Design Museum sale paves way for resurrection of Commonwealth Institute

Commonwealth InstituteDeskheads of a certain vintage may have viewed the news that Zaha Hadid had bought the Design Museum’s London home for £10 million in a somewhat different light to much of the media that reported the sale. While journalists succumbed to the apparently irresistible pull of architectural headline magnet Zaha, to some of us the interesting part of the story was that the sale finally freed the Design Museum to move to the long empty Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington. The building is one of the most architecturally important modern buildings in London and has a long association not only with The Commonwealth Institute educational charity but as a venue for cultural events and exhibitions of design, not least the now defunct Prima and Spectrum exhibitions which did so much to promote commercial interior design in the UK.

The building between Kensington High Street and Holland Park was opened by the Queen in 1962, with a permanent exhibition open to the public aimed at promoting trade between Commonwealth nations. Personally I always found the helical structure of its 60,000 sq. ft. exhibition hall far more conducive to exhibitions of design than the supermarket layouts of caverns such as those at Earl’s Court or ExCel. Rather than a discombobulating traipse down the aisles looking for something interesting, the layout orientates people and encourages them to walk past all of the exhibits and so develop their own narrative. The stage at the centre of the hall offers a focal point for the space and a place from which to deliver speeches and entertainment. It’s interesting that the organisers of 100% Design last year chose to have such a hub at their show last year.

The building was closed by the Trust that manages it in 2001, following an extensive refurbishment including the preservation of the unmistakeable hyperbolic paraboloid roof of the building, made from patinated copper sourced from the then Rhodesia. It’s fair to say the Trust could have handled the closure better, not only because it followed so hard on the heels of the refurbishment but also because of the stated desire by the Trust to flatten the Grade 2 listed building and replace it with lucrative housing (over a quarter of the houses sold in the UK for over  £1m are in Kensington and Chelsea), but also because of their failure to communicate effectively what was happening at the site. The plan to develop homes on the site was kiboshed by the Government in 2005 when they rejected an application to remove the building’s listed status

Plans to redevelop the building and its site have been around since 2009, with plans drawn up by John Pawson to convert the Exhibition Hall into a home for the Design Museum who confirmed in 2012 they would be moving to the new building following an £80m makeover that will double the space available compared to the existing building at Shad Thames and potentially double exhibitor numbers to half a million a year. The new building is intended to reopen next year and will be a welcome and overdue development.