An Architect’s guide to Islington

Call me biased if you like, but I love Islington. I’ve lived in or near this leafy urban village for over twenty years and I’ve set up my architectural practice here. On an ordinary day, a large portion of my day will be spent in the N1 postcode and I wouldn’t have it any other way. As an architect, I’m naturally drawn to the aesthetics of buildings whenever I visit somewhere, and in that regard, Islington is comfortably one of the nicest parts of London. While the grand courthouses of Chancery Lane, the uber-modern splendour of the City of London, or the commanding government buildings of Westminster are more famous than Islington’s architecture will ever be, I’ll take Islington any day of the week.

Throughout my many years in Islington, I’ve come to know its winding streets like the back of my hand. So here are some of my architectural highlights of this truly gorgeous part of North London.

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Victorian Townhouses

Wander slightly off any main drag in Islington and you’re likely to be confronted with a terraces and squares of townhouses. There are some great examples of these: Gibson Square, Cloudesley Square, Lonsdale Square, Canonbury, The Alwynes – I could go on. Each of them is slightly different (Lonsdale Square is perhaps the most different in a gothic style) but they are all harmonious and scale up from individual houses to collectively make great neighbourhoods.


Little Angel Theatre and St Mary’s Church

Tucked away on Dagmar Passage, not far from Upper Street is the Little Angel Theatre. Opened in 1961, this small and unassuming brickwork building is one of the few remaining dedicated puppet theatres in the UK. If you take a peek through the window, you’ll be able to see the workshop where the theatre’s puppets are made. The theatre backs onto the Grade II listed St Mary’s Church, rebuilt in the 1940s after being almost entirely flattened by bombing raids during the Blitz. Only the spire and porch survived, built in the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries respectively. However, it is thought that a previous incarnation of the church was built on the site as early as the 12th Century.


Battishill Street Gardens Frieze

Tucked away in a tiny park a stone’s throw from a bustling section of Upper Street is a frieze – otherwise known as a wall sculpture – that was originally erected on Threadneedle Street in the City of London in the 19th Century. Designed by Musgrove Watson – who famously designed the bronze detailing on the base of Nelson’s Column – the piece was moved to Islington in 1975, and was unveiled by Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman.


168 Upper Street

Blending old design with modern architectural techniques, 168 Upper Street – otherwise known as the Aria building – is an architectural masterpiece that explores themes of time and memory in its design. Opened in 2017, the designers did a 3D scan of another building on Upper Street that they used as the foundation of their design. However, they didn’t do a direct copy and paste job, far from it. They intentionally altered the design of window and door fittings to fit a more modern aesthetic. The end result is a building that looks like it’s been standing for centuries at first glance but is undeniably modern when you look a bit closer.


Islington Town Hall

This building – located on Upper Street – was erected in 1925, later than you might expect given its neo-classical design. The building is a hub of activity in the area, hosting weddings, concerts, and acting as the focal point for celebrations whenever Arsenal Football Club win a major trophy.


Union Chapel

A stone’s throw from Highbury & Islington Underground station is the Union Chapel, a grade I listed church that was built in a ‘modernised’ Gothic revival style in the late 19th Century. The Gothic revival movement sought to return to medieval Gothic styles of church design from the 18th Century onwards. Today, the Union Chapel hosts concerts and is the base for the Margins Homelessness Project which provides support to homeless people in the area.


28 Canonbury Square

A couple of streets behind the Union Chapel is Canonbury Square. While the street isn’t particularly remarkable, number 28 was famously the home of novelist George Orwell – best known for his works Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm – for three years between 1944 and 1947.


Canonbury Tower

Just around the corner from Orwell’s former home is the oldest surviving building in Islington, Canonbury Tower – erected between 1509 and 1532. For some context on just how long ago that was, Henry VIII was the reigning monarch of England when it was completed. The tower is one of the few surviving parts of Canonbury House, built for the monks of St Bartholemew’s Priory during Tudor times. Myriad historical figures have called Canonbury Tower home at some point, including Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Thomas Cromwell and Oliver Goldsmith. History buffs will be glad to know that you can book guided tours of the tower to see the inside of it firsthand.


