Paul Baxter explores a new London home for three institutions that melds Islamic influences with the ‘alternative modernism’ of architect Fumihiko Maki


Paul Baxter

Edmund Sumner, Hufton & Crow

If you wander through London’s new King’s Cross district heading north, cross the canal and slip between the Granary Building and Heatherwick Studio’s emerging Coal Drops Yard, you will notice a pale, rather enigmatic building floating like an iceberg between its altogether grittier neighbours. The new Aga Khan Centre is located on the prominent corner of Handyside Street and Lewis Cubitt Park, immediately north of Central Saint Martins and cheek-by-jowl with Duggan Morris’ ‘Big Pink’, the R7 office building. It brings together three institutions, long-established in London, that are dedicated to increasing understanding of and promoting scholarship on Muslim cultures and societies: The Institute of Ismaili Studies, Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations and the Aga Khan Foundation UK.

The 10,000-square-metre centre is designed by that grandee of Japanese modernism, Fumihiko Maki. Now in his nineties, and the recipient of a shopping list of global awards, Maki is surely the only surviving practitioner from Japanese modernism’s golden era of Kunio Maekawa, Kenzo Tange et al. Since setting up his own practice in 1965, after years in the US, his architecture has remained devoutly modernist in its sensibility. He calls his an ‘alternative modernism’, and through projects such as the Spiral Building in Tokyo, (1985) and the sublimely atmospheric Kaze-no-Oka Crematorium (1997), he developed a more figurative approach to form, a deep sense of materiality and an ethereal way with light – experienced indirectly or filtered through screens.

In some ways, therefore, the building appears distinctly un-Maki-like – somewhat monolithic, with large, undemonstrative windows detailed flush to the sleek, pale Spanish limestone facade. The building is stratified organisationally and architecturally, though the two do not calibrate perfectly. Externally, there is a tripartite division: a glazed two-storey ‘base’, a stone-clad ‘body’ which cantilevers beyond the base and houses the bulk of the accommodation, and a metal-clad ‘crown’, containing an executive penthouse meeting suite.


The Centre’s layout is influenced by the hierarchical plan of the Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakech, where a large central courtyard is ringed by buildings punctuated by smaller internal courts. The arrangement has been interpreted vertically, with a central atrium running through the building and a series of secondary, Islamic-themed courtyards and gardens created by hollowing out the space at different levels up the 10-storey structure.

Entered off Handyside Street from the south-west corner, the relatively modest (in space terms at least) Roman travertine-clad entrance hall gives access to a small gallery space. A notionally public route runs through the building from the street entrance to a secondary entrance to the north, though it is hard to imagine this rather obscure passage becoming a popular desire line.

Above: The toplit atrium contains an artwork, ‘Rhapsody in Four Colours’, by Pakistan-born artist Rasheed Araeen. Faceted balcony fronts reflect light from above and modulate the acoustic.

An open stair winds up from the entrance hall to the first-floor atrium which rises through the building. The first and second floors house the teaching spaces and benefit from The Garden of Tranquillity – a covered courtyard or loggia overlooking Jellicoe Gardens.

The Aga Khan Library, with its specialist collections and capacity to eventually house 100,000 volumes, occupies the third and fourth floors. The adjacent Terrace of Learning, created by the building set-back to the south-east, is intended to encourage outdoor study.

The Centre’s three institutions occupy the next four floors with cellular offices and meeting spaces hugging most of the desirable perimeter and open-plan desking beside the toplit atrium.


Above: The Garden of Tranquility adjoins the atrium

The top floor, wrapped in perforated metal, has no fewer than three rooftop gardens – the Garden of Life, the Garden of Light and the Terrace of Discovery – each distinctive in its materials, degree of enclosure, planting and reference to an Islamic precedent. These surround an executive suite of meeting spaces, including the ‘Crown Room’. While the rather top-heavy distribution of courtyards no doubt improves usable area on the lower floors and makes the top floor a delight, it also limits the potential of these ‘cut-outs’ to influence the overall building form sculpturally.


Above: The Terrace of Discovery adjoins the Crown Room, a space for meetings and events on the top floor; Double-height space within the library. 

Internally, the building is overwhelmingly white. What colour there is derives from the furniture, fittings, floor finishes and a spectacular 40-metre-high sculpture by Rasheed Araeen which runs the height of the atrium. The heavy fritting of the windows contributes to the slightly other-worldly sense that is both calming and slightly frustrating, as the magnificent panoramas over London from this elevated location are generally viewed through a milky shroud. No doubt the sense of being part of, but apart from, the world is the effect that was sought – it is certainly reinforced by the extensive acoustic treatments which contribute to the hushed academic environment.

Materials throughout are both beautiful and beautifully detailed – refined and discrete as one would expect from a Maki building which had Allies and Morrison as executive architects. Stone varieties include marble and red sandstone from India, limestones from Portugal and Belgium, black granite from Zimbabwe and green granite from Iran. Additional texture and detail is found in a geometrical octagonal motif that appears variously throughout the building, including the patterning to the entrance hall windows, the ceramic ceiling and screens to the courtyards and the carpet of the Crown Room.


Above: The Garden of Light and Garden of Life, both on the roof. The ‘Islamic Gardens at King’s Cross’ are inspired by the diversity of Muslim