• Design of the times?

    The weekend brought me to the new Design Museum for the first time. Relocation from its ‘white box’ home on the riverside just along from Tower Bridge to the former Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park has been a controversial process, with questions asked over the changes needed to make this famous piece of post-war architecture suitable for its second life, the gleaming cubes of luxury apartments erected right next door that were deemed necessary to fund the scheme and the then culture secretary’s perceived willingness to de-list a heritage asset to make it all possible. Politics aside, the question now is simple – does the resulting building actually work?

    Opened in 1962 and designed by RMJM, the Commonwealth Institute was known for its concrete hyperbolic paraboloid roof suspended from massive but delicate angled columns like a tent, the whole sheathed in 25 tonnes of copper donated by Northern Rhodesia. Engineered by Harris & Sutherland, the roof covered a single exhibition space dedicated to promoting the Commonwealth. This was broken up by a raised circular central platform, curved mezzanines and various flying staircases, with much of the display – by James Gardner – placed on freestanding structures. Glazed walls gave onto an approach landscaped by Sylvia Crowe with a stylised canal, causeway and statuary. Siting such a building just yards from the Blitzed remains of the Jacobean Holland House, whose grounds form the park, was a bold statement of post-war optimism and intent.

    The institute as a body survived until the Millennium, when the end of its status as a statutory body and transfer of its operations and assets to a private company to be funded by the Commonwealth nations took place. Faced with changed political and economic climates this eventually failed and was liquidated. The old building became surplus to requirements. Threatened by costly maintenance combined with a highly specialised architectural envelope, its Grade II* listing appeared a barrier to a change of use or, more darkly, demolition to realise the value of its plot. When news that this might be lifted emerged, heritage groups and locals protested loudly, especially after culture secretary Tessa Jowell appeared to support such a move even as she confirmed it was legally impossible and when news later leaked of a potential private members bill targeting the building.

    Ultimately only the attached administration block, more conventional in form, was permitted to be demolished. Sale to developer Chelsfield led to a plan for three mid-rise blocks of flats as well as the radical restructuring of the RMJM building. Reading the development brochure from about five years ago is amusing, its rather pretentious and self-justifying text tending to highlight the murky nature of the journey from there to here rather than the architecture.

    This transformation, then, by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA with John Pawson providing the interior fit-out, has in fact seen the complete replacement of the existing building’s façades and plinth and removal of much of its interior, whilst with protection for Crowe’s garden having also been removed, this too has been lost. The original esplanade off of Kensington High Street, with its forest of flagpoles, has also been replaced, by a straightforward piazza that now leads to the southernmost of the three residential blocks. My initial impressions here were however positive, in that these last crowd the Museum far less than I had been led to believe; indeed, clustered as they are to its west, they appear only as a ghostly white background and do not impinge on the drama of its folded roof planes.

    Nevertheless, and reflective of today’s other concerns, a forceful line of railings now demarcates the Museum’s much smaller domain, a hefty gate separating it from the park proper after hours. Once through this the land slopes down as a result of the remodelling and continues as a rather apologetic-looking area of hard and soft landscaping (admittedly the Museum only opened in November and thus immediately hit its first winter) complete with dull small water feature before reaching the entrance.

    Inside, it naturally takes a while to orientate, not helped by some exceptional crowds and the perhaps unfortunate decision to place the ticket desk right inside the inner door of the draught lobby. Ahead lies another problem on such busy days: Pawson’s main stair, which is wide but has built-in seats taking up more than half the width of the treads, a strange move given this is the only obvious method of ascending to the exhibition floors by foot.

    That said, it must be admitted that this stair is excellent from an aesthetic point of view and indeed forms the core of the scheme. Each flight starts on the opposite side of the floor to the last as the building rises and each storey is itself wider, thus creating a rectilinear spiral that has obvious echoes of Lasdun at the sublime Royal College of Physicians. Impressive too is the manner in which Pawson has fitted new, rational floors into the unwelcoming shape of RMJM’s original volume. Yes the delights of the roof and, more notably, its supporting walls are far less visible than they were, but they are not INvisible. The rough, grey concrete undersides of the original structure now peek above the restful, straw-coloured wood of the new spaces and the big concrete support columns dive through the new floors in plain sight, though they have been painted to match the new and partly clad in stainless steel.

    As with the Switch House at Tate Modern, a floor or so of private spaces – members’ room, education room, offices – sits between the main public floors, leading to some further circulation pressures, but the restaurant seems to enjoy a good view and small pocket atriums supply much-needed breathing space.

    The workmanship throughout is excellent, whether in the brushed stainless steel stair handrails with lighting concealed in their undersides or the simple, slightly sloped tops of the balustrading overlooking the main space – just right for leaning on. In the basement toilets a run of wash basins appears to have been made from a single slab of Corian, and the more conventional secondary stair – though somewhat hidden – is light and elegant in white and stainless steel, is provided with neat timber window seats and has good views over the park, even if the applied sunshade proves able to fox digital camera exposures.

    Exploration of the permanent collection galleries was rather less rewarding, accepting the large crowds. Seemingly crammed into a succession of spaces that are too small for the exhibits let alone those who wish to see them, progress is slow and confusing. The presentation is bitty and too in thrall to the current ethos of short captions and random placement. Where a good array of objects is encountered, such as a display showing the evolution of media formats from pens to iPods, the arrangement is scattered across a wall in no discernible order and leaving lots of wasted space, whilst locating the relevant caption is impossible thanks to the baffling lack of numbers linking both.

    Clearly a short visit on a busy day is clearly not ideal to assess such a complex project. A return visit would be useful to explore the remaining spaces in the building and its relationship with the park and the new apartment blocks in more detail, but certainly there is much to like in this new space for cultural review. Crucially the intimate changes to and immediate setting of the Commonwealth Institute seem coherent and convivial in many ways, even if they are source of some dismay intellectually and frustration practically. Crowd management and display quality are firmly for the management to address. Whether the venue will prove as amenable to the demands of a museum needing to display everything from cars to computers as the old venue was – itself a converted banana warehouse, it should be remembered – remains to be seen.

    Pictured below, for comparison, is the Institute as I first saw it in late 2011:

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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