Housing numerous museums and being the site of the Great Exhibition of 1851, South Kensington, in West London, is known for its value as a cultural centre. In 1983, a new building entered this historic centre of culture and added to it, albeit in a decidedly un-English way. The Ismaili Centre was designed to be a meeting place, academic institution, and place of worship for the 8,000 Ismaili Muslims in Great Britain (Long) the first of its kind in the West. Located at 1 Cromwell Gardens, the Ismaili Centre is on one of the busiest streets in London, and is directly in the middle of the historic and cultural centre of South Kensington.
Although I will primarily focus on South Kensington, and the Ismaili Centre’s place within it, it is important to understand South Kensington in its urban context, as part of a larger whole. South Kensington is part of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the second-smallest local authority in London geographically (the Corporation of London is smallest), and the most densely populated in all of Britain (Lightfoot 54). The Royal Borough is a relatively new entity, formed as a merger of the Royal Borough of Kensington and the Metropolitan Borough of Chelsea in 1965, and stretches from Notting Hill in the north all the way down to the river Thames. The former Royal Borough of Kensington (so titled by King Edward VII, whose mother, Queen Victoria, was born and raised in Kensington Palace) includes the area to the immediate north, west and south of Kensington Gardens, while the Metropolitan Borough of Chelsea further south still. (Lightfoot 5) As a whole, the Royal Borough is the most affluent area in Britain, with an average household income of £42,272 annually in 2006; almost double the national average of £25,000. (Lightfoot 6, 54) It is home to some of the most well known landmarks in London, including Kensington Gardens, Notting Hill, Harrods, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The neighborhood of South Kensington is located just south of Kensington Gardens and north of Chelsea, and is probably the most trafficked area in the Royal Borough. It is crossed by three major London roads; Kensington Road to the north, Fulham Road to the south, and Cromwell Road running right through the middle. All of these roads merge into Knightsbridge, which turns into Piccadilly; one of the most important pathways in all of London. Piccadilly is part of the A4, a national road whose number belies its importance (in Britain, the lower numbers are the longer, more important roads). The A4 pathway continues from Piccadilly down Knightsbridge, into Brompton Road, and then into Cromwell Road, thereby making Cromwell Road part of one of the most important pathways in all London, and a busy thoroughfare, indeed.
As if its central location weren’t enough, South Kensington also boasts the largest collection of attractions in the Royal Borough. These attractions are mostly located on Exhibition Road, and include the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the Royal Albert Hall (although technically the Royal Albert Hall is in the City of Westminster, it is close enough to South Kensington to be considered part of the community). It is also home to the Imperial College of London and the one of the only Mormon churches in Britain. As a result, South Kensington received over nine million visitors to public events, performances, galleries and displays in 2002-2003, and the South Kensington tube stop (located on the Piccadilly Line, which runs through most of the major areas in London, as well as Heathrow Airport) accommodates over 30 million people per year. (rbkc.gov)
The area outside of the node that is Exhibition Road, between Cromwell and Fulham Roads is an incredibly affluent area, filled with expensive stores and large row houses from the 19th Century (see above). Many of these row houses are ornamented with rich stucco terraces, and are located across from private gardens, a sign of affluence in a neighborhood, as it is the rich who are privileged enough to have a corner of green in the heart of the city all to themselves. Indeed, it is a testament to its affluence that the French Consulate is in one of these houses, located on the corner of Cromwell Road and Exhibition Road, right in the heart of South Kensington, as consulates and embassies tend to be located in the more well-to-do neighborhoods.
Architecturally, much of the neighborhood is occupied by these houses, which fill the small side streets throughout the area and are mostly of a simple 19th Century Georgian style (Pevsner 452). Few of the buildings are taller than four stories, which gives the whole neighborhood a sense of being more of a small townâ€” quite appropriate for an area that was once a royal suburbâ€” rather than part of one of the largest cities in the world.
There are, however, many exceptions to the quaintly affluent side streets and private gardens in South Kensington, many of which are located on Exhibition Road. Much of Exhibition Road and Kensington Gardens are part of what is called â€˜Albertopolis,â€™ a series of buildings commissioned by Queen Victoria as a tribute to her husband, Prince Albert. These buildings include the Prince Albert Memorial, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Victoria and Albert Museum (above), all built in the showy Victorian style. These buildings carry with them a sense of grandeur that is appropriate for their location along the street called Exhibition Road.
Indeed, all of the buildings on Exhibition Road are built to stand out, especially when set against the monotony of the Georgian row houses in the rest of the neighborhood. Every building there seems to be built to an epic scaleâ€” particularly in contrast to the rest of the area. The Natural History Museum (above) is an enormous building, and its high windows and large arches give it the sense of being more a palace than a museum. The Science Museum (below) is similarly striking, its enormous stone walls and Corinthian pillars giving it weight and a classical feel reminiscent of the Parthenon or some other epic and classical building.
Set within all of this, we find the Ismaili Centre (above). Built from 1978- 1983 by the firm of Casson, Conder, and Partners, the Ismaili Centre was built as a religious and cultural center for the 8,000 Ismaili Muslims in the United Kingdom. The first building of its kind in the West, it was commissioned by the current Aga Khan, the leader of Ismaili Muslims, to celebrate 25 years of his leadership, and to raise awareness for the little-known Ismaili sect. As such, it stands out from the rest of South Kensingtonâ€” and even the rest of Exhibition Road. Indeed, it is separated from every other building in South Kensington by being the only building on a small island between Cromwell Road and Thurloe Place, and at first glance, its pale grey exterior and somewhat idiosyncratic fenestration make it look like some kind of space-age fort.
