To the north of King's Cross, the infrastructure revolution continues. A huge area of land is being redeveloped, piece by piece, after the wholesale demolition of the gasholders, warehouses and Victorian buildings that were here before. Most are being replaced by the usual pile of shiny offices, retail opportunities and unaffordable apartments - all of these still being constructed along new street King's Boulevard. But a few of the old buildings were conserved, mostly to the north of the Regent's Canal, and one of these became the new arts HQ at Central Saint Martins. It looks a lovely place to study, with the old brickwork shielding spacious design studios beyond, connected by more modern atria and numerous creative enclaves. But there's been one nagging problem for the students ever since the start of the academic year. Where to go for a fag? And now, problem solved.
Granary Square is the solution. A brand new public piazza, destined to be the paved heart of the entire Kings Cross development. Its sides aren't straight, neither are they anywhere near the same length, so whoever decided to call this a square was clearly mathematically dysfunctional. But it is a large space, think Trafalgar Square-sized, filling the area between the Granary Building and the nearby Regent's Canal. Workmen have been toiling away on its surfaces for months, leaving students to approach the university entrance via a lone zigzag path. But now the barriers have been swept away, and the water features switched on, and the expanse finally opened for cigarette smokers (and others).
It's the fountains you'll note first, bubbling from the ground in four parallel rectangular arrays [photo]. Ten years ago they'd have been a marvel, but now they do what most modern fountains do, gushing forth with choreographed precision in a series of patterns and gushes and waves. There's a clear dry path through from the canal to the main entrance, but if you're daring (or drunk) you can dash perpendicularly through the spray and get hootingly fabulously wet. Elsewhere in town you might expect six year-olds to leap into the water with gleeful abandon but, with students on every side, here it's the occasional 20 year-old egged on by his mates. "Go on Joe, go on... yeah, you idiot, you're soaked!".
In sunny weather like yesterday's it's an ideal place to sit. Unfortunately there aren't many places to sit, so students squish and squeeze onto the few available benches where they chatter and laugh and smoke and whatever. As a place for socialising, however, the square is pretty much dead space. You can't sit where the fountains are, obviously, and the remainder is mostly open paving with a minimum of actual features. An artificial coppice of squared-off lime trees adds some green interest, but too far in the background to make a genuine visual impact. The architect's grand idea was to create a square where events could take place and happenings might happen, and I can see a tented street market or mini festival working here well. But when nothing special's been organised, there's little here to make you stay. Unless you're a student on a break, Granary Square's no destination.
The other fresh feature is a staircase down to the canal [photo]. A wedge of ramped concrete steps has been created, almost like an auditorium except the stage would have to be on a boat. There's plenty of space here for an entire lecture theatre full of learners, but it seems few can be bothered to walk this far, or maybe the students need time to realise that it exists. With the barriers finally pulled away, an invaluable link has been created to the canal towpath. The promotional blurb hereabouts prefers to call it "The Jubilee Greenway", because that sounds more effortlessly glamorous. What used to be a roughshod backwater path has been transformed, for a few hundred yards at least, into a polished pristine anodyne gravelway. If you want character you'll have to walk a bit further towards Camden or Islington, but at least smile because that's now possible.
This whole area is opening up, the entire Kings Cross hinterland. It was highlighted earlier in the week as a prime example of the new private "public space" paradigm, with estate managers permitting access only on their own security-obsessed terms. "Welcome to King's Cross" says the yellow poster tacked up on a nearby hoarding, "Please enjoy this private estate considerately". Rest assured there's no obvious hassle here, no hi-vis security men patrolling to frown at undesirables. But there's always a nagging feeling it's not your space, it's theirs, not least because any council would have made the square fractionally more entertaining.