From transit to tapas and trinkets

Coal Drops Yard has now opened behind King’s Cross Station, London. Whilst snagging jobs are still being completed, and with retail units still to fill, the site remains a work in progress in a rebirth that has seen the area’s legacy of historic buildings change from hosting goods yards and activities associated with the railways and canals, to retail and catering outlets at the ‘craft’ and ‘high end’ of the commercial spectrum. New architectural interventions have been added, such as the striking new roof over the west side of the coal yard, and in fully redundant plots brownfield redevelopment is seeing new office and retail blocks with strong design signatures distinctly of their time. Residential blocks combine old and new forms, including the striking Gas Holder blocks of flats.

Following the successful heritage-led redevelopments previously of the main King’s Cross and St. Pancras Stations, the whole area is now a fascinating amalgam of old and new, and epitomises our shifting relationship with places of transit which now tempt us to dwell longer rather than pass through.

Heritage shopping and people watching

I have spent the past three days back in Scotland, visiting a number of old colleagues to rejuvenate ideas various on tourism and scenario planning in heritage. Along the way I have fitted in some fieldwork to gauge the seasonal changes in visitor patterns in redesigned or reinterpreted sites, and also to look at the pre-Christmas retail offerings. I have called in to Stirling Castle, Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, the Lighthouse, Edinburgh City Art Centre, the National Museum of Scotland, but didn’t quite have time to get to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery before heading to the train from where I am writing.
Firstly, the sites seemed quieter than usual, despite it being the English half-term which often sees a boost for family visitation to the central belt Scottish cities in the late shoulder season. The weather was also against the visitor, being grey and wet. But, the space at the sites gave me more of a chance to do some people-watching (I wouldn’t call it sophisticated enough to be ethnographic analysis), and I observed some interesting behaviours. It is very apparent how the physical spaces and the interpretative tools interact with each other in a dynamic way, but not always in a symbiotic or intentional way, despite most likely being a part of an overall attraction interpretation master plan. At Stirling, the costumed interpreter in the newly displayed Royal Palace apartments seemed on this occasion to be completely surplus to requirements, as the majority of the visitors were either shepherded by a site steward as part of a tour, or had mobile audio tours which they were fiddling with when not glued to their ears. At the National Museum meanwhile, the superb space in the main atrium was positively muted, and the space (now without fish ponds or cafe area which caused a great compulsion to linger) seemed to dwarf people who reacted by scurrying through to find galleries away from an unwelcoming empty space. The mammoth “wall” of artefacts wasn’t catching people’s attention as intended and seemed relegated to wallpaper. These are observations rather than criticisms, as I have seen both spaces and interpretive tools being used very effectively together at other times. It got me thinking about the factors that influence elements of a site working as a whole and how the planning process and operational sophistication of these sites can sometimes look completely awry.
The changes in the retail offer across the sites was also interesting, and I note a continual widening in the range and quality of items “branded” from the host organisation, as they see the retail offer as part of a cultural positioning and wider brand development. A growing amount has been written on this area in the past few years, and very recently Professor Sharon MacDonald turned her attention to this area in a research seminar at York University, which is well worth watching. I didn’t find the Christmas presents I was going to strategically buy early, but I suppose it gives me a good excuse to do some more comparative analysis at some other sites.

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