The opening of Kings Place on 1 October will bring London its first large, purpose-built concert hall since the Barbican's went up in 1982. It is sunk three storeys down into the once valueless mire between King's Cross station and a spur of the Regent's Canal, an unsubsidised concert hall dreamed of for years by a property developer from Newcastle upon Tyne called Peter Millican, and designed by the British architects behind the Royal Opera House development, Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones.
Even before its opening, Kings Place – whose two concert halls are part of a massive mixed-use building – is the most obvious expression of socio-urban change in the adjoining King's Cross Central and Regent Quarter urban-redevelopment zones. By 2012, an arc of the King's Cross area, bounded by Euston Road, the British Library and the eastern edge of Caledonian Road, will have become more or less gentrified. Commandos of the arts led by luminaries such as Antony Gormley, Thomas Heatherwick, the gallerist Larry Gagosian, and the arch minimalist architect John Pawson are already embedded here; and now, more waves of shock-of-the-newers are infiltrating an area riddled, in the 18th and 19th centuries, with poverty, fever and smallpox.
A decade ago, King's Cross was still, in essence, what it had been then, an edgy urban midden of slums, or a collage of "edge conditions", to use an urban-planning term. But rock-bottom land costs here allowed big-league developers such as Argent and P&O Developments to scoop up the best part of 80 acres of property and space. But it was huge infrastructural improvements that really lit the blue touchpaper of urban and social change here. Norman Foster's new St Pancras International station, and John McAslan + Partners' gradual transformation of King's Cross station, has so far sucked about £2bn of investment into the area.
A significant fillet of that came from Millican's pocket. He has spent £100m to create a large, mixed-use building in a seething cauldron of urban development where a one-bedroom flat overlooking the canal basin can cost more than £300,000. The mixed-use functionality of Kings Place is as significant as the theatre and art gallery at its heart. From the upper floors, there are almost panoptic views towards the city and the West End; the vast floorplates form a series of belvederes from which one looks out not on urban grunge, but on Mayor Boris Johnson's neo-picturesque kingdom of supposedly world-class urban makeovers, hubs and icons.
The architecture of Kings Place, as one would expect from Dixon Jones, is extremely restrained in form, volume and detail. The articulated cylinder-into-block elevation facing the canal basin has reduced any sense of overbearing mass, and the façade facing York Way and the northern segment of King's Cross station is also de-massed, this time by a wave-form glass screen held clear of the building by a fastidiously designed substructure whose details are elegantly deceitful: there must be half an acre of glass involved, yet the screen and its supports feels as insubstantial as the sky it reflects. Dixon sees it as a vertical landscape and "a sculptural risk".
The star of this architectural show is, of course, the main concert hall. Despite being so deeply rooted physically, the double-cube space has an almost surreal beauty: it feels simultaneously archaic, like a perfectly achieved extrapolation of Queen Hatshepsut's Egyptian mortuary temple, yet also like a stage set by Cecil B DeMille, lacking only centurions looking down on the stalls from between the oak-veneered colonnade behind the seating in the circle.
The atmosphere in this 420-seat hall is seductive. It has the aura and precision of a craft object, whose tonnage sits on giant rubber bungs to absorb any external vibration. Kings Place weighs somewhat less than the 10,000 lorry-loads of clay that were dug out for the building. But once seated, such considerations evaporate. In the rest of the building, the architects' minimalist palette of materials and formal simplicity seems almost glacial at times, a series of horizontal and vertical surfaces that shy away from self-presentation.
"It's an empty box," says Dixon. "The challenge was, what do you do with this thing?" You go to the Black Forest in Germany, apparently. "We went out into these beech woods. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a figure appear, in a peaked cap, and with two dogs. He had come from the village, and was in charge of negotiating the sale of the trees. It was peculiar." The villager pointed out a 500-year-old oak, which he referred to as "the contessa", and the deal was done. That one tree supplied an acre of veneer that was used to clothe the colonnades and coffered roof of the concert hall. "The contessa," mused Dixon. "Mozart! There was a poetic unity about it. And the tree was cut down at a particular point in the moon's cycle. It's an unmodern story."
In little more than a month, the contessa's peeled skin will tremble very slightly with Endymion's season-opening performance of pieces by Bartók, Holt, Kondo and Castiglioni. And Millican, encased by the work of one of Britain's most fastidiously formal architectural practices, will become London's newest impresario. Music and architecture, he claims, have turned him away from property development for ever.
Programmed to be different
How can Kings Place compete in a city that already has the Barbican, Southbank Centre and Wigmore Hall, to name but a few of its world-class music venues? It has made a good start by getting the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to make the complex their home.
Then there's its unusual approach to programming. As an opening flourish, it will host 100 concerts in five days, giving a taster of the range of music on offer. Highlights include the Duke Quartet performing Steve Reich's Different Trains, the London premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' Hymn to Artemis Locheia, performed by the Brodsky Quartet, and the guitarist Justin Adams performing with the West African master musician Juldeh Camara (pictured right).
For the rest of the season, Kings Place is eschewing an artistic director in favour of weekly "mini festivals", a series of concerts over four evenings, curated by various experts. So there will be weeks devoted to Mozart's operas, Paris jazz, Fauré, works connected to the Aldeburgh Festival, and, one week a month, Beethoven recitals.
In an ambitious schedule, Mondays will be dedicated to the spoken word, Tuesdays to contemporary music and jazz, and Sunday evenings to chamber music.