As if to make up for its historical reluctance to, and often outright disavowal of, modern architecture, England and London in particular have become a hotbed of architectural advancement and ingenuity. Home to the Architectural Association School and studios of major-label architects like Zaha Hadid, London has seen a surge of new and innovative buildings within the past several years. Creations by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and the like have cropped up almost everywhere imaginable, both stretching the city’s imagination and establishing an architectural reputation to the rest of the world. Most of these novel buildings, bridges, and structures have grown up in the most predictable places, on the banks of the Thames, within the heart of the City, and among the office space of the flourishing financial district. Prime names will, after all, get prime real estate. Yet one finds Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre, however, in the most unlikely of places, along the seedy strip of Holloway Road. Home to a notorious illegal tobacco trade and LMU students on their way to anywhere but there, Holloway Road seems to be the last place one would find the work of an architect now famous for his work on Berlin’s Jewish Museum and the Ground Zero memorial project. But there it is, looking like a series of jagged steel bricks dropped along the edge of the street, seemingly entirely unrelated to its context. Despite its alien form and facade, the LMU Graduate Centre Building is in fact a “good neighbor,” an asset to the university, and a welcome sculptural break from the glum Holloway norm. It is a haven for students and a flicker of hope for local revitalization.
What is now known as Holloway Road was once the major thoroughfare for driving cattle from the North down through the South in the fourteenth century. The villages of Tollington and Stroud grew up around the road, and as time passed Holloway became increasingly frequented by more than just cattle. With that came the development of the Great North Road, now known as the A1, and established Holloway Road as part of the longest numbered road in the United Kingdom. After the area turned from rural to more industrialized, the 1960s found Holloway comprised of crumbling Victorian houses that subsequently became sites of industrial decay.
To this day, Holloway has remained one of the poorer parts of greater Islington, despite gentrification efforts. Its high concentration of smokersâ€”though not at all unusual in Londonâ€”is a nod to the fact that along with being a major traffic route, the road is also a major hub for illegal tobacco dealing. The road has also become notorious for being the home of HMP Hollowayâ€”a prison. Since 1902, the prison has been housing only women, and is now known as the UKâ€™s single major female prison. 430 offenses have been committed on Holloway Road over the past six months alone, ranging from robberies to serious assaults. With 102 CCTV cameras stationed along the entirety of the thoroughfare, itâ€™s among the most monitored strips of roadway in Britain.
In addition to being economically destitute and increasingly notorious, Holloway Road is home to droves of mundane and uninspiring architecture. Seeing as it is a neighborhood built up around a major road, the movement of traffic remains focal and the presentation of buildings secondary. The majority of buildings alongside the road are hidden behind marquees and signs advertising whatever it is theyâ€™re selling, whether it be lattes or leather goods (there has been a recent influx of fetish shops in the area.) Whatever buildings do show their facades are typically no more inspiring. The standard drab brick-and-mortar is ubiquitous, particularly in surrounding LMU classroom buildings. Dark windows, plain faces, grit and grime are the norm for the majority of Holloway Road developments, now neglected if not entirely ignored.
Yet there is a glimmer of revitalizationâ€”quite literally, as the steel cladding of Libeskindâ€™s graduate center glints and winks down the street from Holloway Road tube station in even the greyest of London weather. The winner of a 2001 competition for the expansion of LMU, the building was constructed in 2003. Its space is modestâ€”a slim 7000 square feetâ€”but the building is far from unnoticeable. Stainless steel covers the entirety of its exterior, arranged in triangular panels that reflect the prismatic composition of the building itself. And reflection, in a literal sense, is thematic in Libeskindâ€™s design. The material is a spot-on match for the traditional overcast London sky, and when the sun does emerge over Holloway Road it makes the sharp lines and knife edges along the building all the more dramatic. As pedestrians and drivers alike bustle past the buildingâ€”usually very closely, as the sidewalk is just wide enough to accommodate a couple of passersby walking side-by-sideâ€”their images play off the sides of Libeskindâ€™s work, making for an almost cinematic moment of movement.