Hauer King House

From the old to the modern, the Hauer King House on Douglas Street was built in 1996. With a front wall built entirely from glass bricks, the house’s bold new design attracted plenty of media attention. Even to modern eyes, it remains a striking design.


The Former Carlton Cinema

Head back down to Essex Road and you’ll find what used to be the Carlton Cinema, an absolute marvel of art deco design. The front of the building is decorated with Egyptian style designs that are a must-see. It was designed by architect George Coles in the 1930s, who created a large number of art deco buildings, particularly cinemas in London that still stand today. The building has been unoccupied for many years, though mercifully holds Grade II listed status, meaning that it cannot be knocked down. Even so, I hope that a new tenant takes on the building and brings some new life to one of Islington’s most interesting structures.


Islington Central and West Library

In an age when libraries are being threatened with budget cuts, it is heartening to remind oneself of a time when such buildings were properly celebrated. Islington has a number of fine libraries, many built as a result of generous donations from Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish/ American industrialist who supported thousands of libraries worldwide between 1883 and 1929. Carnegie gave £20,000 in 1906 to fund Islington’s Central Library, equivalent to over £3M today and a further £3,000 (circa £450K today) towards the West Library. The Central Library designed by library specialist H. T. Hare features a suitably grandiose ‘Mannerist’ façade in Portland stone, but of the two the West Library by the architect Arthur Beresford Pite is the most playfully inventive with intricate geometrical ornamentation around the entrance and the letters of the alphabet beautifully carved over each of the windows.


Former Finsbury Town Hall

Following the creation of the borough of Islington in 1965, the former Finsbury Town Hall became redundant when the new council set up shop on Upper Street. But with the move it left behind a picturesque building built by the architect William Charles Evans-Vaughan. The building’s design has been described as ‘free style’ – an eclectic mix of Tudor, Renaissance and Baroque. The first phase facing Rosebery Avenue containing the Large Hall, council chambers and offices was completed in 1895. The second phase finished in 1899 is the V shaped addition to the rear, the Baroque apex of the V roughly facing the entrance to Exmouth Market. The final building is imaginative and richly detailed with some enjoyably complex collisions of form to the rear of the building.


Bevin Court

One of London’s most spectacular staircases and housed in a relatively unassuming council block of flats from the 1950s. The block was designed by the architect Berthold Lubetkin in collaboration with colleagues Skinner and Bailey. Lubetkin was one of the foremost Modernist architects of his generation, best known for the London Zoo penguin pool and numerous housing projects constructed before and after the war. Like the penguin pool, the Bevin Court stair is a similarly dramatic, a highly original combination of the concrete and sculptural form – somewhere between Constructivism and the architectural fantasies of Piranesi. Rotating around the stair up from the entrance hall you are presented with a series of open air balconies with increasingly incredible views of London as you rise. A real period piece, the entrance hall features a Picasso/ Corbusier-esque mural of Finsbury by the artist Peter Yates, opposite a bust of the politician and trade unionist Ernest Bevin.


Grimmauld Place / Claremont Square

Did J.K. Rowling have Islington in mind when she created Grimmauld Place in the fifth Harry Potter book ‘The Order of the Phoenix’? There is much debate to be found on the internet…What can be said with confidence is that Islington and more specifically Claremont Square was used as a location for the fifth Harry Potter film as the headquarters of the ‘Order of the Phoenix’. Can it be a coincidence that the terrace of houses chosen is next to George Cruikshank’s house – the illustrator of the original Oliver Twist? If you want to invoke ‘grim’ ‘auld’ (i.e. old) Dickensian London surely this is the place to come.

A further surprising detail is that this otherwise inauspicious terrace has been faithfully reproduced in Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida as part of the ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter’.


Dominic McKenzie Architects is an award-winning architecture firm in Islington, North London.  Our designs are always contemporary and sensitive to the architectural context in which they are constructed.