"If you go down to Almorah today, you might have a big surprise. Narrow your eyes at the old brick wall of Almorah Road, and you’ll discover Islington’s secret passage way. This one won’t lead you into the depths of Diagon Alley or an Islington speakeasy, but to a bright subterranean interior. The wall appears to bridge the gap between two terraces, but is in fact a well conceived façade for a new building with its second level constructed underground. “Sometimes when people are stepping out of the building, it can really take them by surprise!” smiles its architect, Jack Woolley with delight.
When Jack was commissioned to redesign an old workshop site between Halliford Street and Almorah, he was determined to preserve the Victorian landscape. And so, rather than building up with an illfitting modern development, he decided to dig down, doubling the size of the workshop underground. “Do you know what a contiguous piled wall is?” Jack asks. I stare blankly, so he takes it down to my level: “Well, when you dig a big hole, it’s like digging in the sand on the beach,” he says, “it all collapses into itself, which isn’t what you want when you’re working in a densely populated part of London - all the houses would slide into it.” To avoid an Islington sink hole, Jack developed what he calls a “concrete cave”, allowing him to expand his submerged masterpiece.
The workshop was previously used by a man named Kenneth, who hand crafted walking sticks, giving the space a unique industrial feel. Following Kenneth’s retirement, the site had been left derelict, filled with moulding boxes of old goat horns. I had suspected Jack’s desire to create a ‘hidden passage’ was derived from a Fantastic Mr Fox obsession, but the decision to preserve the wall was to maintain the natural rhythm of the road. “That wall is really important to Almorah Road. It’s a big gap between the terraces, and you get a view of the trees running between people’s gardens, I didn’t want to upset that.” For Jack, inviting light into the underground space was essential. The use of reflective surfaces and generous walk on skylights helps to escape that “underground bunker” feel. “It was really concentrating on the daylighting and concentrating on the unusual shape of the building,” Jack continues. “When you come in through that street door, it has a glass panel so you can look all the way down the length of the building so you get a layering of space.” Although Jack’s concept is modern, he has kept the soul of the original structure intact. When he first stripped back the roof, he uncovered a wealth of pitch pile wood, which he sent to Ireland for professional drying and cutting before using it to make the kitchen cupboard doors.
Aside from the storybook entrance, the surprising thing about this project is that it was Jack’s first commission as a professional architect. And in February ‘The Old Workshop’ was awarded with the prestigious Architect’s Journal Small Projects Prize for 2012. Previously, Jack had trained as an industrial engineer, working, amongst other things, as an inventor for a company named Isis. “I invented a device which suppressed coal mine explosions, oh…and the squeegee mop.” But when he began to expand his professional horizons by studying architecture, Woolley was hooked, although he admits that “changing careers was nerve-wracking, so winning the award meant an awful lot to me”.
For his next project, Jack will be sticking with the submerged theme with a self build on Caledonian Road. He says: “The area had become a wasteland, full of disused fridges. The plan is to create a largely subterranean structure.” At this rate, Jack is on the way to constructing his own N1 Atlantis."