Profit and loss

There is good and bad in the radically refurbished former Commonwealth Institute, the Design Museum’s new home. But it’s exciting

How it was - the uncared for Dame Sylvia Crowe landscape  approach to Commonwealth Institute as seen in 2012.
How it was - the uncared for Dame Sylvia Crowe landscape approach to Commonwealth Institute as seen in 2012. · Credit: Hugh Pearman

‘Woodwool,’ says Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic, ‘is a material that has the same relationship to architecture as Spam has to cuisine.’  He should know – he and his architect John Pawson have vast expanses of grade II* listed woodwool to deal with. The stuff, in slab form, lines the soffits of the ‘bastard’  (official term) hyperbolic paraboloid roof of the 1962 former Commonwealth Institute in London’s Holland Park. This, from November 24 this year, will be the home of the much-expanded Design Museum.

This architectural Spam, mentioned in the listing notice, looks to be one of the few parts of the interior to survive this very radical refurbishment. This kind of historic-adventurous architecture is difficult to work with, as Sudjic recounted at the press conference to announce the museum’s opening programme. The project has held surprises, leading to two gruelling years of delays. Everyone’s patience was tested. Plus the museum asked a lot of this structurally complex building, as originally designed by RMJM’s Roger Cunliffe with engineer James Sutherland. They have wholly gutted it inside, excavated a new basement level and cast new concrete floors on different levels. Essentially the fragile, built-on-the-cheap 1962 structure was picked up, amputated, eviscerated, stuffed, and put down again.

How it is now. The new Design Museum peeks out from behind an OMA apartment block.
How it is now. The new Design Museum peeks out from behind an OMA apartment block. · Credit: Hugh Pearman

Sudjic’s deputy, Alice Black, animatedly recalls finding the building apparently hovering in the air, propped up on spindly temporary stilts. So when you go this November, you’ll find that the Design Museum Mark 2 is effectively a new building inserted into and below the shell of the old Commonwealth exhibition pavilion. Much of that shell has been replaced too, with the walls reclad in a cloudy blue-grey glass system that closely matches the previously replaced original (they found some fragments for the colour match). Once you understand all that, the stated £83m cost of the new Design Museum seems almost cheap – given that the figure officially includes the value of the building and land. It would surely have been cheaper still to have knocked it down and built wholly afresh, but then you wouldn’t have that extraordinary copper-clad roof, the ‘tent in the park’ as Stirrat Johnson-Marshall saw it. The original badly-detailed leaking copper roof was replaced some years ago.

Anyone going to the new place with fond memories of the Commonwealth Institute’s whimsical arrangement of stairs and galleries with a broad circular mezzanine landing can forget all those, they’ve gone. There’ll be a ‘Commonwealth Trail’ telling the story of the building’s history, but this is no equivalent of New York’s former Whitney Museum by Marcel Breuer, just four years younger than the Commonwealth Institute.  Now taken over by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and given a $15m revamp, its tougher and more adaptable interiors survive.

It’s sad in a way that the original, rather good, long rectilinear brick-and-concrete administration building for the Commonwealth Institute has also gone – that’s the amputation. It used to crash through one corner of the exhibition pavilion like an express train. Now the pavilion is a freestanding object and the three square OMA-designed blocks, from seven to nine storeys, are arranged on its grid, set at 45 degrees to Kensington High Street.

  • It still makes its presence felt on Holland Park.
    It still makes its presence felt on Holland Park. · Credit: Luke Hayes
  • Original internal structure in 2012 before demolition began.
    Original internal structure in 2012 before demolition began. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • After the evisceration - the new Design Museum atrium.
    After the evisceration - the new Design Museum atrium. · Credit: Alex Morris Visualisation

The final and most grievous loss is the Commonweath Institute’s carefully-designed southern landscape setting by Dame Sylvia Crowe, which led you from a forest of flagpoles on Kensington High Street via a cranked tree-flanked covered way past a broad lawn with pools and cascade, to that tent in the park. That was, rightly, on the English Heritage register of important designed landscapes. In place of that, you now find one of the three OMA-designed ultraprime apartment blocks (collectively branded ‘Holland Green’) that huddle round the new Design Museum and effectively made it possible. In this very wealthy part of London, where a single apartment can cost the kind of money normally associated with building an entire new school, the developer (Chelsfield/Ilchester Estates) could not only afford to donate the building but pay for its shell-and-core construction as well. The rest was fundraising, including valuable wedges from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England and Sir Terence Conran, whose Foundation runs the place.

