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Libeskind's star shines on London

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Ground Zero designer Daniel Libeskind has traded the bright lights of New York for north London's Holloway Road with this star-inspired student centre.

Barrie Evans takes a first look inside Students set foot inside Studio Daniel Libeskind's new London Metropolitan University (LMU) graduate centre for the first time this week.

The project architect, Jean-Lucien Gay, told the AJ that although the centre aims to be iconic, it is also 'very practical'.

LMU wants to raise its profile, particularly for postgraduate work; it currently has 5,000 postgraduate students, mostly on taught courses.

In response, the New York-based practice designed the centre as a high-quality facility for graduate students, which both symbolises the university's aspirations and produces a landmark on the Holloway Road.

Practically, it is a mix of lecture and function spaces to be used by the university on a day-to-day basis and on occasion for the local community.

According to the practice, the designs were 'inspired by the Orion constellation', representing the 'northern stars and the north of London'.

The result, attached to the front of an existing university building, has three intersecting volumes making up the sculptural exterior and which continue as the principal wall planes, enfolding a straightforward plan.

It comprises a large reception area and two lecture rooms for 50 on the ground floor, each having ground-level windows on to the pavement, and a ceremonial stair leading to a multi-purpose first floor for student gatherings and more-formal functions, alongside a 100-person lecture room.

Just as the embossed stainless-steel cladding panels create a robust presence in a tough neighbourhood, so the interiors are built to survive the rigours of student treatment, primarily in drywall and exposed concrete. Throughout the fair-faced concrete is finished in translucent Keim paint to increase the surface uniformity of the canted concrete planes.

It is a building of space more than materiality. As Gay promised, it is practical as well as iconic.And it wins approval from Robert Mull, head of architecture at LMU. He sees it as 'a brave building? a wake-up call to those in London more timid in their outlook to architecture'.

Daniel Libeskind this week made a fleeting visit to London to launch the new landmark graduate centre for London Metropolitan University on the less-than-glamorous Holloway Road. Ed Dorrell caught up with him What first attracted you to the graduate building?

It has a very simple but complex problem - it has to weave a lot together including the local university and the local streets.

I wanted it to be a stand-alone building but also one that will create small, new public spaces outside. This is a modest building in a complex area. I wanted to use the energy of the street and of course the energy of the university. It deserves to be in the foreground just as much as big banks or big institutions.When people used to say to me 'why would you do a building on the Holloway Road? What a horrible place, ' I would say 'you are wrong. It's great.'

I understand the concept designs were inspired by star constellations?

When I first visited the site it was at night and I looked up and I saw Orion. I realised the building should relate to the north and the northern lights, and after all it is in north London. It is not a hybrid building and it is not a building that is about the concept of a facade. It is about a typography of spaces within this fairly limited footprint that moves from a modest basis to something more grandiose.

Is it fair to say that symbolism plays a large part in your design philosophy?

I think all architecture is symbolic, whether you want it to be or not.Buildings can also evolve into symbols. It is not something you create.

The Twin Towers, for example, were not symbolic to New Yorkers, but did become so to the terrorists.And, as a result, afterwards they became symbolic to New Yorkers.At the beginning they were simply seen as two big towers. It is not something you can invent.Symbolism is part of space and you have to be conscious of what it is and work with it. I never look for symbolism, it simply emerges out of the complex. In the same way you never go looking for the stars, you simply see them.

Do you have a favourite city?

You can't have a favourite city. If you asked 'what is your favourite colour?', I would have to reply 'the spectrum'.Now I live in New York, I love New York, but I also love Berlin and, of course, London.

And some of the small cities are very beautiful.

You must be pleased then to have built in London for the first time?

Working in London was great.Of course we have been waiting to build the Spiral at the V&A Museum, which is not yet off the ground.

I know the area around Holloway Road very well because I lived very nearby when I first moved to London and my son lived here when he went to University College London.He lived round the corner.

Given your love for London, do you have any plans to pick up more work here?

No, not right now.But I am in a competition in Dublin [for the Dun Laoghaire Harbour Pier].

Do you have a favourite building?

This is an impossible one.Sometimes a very new building and sometimes a very old one will inspire me.Nearly always they come out of nowhere.Sometimes I might see a vernacular building with no named architect and think that it is very beautiful. I wouldn't say that I have a favourite building because I don't think of architecture as objects, just a place in time and a space. It is also part of a spirit. I think a lot of people miss the whole point because they see architecture as a bunch of pictures in a history book instead of part of life.

Do you really expect your Spiral proposals for the V&A Museum to go ahead?

We are trying to raise the rest of the money.Unfortunately it is not easy for cultural institutions to raise money.We have the full planning permission, the new director is very committed, we have a full, new team so we are still very confident.We would not have worked on it for so many years if we weren't fully committed to it. I believe it is a very important building for the V&A, for London and for the public.

Did you expect to win the Twin Towers competition?

Whenever I enter a competition, I never think of winning or losing. I just think of creating something that contributes something interesting or an idea. If I did it as a calculation, I would never enter anything.

You must have been very proud when you did win?

Indeed. I was very proud. I emigrated to New York as a teenager and it was fantastic to be given this immense responsibility in among the thousands of voices and interested parties.

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