THE COMMONWEALTH INSTITUTE IS STILL NOT VIABLE
I will leave it to others to comment on the Government's proposal to delist the Commonwealth Institute. However, I would like to take issue with Gavin Stamp's assertion that 'the basic soundness of its construction has not been seriously disputed' (AJ 8.06.06). This is simply not true: it would be difficult to think of another building of its period which has been the subject of so many consultations, reports and remedial works - all to no avail - not to mention two failed Millennium bids and numerous schemes for its reuse.
The study forming the basis for last year's delisting application looked closely at the origins of the building. Davis Langdon discovered that it had been built at a rock-bottom cost (including contributions in kind from the Commonwealth) of, at today's rates, £807/m 2. Equivalent updated costs for office buildings of that period are around £1,500-£2,500 - reasonably consistent with current-day costs. But today's budget for a public building in London is around £2,000/m 2. In the opinion of Davis Langdon the building 'was cheap? because it was designed for a very specific function and it was not? to a brief and budget that required low cost longevity.' Our researches confirmed this.
The listing officer, Andrew Saint, pointed out in Towards a Social Architecture that Stirrat Johnson-Marshall, the architect with overall responsibility for the project, believed that 'the (Treasury's) short sighted rules? govern capital expenditure for public construction and? by economising on first costs, heap up maintenance problems for the future.' The final, unfulfilled, ambition of his career was, he declared, 'to be architectural advisor on building to the Treasury'. Indeed, one could argue that the real signi-cance of the Commonwealth Institute is that it is possibly the most outstanding example of the achievement of architects and engineers in post-war Britain constructing something for (almost) nothing. But at what a long-term cost!
This is a building with an immense number of serious shortcomings, one being that despite the skilful reroofing of the exhibition hall (described by Austin Williams in AJ 23.05.02), it still leaks; Arup studied this in considerable detail. Part of the problem relates to the geometry of the hyperbolic paraboloid roof, part to the fact that the downpipes are cast in at a critical point of the reinforced concrete structure, and part to long-term climate change. The initial sizing of the downpipes gave a ow corresponding to a rainfall intensity of 32mm/hr, which now has a return period of only four months. The minimum applicable design standard today is 179mm/hr (and Arup suggests 249mm/hr for an exhibition building). During the recent re-roofing modifications were made to cope with a rainfall intensity of 60 mm/hr - the maximum possible - but the return period is eight months. The resultant ooding in a summer storm is dramatic!
I won't continue - the list of 'defects' is too long - but I can assure the chairman of the 20th Century Society that the 'basic soundness' (and lack of adaptability to current standards) of the Commonwealth Institute building is indeed very seriously disputed.
Peter Carolin, by email