As Argent’s development of King’s Cross Central reaches the final straight in a journey that began back in 2000, and as counterweight to last week’s post on Songdo, it’s worth reminding ourselves of how it all began, and why it is feted throughout the industry as a model for experience-led city planning.

As Argent’s development of King’s Cross Central reaches the final straight in a journey that began back in 2000, and as counterweight to last week’s post on Songdo, it’s worth reminding ourselves of how it all began, and why it is feted throughout the industry as a model for experience-led city planning.

In 2000 Argent published ‘Principles for a Human City’, a guide to the thinking behind its ideas for the development of King’s Cross Central. It states unequivocally that the city is about people. For Argent, this means everyone who has any interest (past, present or future) in the city, which is why before deciding on any strategy, before making any plans, before laying a single brick for what would become a fiendishly complex project, Argent’s chief executive Roger Madelin would meet 7,500 people at 353 different meetings, to which he travelled on his bicycle.

It’s worth pausing for a moment on this, the image of the head of one of the world’s leading developers cycling about a rundown piece of London to listen to the experiences, views and ideas of thousands of its people. Roger Madelin’s 353 meetings would go on to serve as the evidence base for the document that sets out the philosophy of principles that sees King’s Cross Central having become 17 years later exactly what it set out to be: ‘a public piece of London’, a mixed-use quarter, home to two schools, a university, a cookery school, a mobile urban garden, 2000 new homes, and 24 acres of open space.

It’s the result of vision informed by a deep knowledge of what makes King’s Cross King’s Cross, one that understood full well its historic significance as a transport hub, its late twentieth century reputation as a mecca for underground dance music, its relevance as a buffer between leafy north London and the borough of Camden, and the central importance of its canal, once a no-go area, and which today serves as a walkway for all, one stretching as far as Limehouse, in East London. All this from a man on a bicycle who saw the value in spending time listening to the very people his work would directly affect, perhaps for the rest of their lives. Cities, lest we forget, begin with people.

The King’s Cross Central development is not a utopia. The key to its achievement is not to be found in its architectural prowess, which has its critics, most notably the late Zaha Hadid. Nor has it much to do with its advertised provision of affordable housing, which remains something of a misnomer. It has very little to do with its adoption of smart technologies, which though integrated hardly compare with those that form the vast digital infrastructures of Songdo. Rather, it has everything to do with having got the first elements of its strategy very right: in focussing on people, and on people from all walks of life, people with an almost incomprehensibly large range of interests, needs and dreams, it designed for the experience of being in the city, a design that factors in or choreographs as much for the unpredictable as it does the expected.

This capacity for designing for surprise goes beyond the logic of the machine. It goes beyond the expectations of form and function. It questions the cult of efficiency. It repurposes the physical stuff of city as – to paraphrase the American architect Jon Jerde – the backdrop to the event that is always taking place in the space that that stuff helps create. It begins with a vision of – and designing for – the experience of people in public spaces. Tapping into the local, and into the notion of the family in community, Argent and its many partners championed and continue to champion people claiming and reclaiming spaces, and well before many of the buildings were open for use. It allows for the dangerous, for the shock of the outsider, and for the experimental. It plans for the human.

In this respect, Argent’s championing of the experiences of real people over the data-truths of the spreadsheet flips the Smart City value stack on its head. Experience always informing place. Rather than automatically doffing its cap to the area’s architectural heritage, and creating hierarchy (like most of London has in its Regency and Georgian buildings), Argent’s is an approach that both cherishes the past and customises it to the needs of the present and the future. The appropriation of the granary by Central St Martins stands as fine example, the handing of the scheme’s most important historical building over to an art school setting the tone for the whole project, and giving fair sign of a developer wholly uncowed by the weight of the past.

Light years away from Songdo’s, it’s a design that invited those that live, work or ‘be’ in King’s Cross to constantly create their own city. It is a vast urban stage, one set for scenes whose narratives play out in real time, and where the spectator – such is the importance placed on the energy of the individual, the group, and the crowd – is also the spectacle. Full to the brim of the messiness of the live, it’s the life of a locally informed, living community. It’s different. It’s seductive. It’s jam packed with personality. It’s the experience of living in a real city.

The difference between the city-in-a-box Smart City and King’s Cross Central is a relatively simple one. The Smart City consists of sets of codes for a template for a hardwired entity that could just as well exist anywhere, its desired community defined not by the time-formed personality of a people breathing life into space through its many and multifaceted doings, but rather, in the case of somewhere like Songdo, by the curriculum vitae of a specific type of skill set. King’s Cross Central, on the other hand, could only ever be at King’s Cross Central, its buildings and streets activated by the energy of the people who gave it life in the first place. One is the eminently transferable box worth $40 billion; the other is a unique place, activated by the experiences of people, price unknown.

To appropriate Smart City speak, planning for the experience of people is the software end of the design for any development. Rather than begin, therefore, with masterplanning for the hardware of a city, the infrastructure, the smart systems, begin instead with its software; begin with a strategy for finding out what people want; begin with a masterplan for experience. Imagine the story of the development as the experience of the human. Design with that story in mind: employ the right people; pile resources into on-the-ground research; introduce, test and refine the findings. From this, create a ‘bible’ for all stakeholders, one that acts as meaning gel for all that will come.

Roger Madelin and his bike is an undoubtedly romantic explanation for the success of King’s Cross Central. No doubt he was assisted in the activation of his musings by a large and able Argent experience design team. Even so, whatever the truth, the bible for the subsequent development was the slim, relentlessly people-focussed ‘Principles for a Human City’. From it sprung a new-old ‘piece of London’, an exemplar for what it takes to birth, manage and complete a highly complex piece of urban planning. Any doubts as to the proof of its ongoing success – and by extension any experience design – ought to be allayed by the following: one, inspired by the one-off ethos that it espouses, the brands flocking to the likes of its Coal Drop are designing spaces quite unlike spaces they’ve designed elsewhere; two, Google is set to move in, drawn not only by King’s Cross’s Smart City credentials, its transport connections, and the office place flexibility offered by its new landlord, but also by the fact of the area’s vibrancy, the university, the vast potential of the graduates; and three, it’s where somebody called Yewon Shim, a talented 24-year-old masters graduate from Seoul, has chosen to pursue her dreams. The first and second of these, somewhere like Songdo would kill for. The last, it has failed – and precisely for all the reasons why King’s Cross has not.

This is an abridged version of Adam’s ‘De-smarting the City‘, first published by Conscious Cities: Bridging Neuroscience, Architecture, and Technology Anthology No.2.

Image Credits: London Festival of Architecture, Skyride 2010, Roger Madelin leads an architecture bike tour of King’s Cross and its surroundings. Steps to King’s Cross Central, Robert Stainforth/Alamy Stock.