Commonwealth Institute. Image: Erol Gemma
Although London is home to many more than its fair share of galleries, museums, cultural and educational organisations, the contemporary public space that has been purpose built to house all this cultural activity is rather less lavish.
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Indeed, the list of even relatively recent additions to London’s cultural and educational urban scene is a remarkably short one. It starts and practically finishes with Deptford’s Laban Centre by Herzog and de Meuron (2003) and the British Library by Colin St John Wilson (1997). Consider that Tate Modern is essentially a conversion, as is the British Museum’s Great Court and it becomes clear the debt the city owes to the brief flowering of the national artistic consciousness post Festival of Britain that gave rise to the Southbank complex and to the oddity that is the Commonwealth Institute building.
This purpose-built civic structure was unusual from the very beginning, not only because it was a new purpose built cultural centre in a city bereft of them, but also because its design was purposefully 'conceived to be bold' according to architects Sir Robert Matthews, Johnson-Marshall & Partners (RMJM). The building is a thoroughly modern pavilion, made out of brick and concrete, with the characteristic feature of a rather unusually shaped roofscape, the largest of its time - a sweeping 183 sq ft. This alone has been the main point of interest of many historians and architecture enthusiasts, and represents the period’s design and structural innovation.
When, in 1958 a new building for the Commonwealth Institute was commissioned, and the former Imperial Institute moved from their Colcutt-designed office on Exhibition Row to Kensington, British firm RMJM took the opportunity to create the new space for the Institute’s programmes. Taking advantage of the beautifully located spot on Kensington High Street, right next to Holland Park, the architects envisaged the building as simple as a 'tent in the park'.
The key diamond-shaped volume with the striking roof, was placed diagonally in relation to the street – respectful to the surrounding nature. A rather more conventional orthogonal building, containing the offices, was attached to a main hall’s west corner. This wing appears to be cutting right through the central volume, perhaps not unsuitably often referred to, as the 'train-crush building'.
The building was designed as an art and education facility, with extra space for offices, cinema and event rooms; a rather straightforward use, housed in a unconventional structure, produced by a collaboration between some of the time’s leading design experts.
Dame Sylvia Crowe created the landscape design. The main entrance is reached via a bridge, extending over a small pond, and leading to a large staircase directing the visitor to the building’s main hall. The grand central foyer void pierces through three-levels of exhibition space – designed by top exhibition designer James Gardner - right under the roof’s central point.
Spanning over the main hall’s 60,000 sq ft and reaching 83 ft above ground level, the remarkable roof design inventively uses the hyperbolic paraboloid shape. Additionally, its mixed construction – a mesh of pre-stressed concrete ribs, decked by wood-wool slabs – secured the necessary lightness in considerably low cost, also undetectable from the outside, where only the sleek copper sheet cladding is visible.
Unfortunately, the overall budget available was about a third of the ideal one for a building of that type and size, which was the root of many technical problems; the quality had to be downgraded and construction suffered, leading for example, to roof leaks. Even though budget caused problems from almost day one, RMJM and the Consulting Engineers’ – Harris & Sutherland - imaginative solution both effective within budget and enhancing the building’s desired dramatic effect.
Until 2002 the building was used for education programs and lectures. Right after the Institute moved out, the issue of the building’s ambiguous future begun unravelling. Despite an earlier £3million restoration in 2001 by Avery Associates and engineers Buro Huppold, when even part of the roof copper cladding was replaced, the space was left empty for a long time, occasionally being let for events - like office Christmas parties. When it was proposed in 2005 to remove the building’s Grade II Listing, notoriously threatening to demolish it, there was an immediate reaction from many architects, critics and admirers, resulting in great controversy and eventually in the proposal’s rejection.
In spring 2007, Chelsfield Partners acquired the building. The company, together with Ilchester Estate who own the land’s freehold, today co-own the site and complex, and since then developments have been moving much faster. Foster and Partners designed an initial proposal for the land’s re-development, and a few months later a more detailed architectural competition was launched.
Superstars OMA won the competition, against proposals from the likes of Rafael Moneo, Make, Eric Parry, Caruso St John, and Rafael Vinoly. Rem Koolhaas and Reinier de Graaf’s design underlined the brief’s request to respect the RMJM concrete tent structure and re-use it, also including a new residential part onsite, and redesigning the surrounding landscape; the architects are now developing proposals for planning permission to be submitted towards the end of the year.
With the architectural development underway, the 'tent' is also in search of a new use, with Chelsfield and upmarket real estate agents Savills on the case. Former-CABE Chairman and great architecture enthusiast, Chelsfield’s Sir Stuart Lipton fell in love with the building instantly, and has great visions for its future.
'It is an ideal space for art display and culture, or for an interesting commercial organization who would appreciate being based in one of the definitive buildings of the post-War era', he explains. Since it has been on the market the space has been courted by the likes of developer Alessandro Cajrati Crivelli, Deyan Sudjic, who was considering it for the new Design Museum’s home, entrepreneurs that wanted to transform it into a casino, or a conference centre, and even somebody who offered to buy the structure, dismantle and reassemble it in another location; all options which haven’t worked out so far.
Sir Lipton’s dream for the site involves great architecture, culture, West 8-design landscapes, and even a Russian Constructivist sculpture-style structure outside the High Street Kensington entrance, acting as a high street landmark.
With such great intentions, OMA’s ambitious designs and of course, most of all, the iconic original structure of the Commonwealth Institute, chances are that this representative of the 1960s architectural legacy will have its future secured, and will move on to a glamorous future.