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Last chance to see inside the Commonwealth Institute, W8

As part of Open London Weekend, the Commonwealth Institute opened its doors to the public for the very last time, before works start on the new Design Museum. This was a tremendous opportunity for people who love architecture or photographic architecture to take advantage of the tour provided.

The Design Museum will be moving to the former Commonwealth Institute in 2014. The building has, sadly, been empty for over 10 years, but during the tours it was evident many had been before, some in their school days and those who could remember their first impressions of ‘seeing other cultures’ being exposed to anthropology for the very first time. Apparently it was quite ahead of its time, with plenty of activities to involve school children and generate their love and understanding of our commonwealth cousins.  And not least to mention the glass clad walls, which was considered innovative in the 1960s and is still used now in many modern buildings.

The internal remodelling of the building will be carried out by John Pawson Architects. The new Design Museum is expected to welcome half a million visitors to its exhibitions every year, offer 60,000 learning opportunities and display the museum’s important collection of twentieth and twenty-first century design. Design studios and workshops, a library, restaurant, cafe and auditorium will be housed in a beautiful, state of the art building underneath the stately curves of the original 1962 copper and concrete roof.

Originally the Commonwealth Institute housed an exhibition celebrating the fifty four nations of the Commonwealth. It was an undisputed icon of British post-war architecture. The radial deisgn inside extends out from a marble circular platform which stands at the centre of the square building’s diameter and at the exact mid – point of its height. On entering the building the visitor arrives on the platform, at the central point of a huge spatial volume – a powerful first impression. This platform situates the spectator not only at the centre of the Exhibition Hall but at the symbolic centre of the world of the Commonwealth. From here the visitor could ‘travel’ the staircases to visit the many different countries represented here. The most striking feature of the Exhibition Hall is the complex hyperbolic paraboloid roof. Its copper cladding was designed to mellow in harmony with the greens of Holland Park. Its tent like exterior lines complement the park’s soft treelines. Building materials donated by Commonwealth countries augmented the tiny budget for design and construction. Zambia donated 25 tonnes of copper from its mines. Unfortunately, this arrived in the form of copper ore and had to be processed before it could be applied to the roof. Much of the hardwood used in the flooring and other applications also come from Commonwealth donors.

The building was designed by the distinquished practice of Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall and Partners. James Gardner was the exhibition designer – he had been the principal designer to the Festival of Britain an his work on the Commonwealth Institute revived and impr9oved on may of the innovations he had developed there. Dame Sylvia Crower designed the landscaped gardens. Lord Cunliffe was the original project architect and has consulted on initial plans for the Exhibition Hall’s remodelling into the new Design Museum. Construction began at the end of 1960. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the buildings in November 1962. Its construction cost £440,000. The Exhibition Hall was listed Grade II* in 1988. Grade II* buildings are particularly important buildings of more than special interest. The Exhibition Hall’s place in the social history of Britain and its ‘swept’ roof define its listed status. It has been described as the outstanding British examples of hyperbolic paraboloid roof and as one of the most carefully thought out experiments in post-war English architecture. The works are due to begin on site in early 2012 and will be completed in 2014. The magnificent concrete and copper roof of the Exhibition Hall will be preserved. A central viewing platform will offer visitors views of the interior roof span.
From ‘Open House London: Design Museum’ promotional flyer

Image Copyright: Lucy Elliott/The Kensington Magazine
www.thekensingtonmagazine.com

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