture scattered on a gravel surface. Despite not being fixed to the ground, the tables and chairs never venture out of this (tacitly) designated area. On the Western side, two large, football-pitch-sized masts support powerful floodlights. Though it seems less hostile than its predecessors, KXC cannot entirely dispense of the need to control and protect its premises. At night the floodlights switch on, providing a deterrent for any anti-social behaviour. If you get close enough to the masts you will notice the yellow signs reading: “Welcome to King’s Cross. Please enjoy this private estate considerately,” followed by a polite notice that the area’s activity is recorded by CCTV.
But this is a minor detail in light of the most impressive element in the square: 1,080 individually controlled and lit water jets, the largest water feature of its kind in Europe. The fountain’s choreographies adapt to the time of day. “Calm and reflective at daybreak, more animated as [the] day goes on. At dusk, a stunning light show begins and people stop to watch in wonder.” In the morning, 360 high-pressure nozzles can fill the square with mist for an “enhanced atmosphere.” If you visit between 4 and 5pm, you can play Granary Squirt, an interactive version of the arcade classic Snake, which allows you to control the jets through a smart-phone application. The fountain, more subtly, also regulates the use of the square: when the jets are off, the entire square becomes walkable, allowing Argent, KXC’s appointed developer, to hold free events and festivals like Boudicca vs the Romans (a recreation of a roman village, complete with gladiator fights) or live projections of Wimbledon. On all other days, water gushes out of over 40 per cent of the paved area, elegantly avoiding unsolicited gatherings while at the same time offering a transparent and unobstructed view across the square. Beyond this practical function, however, the fountain performs a symbolic role; a water feature remains evocative of a particular urban typology, the traditional focal element of a public town square. This, as well as the repeated use of the term “public” by the developers, should not be seen as a cynical act of deceit. It is a genuine, however chilling, attempt at constituting an alternative form of public space.
Most visitors wander into the “King’s Cross Opportunity Area” unaware they are walking on private land. The transition from the rest of the city to KXC is hardly perceptible, although a series of cues make it obvious that something — visual and visceral — is different. Clear demarcation through walls and fences has been replaced with total branding; within the promotional material as well as in reality, bright red elements are disseminated all over, to a near-obsessive degree. “Welcome to King’s Cross,” read the bright red signs roughly marking the limits of the neighbourhood. Further, a large red sculpture-arrow shows the way to the visitor center, signaled by a man-size red “i.” In the visitor centre, red highlights punctuate the information displayed on the walls. To keep the square “welcoming, well-maintained and secure” King’s Cross Estate Management team, self-titled the Red Caps (recognisable to their red hat in the winter, red cap in the summer and red tops), constantly patrol the site, cheerfully chatting in small groups or picking up refuse. Granary Square is invariably spotless, and I doubt anyone would dare deliberately leaving trash around here, under the constant gaze of the Red Caps. The ongoing construction sites are neatly surrounded by bright-red fences. The pond’s depth is sprayed on the asphalt in red. Important information on signage and billboards is highlighted, yes, in red. Even the young students at the new King’s Cross Academy (sponsored by KCCLP, the owner of KXC) sport red jumpers as part of their uniform. The blonde man in the red-speedo and the King’s Cross Pond Club red-themed website compliment the red apostrophe in King’s Cross’ logo.
I like to think of KXC’s branding as a covert homage to the area’s infamous past as London’s red-light district. History is a key element of the regeneration rhetoric at KXC. Elements of the pre-existing site have been selected and recycled, carefully picked through and revamped to suggest a development that isn’t trampling its past. Glorifying the industrial character of the site — a major industrial centre in Victorian times — the large gas-holders were kept (dismantled, cleaned and remounted in new locations to host a circular park and luxury flats), as was much of the attractive Victorian building stock (gutted and repurposed). ‘Art House,’ ‘Gasholders,’ ‘The Granary,’ ‘Goods Way,’ and ‘Coal Drops Yard,’ are some of the names of the buildings, streets and squares of the redevelopment, celebrating this purified history. Exhibitions with titles such as “From King’s Road to King’s Cross – an exhibition celebrating the fashion that defined the look of punk” are regularly held in the Granary. Prior to its redevelopment, King’s Cross was the last bastion of prostitution, illegal clubbing, and squatting in central London, with some of the lowest rents the city still had to offer. The crime-ridden “underused industrial wasteland” has provided a solid, though distorted narrative for the developer to justify making way for one of London’s “most exciting redevelopments,” with the gritty past as a unique décor.
King’s Cross Central has received much praise, from visitors and critics alike. This urban form, it seems, is not only a model imposed by powerful developers, but also an accepted, seductive new normal. As early as 1970, Richard Sennett described this dichotomy in his book The Uses of Disorder. To the American sociologist, we seek to eliminate ‘the Other’ from our daily lives – deliberately purifying our experience of its complications. “When the desire for communal sameness is understood as the exercise of powers developed in everyday life rather than as the fruit of some abstract creature called ‘the system’ or ‘mass culture’, Sennett writes, “it is inescapable that the people involved in this desire for coherence actively seek their own slavery and self-repression. They would be insulted if the issue were stated so boldly, of course. Yet it is their acts, their impulses that create the communal forms.”
The wider issue is not whether private-public spaces such as KXC are successful. Instead, what needs to be urgently questioned is whether we can accept that the necessarily commercial logic of a private development pervades the fabric of our city. By allowing, and even desiring for our public life to become an opportunity to increase land value, we entangle our existence with profit, leaving no space for autonomy or even escape. In KXC, the developers have found a near-perfect formula for undisturbed profit — unlikely, then, that others don’t follow in their footsteps.
Photos by the author.