‘Retuning the building.’ That’s how architect John Pawson modestly describes the mammoth undertaking of his first public commission, the transformation of the former Commonwealth Institute on London’s Kensington High Street into the new Design Museum. The process involved negotiating with Terence Conran, representatives from the local council, and the Twentieth Century Society, gutting the rapidly desiccating 1960s interior and taking down the exterior walls until just the Grade II*-listed, gazebo-like roof remained, propped up by four concrete buttresses. ‘That was a scary moment,’ admits Pawson. ‘We were waiting for it to fall down.’
Inside, he has created a vast oak and steel cathedral that is both calming and thrilling. ‘People come in and say, “Wow, I never knew it was so spectacular.”’ The £83m ‘retuning’ is unmistakably Pawson – with gorgeously engineered woodwork, concealed lighting, floating benches and luxuriously ascetic anterooms – but there are some notable firsts. Handrails on the staircases, for instance, and padded leather seating on the stairs. ‘I know, handrails! Ridiculous, isn’t it?’ He’s joking, of course. ‘I am old enough to know that people need to feel secure in public buildings. What surprises me is that I’ve been able to hang on to many ‘domestic’ details, like skirting boards.’ He adds that he wanted to include places ‘where people can perch with a coffee for a while, find their own little corners.’
Pawson, an accomplished photographer, has documented the transformation and contributed this special edit for Wallpaper*.
As originally featured in the December 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*213)