Kings Place, London

Kings Place is an unusual building. It is both an office building and an arts centre and is the product of the personal vision of Peter Millican, the developer and client. Most office buildings are private, discouraging casual visitors and offering little to the public life of the city. Peter’s idea is to develop a building that is open to the public and offers cultural activities, particularly associated with music that will become an important part of the culture of the city.

The location of the site has strategic advantages. Surrounded on two sides by water, the Regents Canal and the Battle Bridge Basin, it is close to the new international station at St Pancras and adjacent to the Kings Cross development area. The public areas are able to take advantage of the peaceful nature of the waterside while the cultural activities can have direct access to European capitals.

The building is designed to respond to the contrasting contexts of York Way and the canalside. From the towpath the building appears as a collection of separate pure forms, cylinder and cube, relating in scale to the warehouses typical of canalside architecture. From York Way, the building takes the form of a large scale sculptural experiment. An outer layer of glass, associated with energy conservation, is made up of extremely shallow, curved panes that coalesce in perspective to give a dramatic appearance, analogous to the appearance of water. The design is specifically related to the principle view of the building as it is seen up and down York Way with the elevation in steep perspective. When viewed at right angles from Goods Way, the curve in the glass disappears entirely. The stone elevations consist of large pre-cast elements clad in Jura stone cut across the bed to reveal a characteristic patterning.

From the first floor upwards, the building is a conventional deep plan office building. It will house amongst others the Guardian and Observer newspapers. The ground floor is entirely open to the public and has a sequence of spaces which leads from the noise and bustle associated with York Way, through the building to the quiet of the waterside of Battle Bridge Basin. Here there are two kinds of restaurant, a circular brasserie and a rectangular events space, both of which can take advantage of the waterside location.

The most dramatic part of the arts offering within the building lies the provision for music. There are two contrasting concert halls. Hall 1 is a ‘shoebox’ hall for 420 with raked seats, a continuous balcony and a variable acoustic. Hall 2 is designed for orchestra rehearsal as well informal studio performance. Two important orchestras will be based in the building – The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta. These orchestras will rehearse in the building and contribute to the chamber music and other programmes in the main hall. There is a nice symmetry about the two bands, one specialising in early music and the other devoted to contemporary performances.

A pair of escalators takes the audience down to the second basement. At this level a foyer links the two halls. This overcomes the commonly heard request for flexible seating in the construction of new music spaces. The close proximity of a formal ‘shoebox’ with raked seating and a square, flat, flexible studio space offers the maximum range of performance types without requiring physical flexibility. There are a number of practise rooms, dressing rooms, a green room etc. together with bar and cloak facilities in the foyer.

The main hall is described as being of ‘shoebox’ type. This title became a clue in the thinking process about the appearance the interior. ‘Shoebox’ implies a rectilinear geometry and this was the point of departure for the design. A regular grid of columns generates a series of square coffers in the ceiling which together with the double cube proportions of the interior makes creative use of the theme of the right angle. The structure of the hall is entirely independent of the rest of the building. It sits on rubber bearings that eliminate all intrusive noise. This ‘building within a building’ is expressed by setting the surrounding wall behind the columns. This provides a space for an acoustic curtain that can be drawn without upsetting the architecture of the interior. It is also the location of a continuous light source that illuminates the wall and gives the illusion of distance as if the wall were the sky. The light can be changed in colour and choreographed to achieve a number of dramatic scenarios. It is the intention to heighten the musical experience with unusual and memorable lighting of the architectural interior.

The lower part of the hall is clad in timber. There is an unusual story behind the oak veneer that was used. The whole interior of both halls comes from a single oak tree sourced in a German forest. In what are primarily beech woods, the occasional oak is treated with great reverence. Each tree has a name, in this case, Contessa, and the tree was felled according to tradition in relation to the cycle of the moon. The reseeding is left to the natural process whereby the acorns fall as the tree itself falls. The supplier of the veneers in Germany had been saving this particularly magnificent tree for an appropriate opportunity and they felt that the two concert halls were such a moment.

Acoustics are central to the design of concert halls. Every element in the interior is part of an acoustic design developed with Rob Harris of Arup Acoustics. Broadly speaking, the regular columns and coffers at the top of the interior deal with the long sound waves. At the bottom of the space, the timber lining has a complex series of irregular slots that controls the short sound waves. The proportions of the interior are strictly regulated by acoustic considerations. For each member of the audience there should be an allowance of ten cubic metres of interior volume which together with the rectangular plan defines the height required for a good acoustic.

The first basement is devoted to the visual arts. A continuous gallery around the escalators will display paintings and there is a separate self contained room for the display of artworks. At ground floor level adjacent to the main entrance is a sculpture gallery.

The cylindrical and the rectangular forms of the office building combine to create an unusual ‘atrium’. This is lit via the bridges that connect the office floor plates together. This space also leads via the escalator opening to the foyers below. The result is a complex layering of interior spaces that draw daylight down to the basement and gives a lively view from the window in the rehearsal hall.

The brief was to provide an energy conscious design. Amongst the most important elements provided are the deep floor zones that minimise energy associated with air handling and the triple wall glazed street elevation. The deep floor structures have been achieved at the cost of a whole useable office floor. The outer layer of triple glazing has become the expressive curved wall that is the signature of the exterior of the building.

With its orchestras, galleries, restaurants, outreach to the local community and the diverse programming of the halls, Kings Place will be a new kind of building type for London with the suggestion that offices can be a more adventurous and positive element in the cultural and urban life of the city.