Kings Place, King's Cross, London

Introduction

The Kings Place development at King’s Cross is an unusual combination of arts centre and office building and incorporates the first new public concert hall built in London since the Barbican was completed in 1982. There are two performance spaces, linked by a double height foyer. The main hall, a classic ‘shoebox’ shape, holds 420 people - 300 seats in the gently raking stalls and 120 seats in a continuous first-floor gallery along the walls. It is intimate enough for chamber music ensembles yet large enough to accommodate a small orchestra. The smaller hall is a flat, flexible studio space for rehearsals and informal studio performance. At present two resident orchestras rehearse and perform at Kings Place – The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta.

The interiors of both halls are clad with veneer sourced from a single massive oak tree.

 

The concert hall design and acoustic performance

Structurally the main hall is a steel-framed ‘building within a building’ and rests on isolation mounts which eliminate intrusive noise and vibration (a vital requirement as the Picadilly Line underground lines run nearby). Dixon Jones worked closely with Arup Acoustics to integrate the design and acoustic performance of the hall interior. The overall proportions - the classic ‘shoebox’ shape, in effect a double cube – were established by acoustic considerations, but they generated a design based on rectilinear geometry. At upper levels a regular grid of timber columns runs around the walls and co-ordinates with a grid of square timber coffers in the ceiling; to express the nature of the ‘building within a building’, the columns are freestanding and the enclosing plastered walls are set back 400mm behind them. Below, both balcony and stalls are lined with European oak-veneered panels. In one sense, the choice of materials and the way they are used in the hall is a modern take on the design of a classical chamber music hall, yet it subtly satisfies acoustic requirements; at upper levels the regular grid of columns along the walls and the ceiling coffers create large-scale diffusion to break up the longer sound waves; at lower levels the timber panels, fitted with a complex series of irregular slots and recesses, disperse the shorter sound waves.

The acoustic can be varied to suit the type of performance by means of 6m long acoustic curtains which run in the void between the enclosing upper walls and the columns. They reduce the reverberation time from 1.7s down to 0.7s when fully deployed. At their base, the walls are washed with a continuous light source which can be changed in colour and intensity to achieve a number of dramatic scenarios.

 

The use of timber

For the interior of the hall, timber was the best and most appropriate material, as project architect Paul Jolly explains: ‘There was evidence from Arup Acoustic’s studies of historical halls that timber areas help with the tonal beauty of chamber music. In a classical recital hall the lower walls would often be timber panels, the upper walls moulded plaster. Large flat areas result in too much reverberation while traditional details such as niches, pilasters, columns, flutings and mouldings are extremely useful in breaking up and refracting the sound to modulate the acoustic. Timber can be moulded into those details fairly easily and we’ve replicated those types of geometries in a modern style and by using modern construction methods’.

All the joinery elements within the hall – stall panels, balcony panels, column and beam casings – are of European oak-veneered MDF. The backing material was chosen for its relative density; the acoustic requirements (the surface mass requirement – typically between 35 – 50 kg/m²) meant that these elements had to be very heavy and up to 50mm thick. MDF was selected as the ideal backing material because its relative density allowed the panel depth to be minimised. The use of solid hardwood alone was ruled out for financial and environmental reasons.

 

Sourcing the timber

All of the oak veneer for both halls come from a single 500-year old oak tree which stood in a forest in the Spessart region of Germany, an area which produces oak of a rich honey colour and consistent grain structure. In what are primarily beech woods, the occasional oak is treated with great reverence, given a name (in this case, Contessa) and felled, according to tradition, in relation to the lunar cycle. There is no formal replanting system; the tree is felled and where the acorns have fallen the forest reseeds. The supplier of the veneers in Germany, Mehling and Wiesmann, had been saving this particularly magnificent tree for a major architectural project and Kings Place presented just such an opportunity. The tree was sawn into 5m lengths, boiled at 80˚C for a week in a water bath and then sliced into 0.7mm-thick veneers with a 5m blade, yielding over an acre of prime grade veneer.

Swift Horsman, the joinery/timber contractor, sorted and book matched the veneer at their workshop in Hertfordshire to provide comprehensive colour and grain matching to the ceiling coffers, columns, wall panels, balcony fronts, doors and seat backs in the main hall. There was even enough to veneer the panelling of the smaller performance space.

The wider and more figurative crown-cut veneers were reserved for the larger elements in the hall - the columns and beams – allowing the grain of the ceiling elements to still be visible from the stalls some 12 metres below. The ‘quieter’ and straighter quarter-sawn veneers were used for lower panels so as not to conflict with the more highly profiled joinery at audience eye-level. (These veneers were from the outer edge of the crowns where the grain appears more compressed).

The MDF used was FSC-certified and treated to achieve Class 0 surface spread of flame. The completed joinery elements were treated with a matt lacquer finish to achieve Class 1 surface spread of flame. All of the specialist joinery elements were prefabricated at Swift Horsman’s workshop following the approval of mock-up samples, and were then assembled on site from the ceiling down.

 

Design of timber elements

At the upper levels, oak-veneered MDF casings were wrapped round the structural steel columns. Intermediate ‘dummy columns’ were required between the structural elements to add additional acoustic articulation to the flat wall surfaces and to enhance the repeating geometric grid. Below, at balcony level, the scale reduces, with recessed boxes fixed to the backs of the panels. Lower still, at stalls level, the scale is reduced again, with finer slots in the panels to deal with the shorter sound waves.

Although the balcony boxes appear the same, to create a variability demanded by the acoustic, they are produced in four randomly placed variations; deep recess, shallow recess, angled back and angled forward. At stalls level, although the vertical slots are the same height, they are at varying spaces and different widths and depths with some reaching a depth of 150mm. The recesses were made as follows; a void was routed into the MDF backing panel, which was lined with solid oak lippings and then over veneered to create the appearance of a solid oak panel. The various recessed boxes and slot elements were then applied to the backs of the openings on site, employing a small birdsmouth joint at the abutment to allow for fixing tolerances.

All the panels were designed to be made in the workshop and assembled ready-made on site. They were fitted on to a framework of softwood battens and hung on rails rather than screwed; joints between panels were a combination of rebates and biscuit joints and were designed either to be expressed on the surface or to be hidden.

The concert hall won the overall Gold Award as well as winning the Commercial and Public Access category of the 2009 Wood Awards. The judges said: ‘Essentially a building within a building, this project is a tour-de-force of precision joinery, balancing acoustic performance with the pure rational geometry sought by the architect. The result is a truly outstanding project’.

Completion Date:

October 2008

Year Published:

August 2010

Building Type:

Concert hall

Location:

King’s Cross, London

Client:

Parabola Land Ltd

Architect:

Dixon Jones

Structural Engineer:

Arup

Acoustic Design:

Arup Acoustics

Main Contractor:

Sir Robert McAlpine

Specialist Joinery:

Swift Horsman

Timber Element(s):

Interior panelling to ceiling coffers, columns, walls, balcony fronts, doors and seat backs

Timber Specie(s):

European oak, FSC-certified Class 0 MDF

Award(s):

The Gold Award - The Wood Awards, 2009. Commercial and Public Access category Winner - The Wood Awards, 2009. Gold Award for Specialist Joinery - 2009 AIS Contractors Award. 2009 RIBA Award. 2009 Civic Trust Award

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