Libeskind in London
These forms are clad in stainless steel panels that reflect and distort the dynamic street life. Dramatic, geometric incisions form great windows that bring light into the classrooms.
Squeezing into the Site
This narrow strip of land in front of the university's Holloway Road campus is not the most likely location for Libeskind's London debut. He carefully considered the physical restrictions of the site and the vibrant urban setting to devise strategies for bringing in light, keeping out noise, and making the building welcoming while maintaining campus security.
The Graduate Centre is very different from the adjoining university building and reads as a completely separate pavilion. Yet the old and new buildings are connected by a long existing corridor that runs parallel to the street. The corridor has been painted bright red, creating a cheerful threshold to Libeskind's site.
The new building's separate entrance — linked to the street through a small exterior plaza — strengthens the sense of approach and entry. At the moment, people use this public space to simply look at and photograph the building. There is no other leisure space on Holloway Road, and it is too early to tell if this small area will continue to enjoy its semipublic status.
For months before its opening, as the landmark building took shape, its controversial, nonorthogonal plan and shiny stainless steel cladding panels delighted and outraged passers-by in seemingly equal numbers. The entry on a diagonal and the way that the building is set back off the street, unlike the other university buildings, forge a relationship unique to this area of Holloway Road.
But the bold move makes clear sense architecturally. After all, Libeskind was hired to create a street presence and a landmark for the school, not something that would "blend in" to the uninspired context.
On entering the building, one passes through a small reception area, with a view to the grand staircase, to the two new lecture rooms. These rooms have exposed cast-in-place concrete walls and large windows bringing in natural light at the street level.
The repetition and rhythm of circular lighting and ventilation fittings arranged on the ceiling are subtle yet important integrated design elements. The patterns of these lights on the first floor are visible from the street through the giant windows.
Libeskind's initial inspiration for the building was the northern sky and the constellations, perhaps an overly poetic attempt to distract from the mundane architectural surroundings. But in the lighting, this concept is beautifully realized.
The staircase is grand and ceremonial but with minimal materials and finishes. Elevating the usually ordinary exercise of changing level to such a dramatic experience is something that Libeskind relishes. Instead of the standard, artificially lit, cramped flight of stairs that doubles back on itself, this staircase is one long flight, with huge quantities of light flooding in through a large window, allowing views to the outside.
Students are drawn up the staircase by the linear lighting pattern and the subtle angle of the staircase. The stairs are slightly twisted, which gives a unique character to the space and reflects the theme of changing perspectives.
A Sculpture in North London
The building looks like it must have been very expensive to build, with such an eye-catching shape and nonstandard exterior cladding, combined with careful detailing and clean lines, but it was completed on time and on budget. It stands in stark contrast to the older, institutional university buildings. The new pavilion resembles an art gallery more than a school, with its white-painted interior surfaces and hand-crafted feeling.
While Libeskind's emphasis is sculpting space rather than materiality, there are marks of imperfections in the concrete, suggesting texture, reflecting light, and creating an environment of quiet contemplation. There is a strong sense of progression through the spaces with a varied section and elegant use of windows opening at various levels to allow daylight into the building.
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