An unassuming white building behind King’s Cross conceals a wonderful interior and rooftop garden. This is the Aga Khan Centre, opened in 2018 to house several divisions of the Shi‘a Ismaili charity and its design incorporates a collection of gardens, courtyards and terraces all based on Islamic principles.
The building brings the Institute of Ismaili Studies, the Aga Khan University, the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations and the Aga Khan Foundation UK together, into one building after operating in various locations across London for the past 40 years, and it was designed by Maki & Associates, led by Fumihiko Maki.
While it looks like a conventional office block from the outside, it’s inside that the real action takes place.
Inside the building is not solid, but a ring of floors around a central huge atrium with a glass roof and a monumental work of art running up one wall, by Rasheed Araeen. The geometric colour waterfall helps break up an otherwise flat white surface.
Throughout the building, often quite subtle Islamic patterns can be found, from the carpet tiles to the decorative pattern in the glass panels around the building. From the outside the main colour is white, and even the glass as been tinted with white dots to let light in but maintain a white wall appearance from a distance. Inside though is brightly coloured and filled with art.
What however really marks the building out as a bit different are the gardens. Many offices have terraces, but few as varied and specific as can be found here, all inspired by Islamic gardens elsewhere.
The roof garden — or garden of life — has been inspired by the gardens of the Mughal Empire, with water flowing through the four-part chahar bagh layout, marble fountain and planting all around the edges. And great views across the City from the rooftop.
The Garden of Light is a hidden space, lined with stone tiles and inscriptions on marble plates, and inspired by the Islamic courtyards of Spain’s Andalusia and filled with magnolia trees, while the Terrace of Learning is a long space that sits recessed in the side of the building on the same floor as the library.
The Garden of Tranquility is probably the least tranquil, mainly as it’s lower down on the 1st floor, but mainly as it’s currently overlooking a building site and the Jellico Garden that’s currently being created as a new public space.
What’s delightful about the building is the attention to detail, from the careful use of patterns in the decoration to both shade rooms while reminding people of the building’s origins to the furniture dotted around the library spaces, and even the signs for the toilets seem to have been custom designed when an off-the-shelf sign would have been adequate. The balcony walls are made from layers of cut steel that are then bolted together to form a subtly layered effect where frankly a single sheet would have probably done the job and no one would have complained, but now they’re a delight to look at.
But undeniably the cluster of small but varied gardens are the jewels of the place. If only more offices were so adorned.