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