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The Design Museum: The Final Journey – From Commonwealth Institute to the completion of a Vision

These entries have been taken from past entries in our Blog – A diary of progress: from the final days of the Commonwealth Institute, the development of the Design Museum, and its opening in November 2017:

To start at the beginning (September 2011):  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

This blog originally appeared on 19th September 2012:  Sir Terence Conran celebrates the ‘Ground Breaking’ at the Former Commonwealth Institute.

80 year old Sir Terence Conran made no bones about the fact this was one of the best days of his life.  Having started the Design Museum in the ‘boiler room’ at the V&A and then moved to the premises in Shad Thames, the Design Museum (the new Kensington one) is destined for great things once it is esconced at the former site of the Commonwealth Institute.  Rather wonderfully for just as the Commonwealth Institute represented cultures from around the world, so too does the inspiration that Sir Terence holds for the future of design – that the Government should do all it can to encourage designers, entrepreuners and engineers and become a world renowned hub for design.  He praised many stakeholders, Chelsfield, large and small charitable organisations who had made this possible (since they don’t receive Government funding) and the confidence he had in the team of builders from Mace.  He spoke fondly of the parabola roof, the only one of its kind in the world, and hoped that the well known flag poles at the forecourt would remain there.

The occasion was to celebrate the ‘ground breaking’ and to plant a time capsule to be opened in 2112.  Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Architecture spoke, as did Deyan Sudjic (Director of the Design Museum) and Luqman Arnold (Chair of the Trustees) and the Mayor of Kensington & Chelsea, Councillor Christopher Buckmaster.  However, on this beautiful sunny morning in Kensington, with the clear blue sky, the red crane, the high viz jackets and white helmets, it was the charming but somewhat frail Sir Terence who quietly stole the show.

 

Fast Forward to 17th November 2016:  The residents of Kensington have been watching the development of Holland Green (shiny lego-brick style residential development) and the Design Museum with interest.  First came the shop – beautifully small, but as it transpired, augmented by the larger store in the Museum situated on the ground floor of Holland Green.  Then on 17th the worlds press were invited to attend a photocall with Deyan Sudjic, Terence Conran, John Pawson, and Luqman Arnold with the multicoloured backdrop of ‘Designer Maker User’.   The architecture is wonderful; the roof structure having been left mainly in-situ from its Commonwealth Institute days, and the original marble flooring has been cleaned up and provides a panel for the main back wall.  The only sadness is that the star shaped design  which used to be on the centre of the original floor was not deemed by English Heritage to be of significant historical interest, so that was not saved.  The original copper parabola roof has been kept and can be viewed from Kensington High St. and Holland Park. Judging by the amount of interest world-wide the Design Museum is set to be a world class masterpiece of design, in its own right.

22nd November 2017  The Launch Party:  Attended by at last 1200 guests and hosted by Deyan, Terence and Alexandra Schulman – this was the party of all parties.   The champagne flowed, the atmosphere tremendous, guests very ‘designer-ish’ and the speeches genuine and sincere.  The affection between Terence and Deyan was clear, with both insisting the whole venture could not have been done without the other.  This was a huge day for Terence who later admitted to me that what he was really looking forward to was watching people come into the museum on the first open day, incognito!

24 November 2017:   The day has finally come.  Considering the world-wide interest and jamboree of the past few days, the ‘cutting of the ribbon’ as it was called, was quiet and sedate.  Only two photographers, (in-house and ourselves), the Trustees, architects and staff were present.  Upon cutting the ribbon, staff cheered and clapped – the event felt like a family birthday party than a corporate occasion – more akin to a celebration of a coming of age.  Perhaps in a sense that’s what it really was.  A long journey, a vision from a gentleman who has finally achieved what he felt so certain of all those years ago.  That design has a place, not only in our lives, but in society.  Bravo!

www.thekensingtonmagazine.com

Images and copyright:  www.lucyelliottphotography.com

www.designmuseum.org

 

 

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