It is smaller than almost every building on Exhibition Road (four stories tall), and in that regard, fits in with the relative modesty of the rest of South Kensington, but its grey Sardinian granite cladding sets it apart from the brick and stucco faÃ§ades of its neighbors. Indeed, its polished stone faÃ§ade, polished glass bay windows, and metal panels make the building almost glow in the daylight, dully reflective as it isâ€” an effect that certainly draws the eye as one walks through the area.
However, eye-catching though it may be, the Ismaili Centre still has a modesty lent to it by the spare stone cladding, in which vast amounts of stone are present, broken by very few narrow windows. Indeed, as Pevsner notes, â€œthe main visual interest is provided lower down,â€? (Pevsner 465) with the beveled glass bay windows and metal panelsâ€” but even these are dignified, and not terribly overt. Rather than provoke a sense of tackiness, the recessed bay windows (below) seem more like a modern take on modest fenestration, with its dark wood frames and small window-panes, while the metal panels seem to suggest windows, and yet also seem to refer back to the granite cladding.
This eye-catching modesty fits well with the culture of the building, as many Islamic buildings can be both modest and yet dazzling at the same timeâ€” take the cathedral of CÃ³rdoba, for example. In designing the Ismaili Centre, Casson, Conder, and Partners were attempting to follow the Aga Khanâ€™s desire that modern Islamic architecture refer to its roots, but not necessarily copy Islamic architecture of old. The sparse exterior of the building, according to Gardiner, refers to classic Islamic architecture, in which â€œa plain exterior conceals great richness within.â€? However, the external structure does not specifically refer to the Islamic tradition, and it is not until one enters the foyer of the building that one sees the real Islamic reference shining through.
The interior of the building, mostly designed by Karl Schlamminger, carries a very strong reference to Islamic art and architecture, all the while modernizing it, streamlining it to fit with the exterior of the building. The first place one sees this is in the main foyer (above), whose fountain and floor tiling clearly demonstrate the geometric patterns so favored by Islamic art and design. The building is also laden with Quâ€™ranic referencesâ€” the foyer is pentagonal, representing the five Pillars of Islam, and the fountain and columns throughout the building are heptagonal, representing the seven Prophets of Islam. Indeed, throughout the building, one finds polygons in the skylights and light wells, as well as in other places.
As a religious and cultural center, the Ismaili Centre succeeds quite well at its assigned task. Its interior spaces seem to lead visitors inwards and upwards, inexorably towards the prayer hall on the third level, where they can face Mecca and give their respects to Allah in peace. Indeed, Long notes that there is even a subtle change in carpet as one gets closer and closer to the prayer hall. Unfortunately, when I visited, visitors were allowed no further than the first level exhibition/social room, and I felt as though my journey was cut short. However, from there, I was able to stand in the incredible light that filled the room from the bay windows, providing a spectacular view of the street below and lending the whole area a sense of calm reflection. This is bolstered by the prayer hall, whose narrow windows and thick walls shut out the sights and sounds of the outside world, but whose seven-sided skylights bring in light from above. However, one of the most striking parts of the building, according to Gardiner, is the rooftop garden. With a burbling fountain and a view of the V&A, NHM, and other local buildings, the rooftop garden of the Ismaili Centre is the perfect location for quiet reflection in the middle of a busy urban sphere.
The Ismaili Centre, different though it may be from the culture of the rest of South Kensington, fits there perfectly well. It fits the context of being in â€˜museum landâ€™ by attempting to spread knowledge about Islamic culture with exhibits like the current â€œSpirit & Life,â€? in which they have on display ancient artifacts from Islamic landsâ€” a particularly important task, given the political climate of the day, and the reputation Islam is earning with the West. When compared to the rest of Exhibition Road, it makes sense that it is separated from the other institutionsâ€” it is related to them in its mission, to educate the public, but separate from them in its means, acting far more humbly than, for instance, the Natural History Museum. To the rest of South Kensington, the Ismaili Centreâ€™s presence is a sign of its educational agency. That a building belonging to a little-known sect of Islam can be placed in one of the busiest and most affluent neighborhoods in London, brushing shoulders with the French Consulate and other important buildings means that the Aga Khanâ€™s message of tolerance and acceptance will be heard all the more, for more people, and more important people, will be there to hear it.
1. Amery, Colin. “The Enigma of South Kensington.” The Financial Times. 24 October 1983
2. “Facts and Figures of South Kensington.” The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Website. http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/environmentalservices/general/ex_road_FAQS.asp
3. Gardiner, Stephen. “In London, an Heir to Islam’s Built Heritage.” The Times. 18 September 2006
4. Lightfoot, Warwick. Local Government in London: its origins, evolution and functions. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. March 2006
5. Long, Christopher. “The Ismaili Centre, South Kensington.” London Portrait Magazine. April 1985. Found on website: http://www.christopherlong.co.uk/pri/ismaili.html
6. Pevsner, Nikolaus, and Cherry, Bridget. London 3: North West. Ed. Pevsner, Nikolaus et al. The Buildings of England. London: Penguin Group. 1991. pp. 448-454, 465-466.