I mourned the loss of the Sylvia Crowe garden, so I went to take a look at the new Design Museum. Externally, it and its new surrounding blocks are all but finished: it’s just the museum fit-out that is continuing through to November. And I was relieved to find that things have in fact worked out pretty well. There’s no getting round the fact that the sense of the park extending right down to the high street has all but gone, but this is an intelligently designed development that preserves the sense of a disruption, an interval, in the urban fabric here.

My concern was that you wouldn’t be able to see the old place from the street at all but you can, peeking round the new buildings and framed in the main entrance to them. The new, much more constrained landscaped surroundings are at any rate high quality. Walk north into Holland Park and the long view of it across the playing field is still good. There sits the pavilion, a squat, intriguing object in muted colours. The OMA blocks in their bright Portland stone whiteness prove John Outram’s wise dictum – that from a distance, white is visually very intrusive while rich colours act like camouflage and recede.

  • You will not have to pay to see this Vespa in the permanent collection.
    You will not have to pay to see this Vespa in the permanent collection. · Credit: Design Museum
  • Nor will it cost you a penny to view Mikhail Kalashnikov's AK47 assault rifle.
    Nor will it cost you a penny to view Mikhail Kalashnikov's AK47 assault rifle. · Credit: Design Museum
  • Ah yes, there's the source of the money, snuggling up.
    Ah yes, there's the source of the money, snuggling up. · Credit: Hugh Pearman

So the new blocks shout their gleaming presence, unlike earlier apartment blocks of similar height close by in 1960s brick/concrete. But as you’d expect from OMA, they sculpt their white cubes interestingly. They are certainly worth looking at, and the southernmost one is carved away at ground level to make possible a diagonal approach from the High Street. Will it be used? Entry to the museum will be kept separate from the entry to ‘Holland Green’. A previously public space has been privatised. Security guards, allergic to cameras, keep watch.

But the upshot of all this is twofold: first, the listed pavilion survives with a new cultural use. Second, the Design Museum gets purpose-designed spaces of appropriate area and height rather than unhappily inhabiting interiors originally designed for the utterly different purpose of a permanent display of Commonwealth tableaux, disposed around an enormous atrium. As reconfigured, the building provides 9,480m2 of net internal space on four levels. That is three times more space than is available at the original Design Museum. That has been bought by Zaha Hadid, and the money from the sale handed over by Sir Terence Conran to help fund the new place.

Now comes the big test: will the hoped-for doubled audiences come, and what will they see if they do?  One attractor here is that – unlike the present Design Museum in Bermondsey, which will finally close its doors on June 30 – the new Design Museum will be free, or at least its permanent collection will be. As with most ‘free’ public galleries, you’ll still have to pay for special exhibitions, and they’ll need the money for their hugely increased running costs. But the permanent collections at the Tates, for instance, are mighty. The Design Museum’s is tiny in comparison. Perhaps to get round that, newly-appointed chief curator Justin McGuirk has hit on the notion of asking the public to suggest their own classic designs to add to a crowdsourced wall. McGuirk brings other fresh ideas: the collection is not going to be presented as before, as objects behind glass or on plinths. Called ‘Designer Maker User’ it aims to personalise the design story. Meanwhile his opening temporary exhibition, ‘Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World’ will feature ten commissioned installations from both designers and architects, while the third attraction will be the Designs of the Year exhibition – again, including architecture.

  • That OMA block is definitely treading on someone's toes.
    That OMA block is definitely treading on someone's toes. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Orthogonal, meet swoopy. But this is the privatised public realm around the new Design Museum.
    Orthogonal, meet swoopy. But this is the privatised public realm around the new Design Museum. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Seen from Holland House the Tent in the Park recedes while new blocks shout their presence.
    Seen from Holland House the Tent in the Park recedes while new blocks shout their presence. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Memory of the lost Commonwealth flagpole court in the new forecourt paving.
    Memory of the lost Commonwealth flagpole court in the new forecourt paving. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Replacement cladding in blue-grey glass is the building's second reclad since 1962.
    Replacement cladding in blue-grey glass is the building's second reclad since 1962. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Those would be woodwool slabs between the beams. Enjoy.
    Those would be woodwool slabs between the beams. Enjoy. · Credit: Alex Morris Visualisation

I’m looking forward to this. The old Commonwealth Institute had distinct period charm but it was a sick old beast requiring extreme surgery. Tragic that the Crowe garden has gone but in the absence of capital funding from government,  a private-sector financial model was required and that was the price. What with this and the RoyaI Academy redevelopment by David Chipperfield under way, we’ll soon have a whole lot more space in London for architecture, as well as design and art, to pitch its tent. And as for all that Holland Park exposed woodwool, we’ll have to learn to treasure it.