London's Holloway Road was not exactly crying out for an edgy, in-yer-face building, but Daniel Libeskind's latest design does wonders for it anyway. Martin Spring assesses the design, Thomas Lane reports on the building techniques.
Startling distortions of architectural geometry underpinned by heart-rending symbolism. These are the trademarks of architect Daniel Libeskind, superstar of Berlin and New York, who recently unveiled the final design of his oblique Freedom Tower for the World Trade Centre site. Now Libeskind's dizzying collisions of jagged, metallic forms have reappeared in down-at-heel Holloway, north London, where they serve as the graduate school of London Metropolitan University.

If ever an educational institute has cried out for an inspired architect, it is London Metropolitan, which is made up of a ragbag of the most dismal buildings imaginable. What this ambitious former polytechnic needs most is a landscaped courtyard or piazza as an oasis of academic calm and reflection away from the incessant traffic of Holloway Road.

Sadly, Libeskind has not come up with a refreshing courtyard or piazza. But he cannot be blamed for this, as the site he was offered was a narrow strip between the university's main frontage and Holloway Road. Nor has he come up with another of his powerfully emotional architectural memorials.

Instead, what Libeskind has given the university is an elongated lozenge of characteristically tumbling, angular geometry. Consisting of three flat-sided silvery volumes intersecting at disjointed angles, it is crazy enough to cause juggernaut and white-van drivers to swerve in amazement as they bomb down Holloway Road. The crystalline nature of the assembly is enhanced by small triangular panels of stainless steel that face the walls, all of identical size, shape and dimpled finish, except where they are abruptly cut off at the sharp building edges. The distorted geometry, where nothing is four-square, continues in a scattering of windows resembling large shards of glass set into the silvery external envelope.

The disorientating angles are reproduced in the internal walls and ceilings. Here the main staircase is sandwiched between leaning walls of fairfaced reinforced concrete, which evokes spooky Expressionist film-sets from pre-war Germany and threatens to unbalance anyone ascending or descending. Less unnerving is the lecture theatre, a lofty hall where more sloping concrete walls are complemented by sloping windows and zig-zag lines of ceiling lights.

And what about Libeskind's ever-present symbolism? At the graduate school, he has adopted the Orion constellation, "the spatial emblem of the Northern sky" as "the guiding light for developing a unique icon". No doubt suggested by the university's one-time name, the University of North London, the heavenly symbol has already been made redundant by a recent name-change. Nor is its architectural expression the least bit recognisable in the completed building. If anything, its external form suggests a giant shark rising Jaws-like out of the ground.

This is not to say that the obscure symbolism detracts from the architecture. Libeskind has managed to imbue a narrow sliver of a building extension with a strong architectural presence of its own. As such, he has created a true landmark that is powerful and outlandish enough to implant itself in the consciousness of everyone setting eyes on it. In the important, if limited, sense of boosting the image of a parochial university, Libeskind has once again succeeded.

Odd angle: Libeskind's challenge to the contractor
Contractor Costain had the tough task of turning this complex vision into a building. The job was made doubly difficult because the client's budget fell short of the proposed construction methodology. But then Costain had won the two-stage tender precisely because of its effective approach to value engineering the cost down.

Thankfully for project manager Victor Stellyes, this task was considerably lightened by Studio Libeskind's relaxed approach. "I would say Libeskind is one of the best architects I have worked with," he says. "They are not precious about what you are doing as long as you don't compromise the shape of the building, as that is very important to Daniel Libeskind. They let you use your building expertise and get on with the practicalities; if you go about suggesting things in a methodical way they are quite open to ideas."

The first job was to value engineer the building to fit within the client's budget. The building was going to cost £4.5m, but Costain managed to chop £1m off. First on the "engineering" list was the building's foundations. Originally, a grid of beams complete with accompanying brickwork, separate pile caps and insulation was envisaged. This was dumped in favour of a simple raft slab foundation. A cheaper solution was also found for the building's rear wall. The wall had been designed to be built from insitu reinforced concrete and to lean at an angle like the other walls of the building. But by building the wall at a straight angle and using blockwork, Costain cut down on the expensive temporary works needed to support it.

The rest of the building's frame had to be supported until it was finished. Because the walls lean over so much the frame only works once the structure is complete – the floor and roof help support the 200-250 mm thick reinforced concrete walls.

Building the walls was predictably tricky. "There is a lot of steel in this building, and the reinforcement is complicated in the way it is tied together,"says Stellyes. "It was difficult at times to find room to pour the concrete." In some areas the contractor had to put up the concrete shuttering on one side, place the vibrating pokers that were used to compact the concrete, before putting up the other side of the shuttering, as there was no other way of ensuring the pokers were in the correct position. It was vital the concrete had a quality finish, as it has been left exposed inside the building save a coat of paint.

The treatment of the exterior was even more particular. "Everything is bespoke, there is nothing on the exterior of the building that is off the shelf," says Stellyes waving his hand towards the triangular stainless steel cladding panels and angular windows. The cladding panels have been laser cut from sheet material to form the equilateral triangles that scale the surface. These cover a less glamorous cladding system: standard Kingspan composite panels. "It was just like any other industrial shed," says Stellyes. The Kingspan panels provide an insulated waterproof layer that offered a flat base for the final rainscreen. The cladding panels continue over the steep roof and are visible from the Holloway Road and the university's concrete tower block next door.