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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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.
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.
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.
Dominic McKenzie is an award-winning architect in Islington, North London. His designs are contemporary and concept-led, but are always sensitive to the architectural context in which they are constructed.