The £20m apartments in Kensington’s Holland Green must have a good view of the 25 tonnes of Rhodesian copper that roll across the vaulted rooftop of the former Commonwealth Institute. Featuring aluminium window mullions from Canada and exotic hardwood floors from Nigeria, this big concrete tent was a physical showcase of the spoils of empire when it opened at the foot of Holland Park in 1962, replete with a forest of flagpoles on Kensington High Street trumpeting Britain’s network of resource-rich former colonies.
Times have changed, and the flagpole-studded forecourt has been replaced by a seven-storey block of luxury flats. It is one of three such cubes that now surround the 60s relic, providing the mechanism for funding the building’s revival. This icon of post-war optimism has been reborn, after an £83m renovation, as the new home for the Design Museum.
If part of the museum’s role is to expose the invisible mechanics behind how things and places get made, it couldn’t have a better object lesson on its doorstep. In 2007, five years after the Commonwealth Institute closed its doors as an outmoded curiosity (only kept alive so long because its dusty dioramas were on the national curriculum), the Grade II*-listed building was acquired by property developer Chelsfield. It had hoped to convert it into a high-end fashion flagship store, or possibly a casino, at the heart of its new luxury enclave, but the council had other ideas and insisted on a more civic-minded use. The Design Museum was selected as the perfect candidate, bringing cachet to the development with a swanky design store located above the residents’ private swimming pool, spa and cinema. Chelsfield would contribute £20m to the renovation costs of the building and gift it rent-free on a 300-year lease in exchange for the right to fill the rest of the site with expensive flats.
“We are not a publicly funded institution, so we have to be agile and astute,” says Deyan Sudjic, who was appointed director of the Design Museum 10 years ago and charged with finding a bigger home. A partnership with Tate Modern had been on the cards, as had moving back to the V&A (where the museum began in 1981), or up to Manchester, but the Kensington site was deemed to offer the best bang for their buck. “We would never have been able to build something of this scale from scratch,” says Sudjic, sitting in the new museum, which is three times the size of the old Shad Thames home, a former banana warehouse, sold to the late Zaha Hadid to house her archive and gallery. “It is a chance to bring some life back to Kensington, which was once the Hoxton of its day. Now it is very affluent, but affluence sometimes makes a place boring.”
It was a canny Faustian pact for both parties, but the compromise shows in the museum’s strangeness: a public attraction that wants as many visitors as possible, and wealthy residents who presumably don’t. When I enter the building’s lobby on the high street, naively hoping there might be a public terrace on the roof, I am dispatched with frosty efficiency and told to register my interest with Harrods Estates. Too bad the flats have all been snapped up, at up to £4,500 per square foot.
Once you’ve made it past the shop and through the apartment block into a courtyard that feels like the semi-private realm of the development, you find the swooping 60s structure, all scrubbed up. Its awkward ancillary buildings have been swept away and the main pavilion has been comprehensively rebuilt – save for the daring paraboloid roof – with a crisp new facade designed by the same architects as the flats, OMA with Allies and Morrison, and a pristine new interior by arch-minimalist John Pawson, an old friend of Sudjic’s.
Entering the building, bathed in a warm world of blonde wood and glowing shadow gaps, you might be forgiven for thinking that Chelsfield had stuck to plan A and gone with the Calvin Klein store. A generous oak staircase, punctuated with little leather seats, rises up to two levels of oak-lined galleries, only missing their Y-fronted mannequins. The original roof soars above it all, its floating concrete tongue supported on dramatic buttresses and flanked by top-lit wings, still clad in pleasingly Weetabix-y panels of grey wood wool. But the aerial drama feels a bit suffocated by the boxy levels of oak veneer stacked up below, as if a mid-range business hotel had been shoehorned in beneath the great concrete kite.
“I always feel I could have been more modest,” says Pawson, now 67, as we climb the stairs and pause on a long oak bench in front of a wall of white marble – stone that has been twice recycled, from the Commonwealth Institute and the Victorian Imperial Institute before that, demolished in 1957. “The last thing you want to see in a museum is the architect’s signature. You don’t want to be distracted.”
He has deployed his usual pared-back palette, honed over the years in fashion stores and fancy hotels, and the finish is impeccable, even on a tighter budget than he is used to working with. But, rather than fading into the background, his acres of oak swamp the extraordinariness of the existing shell. A different approach could have amplified the power of the relic – as at OMA’s Garage Museum in Moscow, or Lacaton & Vassal’s Palais de Tokyo in Paris – rather than smothering it with plasterboard and veneer.
“I didn’t think rawness would work here,” says Sudjic, in defence of his choice. “It’s quite a fragile building. When we first visited, it was like a refrigerator that had been left out in the rain. I thought it needed more help.”
In practical terms, the architects have managed to carve out a decent volume of exhibition space, with a double-height basement for the temporary gallery and auditorium, a ground-floor gallery, offices and archive on the first floor (where windows, sadly, have to be frosted so as not to annoy the neighbours) and a permanent exhibition gallery on the top floor, along with a restaurant. Some of the spaces seem a bit squeezed in around the building’s difficult structure, and there are odd moments of feeling like you’re in a building-within-a-building, where you get to peer at the vaulting roof through windows in a suspended ceiling.
For the first time in the museum’s history, its permanent collection will be on display for free, while the wide-ranging exhibition programme, headed up by new chief curator Justin McGuirk, will open with Designs of the Year and Fear and Love (reviewed next week), followed by shows ranging from Ferrari to California post-Eames and the architecture of the Russian revolution.
It might not have been the most imaginative choice of architect, and there are compromises in the nature of the partnership, but, given the circumstances, Sudjic has pulled off an impressive deal. “These things can go wrong,” he reminds me. In a similar bargain with a developer in the mid-2000s, the Architecture Foundation lost its chance to build a Zaha Hadid-designed headquarters when budgets ran out of control. By contrast, the Design Museum has a spacious new home – along with the perfect outdoor exhibit of how London’s cultural-real-estate complex works.
• The Design Museum, London, opens on 24 November
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