Níall McLaughlin Architects weaves contextual and historic influences into the mixed-use Tapestry building at King’s Cross, finds David Kohn
Tucked away in the north-west corner of London’s King’s Cross redevelopment, hugging the mainline tracks departing St Pancras station, Tapestry is one the district’s largest new arrivals. Designed by Níall McLaughlin Architects, the building houses 129 flats over 14 floors, but also a multi-storey car park serving the entire 67-acre site, an energy centre and a sports hall. Clad in terracotta-coloured concrete decorated with Egyptian motifs and 1960s op art patterns, and with a village green surrounded by houses on its roof, the project defies easy categorisation. Where to begin?
Níall McLaughlin (born in 1962) set up his practice in 1990 and built his early reputation through several finely crafted houses. When invited by developer Argent to compete for the T1 site at King’s Cross in 2007, the largest project in the office was a £1m Alzheimer’s Respite Centre in Dublin. In the intervening decade NMLA has become one of the most prolific practices working for Oxbridge colleges, and has delivered critically acclaimed projects such as Bishop Edward King Chapel and housing for Peabody. Tapestry still dwarfs them all, however, and gives a unique insight into the development of the practice.
Argent’s masterplan (developed by Allies and Morrison and Porphyrios Associates) dictated that the T1 plot should deal with some of the less commodious parts of the development. Given the bulk of the car park and plant, an elevated mid-city block approach would be destined to fail, and one can imagine at least a couple of alternative design approaches to this problem. First, to celebrate the car park and energy centre in a profusion of ramps and funnels – a beached cruise liner in the manner of the Metabolists, such as Yoji Watanabe’s 1972 New Sky Building. Alternatively, to treat these uses as a found condition to build upon, in the manner of Bjarke Ingels’ Copenhagen building The Mountain, completed in 2008.
In terms of massing, McLaughlin pulls off something in between, but tailored to its context. Unlike most other buildings on the site, Tapestry is not a rectilinear block but has a long symmetrical form that tapers to two acute points, like a pair of tweezers. This cleft prow rises nine storeys and points southwards into town, while the ship’s bridge rises a further five storeys at its northern end. The building appears to have slid into dock, parking up by the cool of the canal. However, the whole vessel is dressed for the city, in deep reddish panels from head to toe that recall – in colour at least – George Gilbert Scott’s 1876 St Pancras Hotel a stone’s throw away.
The lightweight glass-reinforced concrete panels are exquisitely cast with fine reed-like patterns that extend up the building and gather in different weaves and knots according to the parts of the facade.
The overall bulk of the building is further dissolved by the elevations being composed of discrete elements held apart within a deep facade. Concrete piers run from the ground to the fourteenth-storey parapet, between which concrete balconies project with the forthrightness of opera boxes. The proportions of the various elements are tuned to give the structure a rare delicacy. Half-height railings, for example, lend the projecting balconies their shallow, drawer-like forms.
What recalls The Mountain is the moment where the ascent through the building passes the multi-storey car park to arrive at a previously unannounced rooftop garden, where an atrium might otherwise have been lurking. This space is extraordinary and perhaps the highlight of the scheme.
Around the garden are front doors to two-and three-storey ‘townhouses’. This lends the space a pleasurable incongruity, like arriving at at the top of a steep hill to find a village square displaced from its natural home at the bottom of the valley, but replete with the same familiar paths, front doors and living room windows.
The garden, designed by Dan Pearson, has at its centre four dwarf mountain pines to add to the sense of thinning air. Having walked the length of the garden, a view back reveals the jaws at the end of the building’s southerly prow seemingly poised to pluck the BT Tower from mid-town. The bonsai-like pines form a huddle with the tower, adding to the delight of such a Beaux-Arts gesture incorporating a 1960s icon. The fact that the development is backed by the BT Pension Scheme lends a certain Hawksmoor-like frisson to the gesture.
McLaughlin is apt to mention skeuomorphs when discussing his work. The timber beam ends of primitive huts that persist as triglyphs in Greek temples, or the trace of papyrus reeds in the surface of Egyptian column heads, for example, offer a strategy for transposing architectures from one period and one scale to another. The impression of woven patterns in the cast concrete surfaces of the Tapestry building contributes to the basket-like lightness of the balconies, for example, and recall the writings of Semper on the origins of architectural enclosures in woven screens.
Perhaps what can also be observed is the redeployment of different strategies within McLaughlin’s earlier work at this greater scale, which hints at future possibilities. The timber house in Wandsworth, the Fishing Hut in Hampshire or the Carmelite Prayer Room in Dublin, for example, share several concerns. First, the precise use of technology to create enclosures. Second, the clear distinction of parts within a hierarchy that lends the structures a high level of legibility. Third, the deployment of the first two in creating layers of spaces that can mediate between the public and private spheres. The Tapestry building demonstrates the scalability of the practice’s approach, and how the same level of control exercised over intimate domestic spaces can be brought to bear on a programme of such complexity, and on a structure of such mountainous proportions. If this is how McLaughlin handles T1 at Kings Cross, think what he might do with a Heathrow T6.
Níall McLaughlin Architects
Waterman Building Services
Gardiner & Theobald
Dan Pearson Studio, Townshend Landscape Architects
Client, project manager