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Any other decision on the Commonwealth Institute would have been irresponsible

The proposal for the Commonwealth Institute sticks to the site’s original principles, says English Heritage’s Paddy Pugh

Conceived by Edinburgh-based architects RMJM as a ‘tent in the park’, the Commonwealth Institute (1962) is one of Britain’s most striking post-war buildings. Its intention was assuredly modern, symbolising the concept of Commonwealth replacing Empire, and a commitment to young people and education in Britain and the Commonwealth at a time of increasing optimism about the future. It possesses great cultural significance – for many, a first image of the Commonwealth, a first visit to London.

The architectural expression of those ideals was a single, powerful space: the exhibition hall, where the whole gallery could be seen at once, as if standing in the centre of the world. The interior, with its dramatic, soaring roof,  was at the forefront of new thinking on gallery design. Presenting a combination of the latest techniques in design, construction and conceptual landscape, it is an undeniably important composition.

Yet for all of this, the building has been without a long-term occupier who is committed to its maintenance for 13 years. Its highly specific design and construction has made adaptation to a new use difficult; several attempts have failed. Although weathertight and secure, the building is deteriorating and is now little more than an empty shell. Allowing it to exist without use or future cannot be right. 

The current scheme, by real estate investment firm Chelsfield Partners, would see the exhibition hall adapted to house the Design Museum. The interior would be remodelled to meet current standards of floor loading, access and fire separation for a public building. The site’s administration wing and historic landscape would be lost to allow for three new residential buildings designed by OMA. This new development would help fund the developer’s £35 million contribution towards the crucial repair of the hall.

This scheme enjoys support from English Heritage and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It does so because it would secure the future of the most important part of the historic asset in a public cultural use, as was always intended. The Design Museum anticipates 400,000 visitors a year. We believe this major public benefit outweighs the loss of historic fabric and landscape (click here for the full reasons). 

Balancing benefit and harm has been core to English Heritage’s consideration of this scheme, but I am convinced that our decision to support it is the right one. Others will disagree. Some suggest that it would be Wednesbury unreasonable (a test of reason under English law) – even unlawful – to grant listed building consent. In my view it would be unreasonable, irresponsible and short-sighted to let this opportunity slip away.

Paddy Pugh is London planning & development regional director at English Heritage

Readers' comments (4)

  • English Heritage's inconsistency is worrying; its support for this one surely a political decison not a heritage one? It accepts the building will be spoiled. Why not press for better?

    Bradford Odeon, British Museum, so many others which seem simply to be English Heritage taking the easy way and caving in.

    See also what destruction has happened to the II* Middlesex Guildhall, for the soon to be opened 'Supreme Court', described as state - sponsored vandalism, all supported by English Heritage.

    Could do better. Far, far better.

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  • This is an awful decision by English Heritage, they have used incorrect information and have failed to apply the tests set out in Enabling Development. The result is that they have opened the way for anyone to suggest that just one part of a listed building represents the essence and is all that needs to be preserved. They have ignored the advice of many conservation experts and specialist groups who have produced evidence about the importance of the whole building in particular the interior, in view of the new draft PPS the way EH are ignoring their own documents such as Enabling Development is a recipe for disaster.

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  • It is sad and incomprehensible that EH have made this decision. The development, if it is built, will spoil the building and despoil the environment and setting. There are viable alternatives.

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  • "The result is that they have opened the way for anyone to suggest that just one part of a listed building represents the essence and is all that needs to be preserved."

    This is indeed what is happening, and EH is setting very dangerous precedents. Of course English Heritage is leaned on politically and it is more interested in self-preservation than genuine, thoughtful conservation.

    It is throwing out, when it suits, all the careful system of heritage protection which we have.

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