Jodie Jones discovers the garden spaces around the new Centre in London
When it opened in the revitalised King’s Cross area of London, the Aga Khan Centre declared an intention to convey Islamic values of openness, dialogue and respect for pluralism through the architecture of its building and the design of a number of gardens, terraces and courtyards. The bright-white nine-storey building, the first in London designed by renowned Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, immediately courted attention, but the gardens represent a more intimate and introspective attraction.
There are several related gardens in the wider curtilage of the site, including the Jellicoe Garden designed by Tom Stuart-Smith MSGD, scheduled to be finished in 2020, and more courtyards and terraces within the building itself. However, three individual gardens on the ninth floor of the main building encompass a representative selection of the aspirations of this ambitious project to house an academic community with provision for quiet private study and companionable sharing of ideas.
Speaking at the opening of the building in September 2018, the Aga Khan said: “This place [King’s Cross] has been shaped by many diverse influences – and among them we now welcome the rich traditions of Islamic architecture. One of those traditions – one that is appreciated by both the Islamic and the British cultures – is the special importance of the garden. We see the garden not merely as an adjunct to other constructions, but as a privileged space unto itself.”
The Garden of Light
The Garden of Light is inspired by the Islamic courtyards of Andalusia, interpreted as a space screened by white lattice panels that filter the changing light as each day progresses. It was the work of Nelson Byrd Woltz, the practice set up by Warren Byrd and Susan Nelson in 1985, now run by Thomas Woltz, who joined in 2004.
Incorporated within the latticework pattern of the walls are ribbons of calligraphy, quoting ancient Persian poetry and verses from the Qur’an. These were meticulously carved from Turkish Afyon White marble by Somerset-based specialist Medusa Stonemasonry. This garden is paved in Vidrago Light limestone, intersected by rills of Belgian Fossil limestone. The fountain is made from Breccia Damascata and Crema Nuova marble.
As befits a garden of light, at night the space is creatively illuminated to emphasise the central water feature as the focal point of the garden and wash light up the trunks of several columnar-clipped Magnolia x loebneri ‘Merrill’.
The Terrace of Discovery
The Terrace of Discovery, designed by the main project architects Maki & Associates is, essentially, a balcony with far-reaching views over King’s Cross and the London skyline. This simple space is ornamented with repeated iterations of the eight-pointed star motif, which appears on the blue and white floor tiles and on the patterned balustrade. The patterning is amplified and complexified as it is reflected in the plate glass windows of the adjoining room. Although the terrace measures just 63m2, its atmosphere is said to have been inspired by the Talar, a Persian throne and a place to address congregations.
The Garden of Life
The Garden of Life is the largest and most horticulturally significant garden within the main building. It was conceived as a classic four-part chahar bagh by Maddison Cox, the international garden designer and director of the Jardin Majorelle Foundation in Marrakech.
Following the conventions of Paradise Garden design, it is divided into four parts by water channels and paths in a layout that can be found in various iterations wherever Islamic culture has had influence, including Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, Persia and India.
Narrow raised beds accommodate a number of significant trees, including four Persian ironwoods, Parrotia persica, which produce early flowers on bare stems, have stunning autumn foliage and are perfectly at home in an English garden. These are arranged four-square around a central water feature. In addition, four fruit trees make reference to the garden as a place of sanctuary and source of succour – pear, hazelnut, quince and common medlar. These are underplanted with a combination of soft yellow and blue iris cultivars, carnations, hollyhocks and wild strawberries.
Tours of the Centre and garden can be booked via www.agakhancentre.org.uk