Animating King's Cross
What is it that makes King's Cross tick? How has it created the perception that 'there is always something going on' there? Dan Anderson analyses the online events calendar for King's Cross and draws some conclusions.
If you were in King’s Cross on September 22, 2018, this is how you might have spent your day. You could have visited one of 7 different exhibitions. The London Podcast Festival was in full swing at King’s Place. The London Design Festival had brought a series of pop-up product launches to the public realm. You might have enjoyed the Livin’ on the Veg street food market by Kerb or cooked up your own feast at the Waitrose Cookery School. Either way, you probably saved desert for Bompas & Parr’s Wonderful World of Ice Cream. No need to worry about the calories. They could easily be burned off at Moe’s Bootcamp or through a leisurely stroll along the King’s Cross Bee Trail – where visitors were guided around by an App that mixed in a bit of bee-related hijinks with some real citizen science. September 22 was an action-packed day in King’s Cross. In fact, that day represents the high-water mark of an events diary that delivered, on average, over 9 different things to do per day throughout 2018 (Figure 1).
A detailed review of the ‘What’s On’ calendar suggests that King’s Cross delivered over 130 discrete events for a total of 3,340 event-days. That level of programming doesn’t just happen. The deliberate nature of King’s Cross programming is apparent, for example, in the way it is so evenly spread throughout the week (Figure 2).
It becomes even more apparent when the calendar is dissected further. Where are all these events coming from? Who is doing the heavy lifting to ensure that there is always something happening in the estate? First, Argent appears to subscribe to a principle that our old friend Douglas Clark of Location Connections likes to call ‘flexible geography’. This is the acknowledgement that what the market perceives as being ‘King’s Cross’ is not defined by ownership boundaries or the red line on a masterplan. Argent is not shy about promoting events in nearby destinations that are technically not part of its domain (e.g. King’s Place, the Crick Institute, the British Library).That seems like a minor point, but it isn’t. Even today, with all we know about destination marketing, there are still people that would recoil at the idea of promoting activities that do not directly benefit their own interests. Why should we do it? They aren’t paying us a service charge. Why should we be directing our visitors to our neighbours’ events? This beggar-thy-neighbour attitude is all too common, but Argent clearly isn’t falling for it. Some 20% of the event-days it promotes are generated by ‘off site’ organisations (Figure 3).
A second observation from Figure 3 is the subtle importance of the House of Illustration. The unfortunate yardstick by which gallery performance is measured is still visitor numbers. In this respect, the House of Illustration is a solid, jobbing mid-sized attraction that hosts around 35,000 visits per annum. In a destination that sees annual footfall approaching 4 million, a traditional economic impact assessment would conclude that the impact of the gallery is negligible. Our analysis suggests otherwise. By pulsing a regular stream of exhibitions through its galleries, the House of Illustration alone accounts for nearly one-third of what’s on the What’s On page of the King’s Cross website. It is a prodigious producer of event days, which helps to cement the broader perception that the place is always alive with things to see and do. Overlapping and extended residencies are the bedrock of the diary. But as important as it is, the resident exhibition has one major weakness: you can only launch it once. While they may account for 70% of event-days in the calendar, exhibitions represent only 24% of all discrete events (Figure 4). Put differently, Blake’s Unseen Art may soak up 88 days of the calendar, but it’s only going to get one review in the Evening Standard. Its presence is lasting, but its ‘call to action’ is short and ephemeral.
It is the whole constellation of other events that ensures there is always something new or noteworthy to say about the place. Argent has done a good job of attracting pan-London events to the estate. The London Festival of Architecture, London Design Festival, Lumieres London and the London Film Festival all have prominent places in the King’s Cross calendar and its public realm. Markets are important too. The Art Market, Vintage Car Boot Sale, Easter and Christmas Markets and a weekly Canopy Market lend King’s Cross that buzzing market atmosphere for roughly one-third of the year. Recurring health and fitness activities like Moe’s Bootcamp, a bi-weekly running club, monthly visits by Dr Bike and a weekly meditation group account for some 12% of the calendar, while major art installations like the annual King’s Cross Christmas Tree account for a further 10%.
Last, it is interesting to see how the programming of King’s Cross is inextricably linked to the strategy through which the commercial, cultural and community spaces have been tenanted. As shown below in Figure 6, Argent is directly responsible for the delivery of ‘only’ 40 discrete events, accounting for 22% of all days in the diary. That’s not a criticism by any means. It is an extraordinarily intensive slate of high quality events. You’d be hard-pressed to find an estate manager in London doing more than that. What Argent has done so well, however, is to populate the estate with both cultural and commercial tenants who also understand the importance of programming.
Much of this is coming from Central Saint Martins and the House of Illustration, but retailers and restaurants are doing their part. Spiritland hosts concerts, club nights, and lectures, and has partnered with Everyman Cinema on a series of film nights and after-parties; Tom Dixon’s new headquarters in Coal Drops Yard holds a recurring series of factory workshops; and every major restaurant and retailer regularly ‘pops up’ in the public realm with new events and product launches. The richness and diversity of the King’s Cross events diary continued to expand with the launch of Coal Drops Yard and its new cohort of experiential retailers. People come from all over to examine CDY as a case study. They quite rightly gawp at the fantastical architecture. They should also pay attention to the ‘What’s On’ signs that are dotted around the estate. There’s a lot on. And that makes a huge difference.
† All data taken from King's Cross online events calendar for 2018.