n Islamic culture, gardens have special significance, resulting in a long tradition of exquisite horticultural masterpieces.
From the lengthy landscapes of the Taj Mahal to the intimate riads of Marrakesh, these lush spaces of all sizes commonly offer sheltered spots for spiritual contemplation, as well as an earthly representation of the paradise described in the Qur’an as awaiting believers.
Now you can add London’s King’s Cross to the esteemed globe-spanning list of such tranquil oases, too.
Handyside Street’s ultra-contemporary Aga Khan Centre, plus its nearby student digs Victoria Hall, boast a string of sun-dappled roof terraces and geometrically appointed courtyards.
Designed by Japan’s distinguished architect Fumihiko Maki to the original vision of the Aga Khan himself, students of Muslim civilisations and tour visitors alike can now enjoy the rare peace of these spaces, juxtaposed against the surrounding hubbub of central London.
The building was opened in the summer by – who better, really – renowned garden/architecture buff Prince Charles. HRH has previously designed his own Islamic garden at Highgrove, which saw him awarded a gong at the Chelsea Flower Show. He’s also a long-time friend of the Aga Khan and a staunch admirer of Islamic art.
We wager he enjoyed the neck-cricking 31-metre latticework piece, Rhapsody in Four Colours by Rasheed Araeen, which dominates the central atrium (pictured above).
It captures the building’s own mix of modernity with Islamic visual traditions, where the careful avoidance of depicting anything potentially idolatrous has led to such richness in patterning and intricate geometric designs.I
t’s a misty autumnal morning for our visit, as we’re whisked up to the ninth floor Garden of Life.
Stepping outside, the hills of Hampstead Heath roll out to the north, the curve of Coal Drops Yard lies below and the broody silhouette of the square mile looms over east, but the view is not the main attraction of this particular rooftop vantage.
A classic water channel divides the space into four, observing the Qur’anic descriptions of paradise, while a tumbling marble water feature offsets deep orange terracotta Indian sandstone.
Despite the chill, it evokes memories of the hottest of days, and there are still some tasty summer fruit and berries we’re invited to pluck from the bountiful trees and bushes, too.
We move down to the Garden of Light, inspired by the courtyards of Andalusia, where the sunlight streams through marble screens casting shadows, while the words of Persian poets dance in cryptical script across the stonework.
Interestingly there is nowhere to sit down in this space, conceived instead as a place to stand tall with the trees and take a simple moment out.
A favourite proves to be the Terrace of Discovery, with its dramatic views of London and beautiful eight-point star motif woven across everything from the rich blue tiling to the metalwork balustrade.
Inside, the library offers plenty of hushed corners for the study of Muslim culture in amongst assorted rare manuscripts. Despite the grandeur, this is a relatively small location in the Aga Khan’s global portfolio.
As hereditary head of the Ismaili sect, the second largest branch of Shia Islam, he operates universities, hospitals and charitable programmes worldwide. It’s a unique – and clearly as visionary as it is wealthy – organisation, keen to foster ties between all cultures.
Somewhat incongruously, the ground floor Garden of Tranquility currently faces a full-on construction site, with diggers, cranes and screeching afoot. Rest assured though, it’s another effortlessly calming space (if you stick something in your ears and just turn around).
Drawing the existing Cubitt Square and forthcoming Jellicoe Gardens into a ‘ribbon’ of green space carving through King’s Cross, the Aga Khan’s influence – along with thousands of years of Islamic tradition – now brings a touch of contemplative headspace to the perennially buzzing neighbourhood.