If SamsungKX is not a shop, is it a workplace instead?

I am sitting in the new SamsungKX space as I’m writing this, wanting to find out what kind of place this is and whether I can use it as my (temporary) workplace. Not a shop! That’s the loudest and clearest message I’m getting as I approach from Kings Cross station, where adverts for SamsungKX are plastered all over the walls. So what is it then?

Ads for the SamsungKX space in Kings Cross underground

Perched above Coal Drops Yard where the two curvy roofs meet, it is clearly a spectacular space. It is large and generous. It feels airy. It basks in daylight (even on the grey London day we’re having today). It is filled with people. Staff in blue shirts are hovering near the entrance, greeting new visitors, but essentially you can just walk in. Mums and babies in prams are slowly making their way out – the Baby Sensory class advertised on the big screen has apparently just finished.

It’s different every day” is the second take home message, alongside a long list of suggestions ranging from the more obvious ‘It’s an event space’ and ‘music venue’, to the more colourful ‘catwalk’, ‘tech playground’, ‘yoga studio’, ‘cooking school’. And, finally there it is: a ‘workspace’. So here I am, occupying a seat on one of the two long benches in the far end of the space, next to the café, together with almost a dozen other people on laptops, working away feverishly. Many of them have come in pairs or groups, there are a fair few conversations, but also the obligatory people with earphones, and almost every single place is taken. It’s pretty noisy as a workplace today. There are lots of things happening in the circular event area behind me. I’ve been here twice before, once for a wander around, and one time for a work-related meeting, but today is by far the busiest.

Before coming to see the space myself I thought Samsung must have caught up with Apple, which famously opened their first Apple Store in London 15 years ago and have experimented extensively with the idea of a concept that is different from other retail offerings. There are certainly parallels. Both SamsungKX and Apple Stores are run by tech giants, ultimately wanting to sell their products. Both are adamant that their spaces are not retail as we know it and instead focus on experiences. Both are unusual in that they are large, light, and devoid of typical signs of a store, such as shelves, displays, etc. Their spatial setup feels inclusive – it seems everyone can walk in. But where Apple Stores are most easily understood as a club – one that is “distinguished by its members, who are joined together by their adoration of Apple products” (I wrote about this some years ago) – SamsungKX indeed feels more fluid to me. If that’s even possible, it is even less about selling than the Apple Store. The few times I’ve been it was indeed a different experience every time.

The way that makes sense in fact just like any other building is to think of the type of space in terms of building function. My favourite academic text on the subject matter is by Hillier, Hanson and Peponis (written in 1984) and is called ‘What do we mean by building function?‘. In it, the authors argue that building function is defined by the way a building of a certain type structures how different groups of people meet and ‘interface’ each other. To give an example, a hospital is a hospital, because it brings patients together with caregivers. A school is a school because it brings together teachers and learners. A shop is a shop because it brings together sellers and buyers. And with this insight in mind, we can now define SamsungKX much better: since it brings different sets of people together every time – those performing with those listening, or those teaching yoga with those practising yoga, those wanting to learn how to cook with technical appliances and those teaching it, the space indeed fulfils a different function every time.

On one of my previous visits, the space indeed was a bit more of a tech playground – some kids playing VR games, some people finding their inner street artist with the digital spray paint graffiti wall, a lot of others just hanging out and doing some people watching. I even observed someone sleeping on a comfy sofa. Today there is none of that.

Different usage patterns on a non-programmed day: working, people watching, playing, sleeping

As every flexible space, it is intensely programmed – depending on the event, furniture will be moved, new settings will be created, music will be played in different ways. But here’s a thing: unless you come to specifically enjoy one of the planned events, possibly bought a ticket or at least signed up for it, the space will be unpredictable. Today it is not a good workspace at all. Too busy, too loud, too much stuff happening. In turn this means the space is not as open as it could be, or as it promises in another advertising campaign: #DoWhatYouCant. Because I simply can’t do what I planned to do: reflect on the spatial qualities of the place; do some people watching; enjoy a hot drink in peace and quiet; and write a blog post.

Well, I have written a blog post now, but it is a different one than I had planned to write. After all, it is different every day. Different from what you think.

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