Structurally, the building is composed of three distinct prisms. One points in the direction of the city looming off in the distance; another leans forward into the street, not to the point of looming but just enough to engage. A third prism plays the necessary role of connector, bridging the gap between the old graduate center and the new. Despite this dramatic exterior, the interior is quite simple, and effectively so. While there are elements of the tortured geometries particularly in the ceiling spaces, there is no convoluted interior circulation. From reception there is a clear view of the staircase, which leads to lecture rooms upstairs, and that is the entire constitution of the building. These interior spaces, while clear and beautifully lined, are far from distracting. LMU professor David Phillips even claims that students studying at the graduate centre have displayed â€œan extra level of keennessâ€? in their studies and discussions within the classroom. â€œToo much education in London has carried on in dreary buildings,â€? he adds.
Libeskind is particularly occupied with contrasts of dark and light within space, and his unusual use of windows exemplifies this. Windows on the graduate centre building appear to have been gashed into the fabric of the faÃ§ade, appearing at uncommon angles (and requiring specially-rigged curtain mechanisms.) They play two major roles, particularly in this buildingâ€”the first is the standard purpose of windows to provide the interior with a source of natural light. Wide, angled geometric cuts allow for the maximum amount of light in a given space. The second role is playing a connection between the exterior and the interior of the building. The windows, some of them right alongside the pavement, provide views of the semi-urban bustle outside. At the same time, the interior of the building is comfortably quiet. Cars and trucks and passersby move through the frame of the window, but entirely without a sound. A visual connection and an aural detachment allow for a sense of energy and movement without great distraction, just appropriate for a learning space.
Outside, a modest pavilion faces the main entrance. A series of small benches suggests a social space, but this is typically not the case. There is a definite lack of socializing in the immediate vicinity of the building, due in part to the somewhat undesirable locale and simply because of the fact that most other class buildings are located elsewhere and most pedestrians are on their way somewhere else. Instead, the space is most often occupied by Libeskind admirers, photographers hunting for a dramatic urban shot, and weary Holloway walkers. The space between the building and the street is quite narrow, just a small strip of sidewalk separating the buzz of traffic and students studying behind the gash windows. One of the prismatic elements of the building hovers over the walkway just slightly, making for a reflective and thoroughly engaging little space.
Itâ€™s all very sculpturalâ€”poetic, evenâ€”but this is exactly what Libeskind seems to be aiming for. Holloway Road has seen its share of revitalization attempts by Islington Council, but there is only so much that can be done for an area primarily focused on an arterial roadway, on the movement of people through and away from the area as opposed to it. There are several new and colorful housing projects down the street, and nearby Arsenal stadium has triggered a new flow of income into the area, but there is little to keep people rooted there. Students housed there make their way down the road to other class buildings, and excitable Arsenal fans are far more interested in what lies within the stadium than its surroundings.
The influence of the LMU Graduate Centre as a revitalizing structure lies not in its efforts to draw in retail opportunities or provide for desirable real estate, but in the simple fact of its being, in its pleasantly welcome instance of sculptural beauty. The line between sculpture and architecture, in expression versus intellectualization, has been particularly blurry in a number of new architectural projects. Is the architectâ€™s job to create a visually pleasing space or one that is purely functional? Libeskind deftly does both. â€œThe meaning here is pleasure,â€? the architect states. â€œThe pleasure of walking in it, the pleasure of looking out through the windows, and looking in. Why canâ€™t the modesty and pleasure of everyday life be the meaning of the building?”
Despite its dramatic cut and the initial shock it brings unsuspecting Tube riders emerging from the darkened Underground, Libeskindâ€™s Graduate Centre is in fact a modest little building. Built upon a meager strip for a relatively small sum, it neatly serves its purpose as a haven and study centre for students. In addition, it is a welcome eye-catcher in an otherwise unappealing vicinity. Revitalization for the troubled Holloway Road neighborhood is unlikely in a lot of waysâ€”there are instances of minor gentrification, and a stadium bringing in football fans and incomeâ€”but the Graduate Centre provides it with just the attention it needs, a modest space with purpose and an instance of sculptural pleasure. And sometimes thatâ€™s all a passerby down an uneasy street is looking for.
‘Islington: Growth: Holloway and Tollington’, A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 8: Islington and Stoke Newington parishes (1985), pp. 29-37. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=1374.
‘Islington: Communications’, A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 8: Islington and Stoke Newington parishes (1985), pp. 3-8. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=7111.
Beckford, Martin. â€œRoad with 100 cameras is plagued by crime.â€? Telegraph. URL http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/07/11/ncctv111.xml, July 12 2007.