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Building study: the new Design Museum by John Pawson, OMA, and Allies and Morrison

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John Pawson, OMA, and Allies and Morrison’s new Design Museum in the former Commonwealth Institute may be delightful, but it does not convey any worshipful creative mystique, says Jay Merrick


At the preview of the new Design Museum, its director Deyan Sudjic said that one of the organisation’s essential missions was to ‘move from the management of taste and specialisms to making sense of what’s going on around us’. Ironically, the interior design of the museum’s new London home in the former Commonwealth Institute (and the OMA-authored private residential blocks next to it) are nothing less than tasteful exercises in refined architecture; the apartment buildings look as if they’ve been laser-cut from Corian.

When John Donat photographed the RMJM-designed institute in the 1960s, he complained that its oblong admin block and the adjoining hyperbolic paraboloid-roofed main building were like ‘an express train hitting an engine shed’; the institute’s then director, Kenneth Bradley, was shrewder, declaring the architecture to be ‘avant garde’.

The Commonwealth Institute is reported to have possessed the first roof structure of its kind in Britain, and in 2006 architectural academic Peter Carolin suggested the building was ‘possibly the most outstanding example of architects and engineers in post-war Britain constructing something for (almost) nothing’. For the record, the architecture was not deliberately designed to be tent-like; it simply turned out to have tent-like qualities.

In the historical inertia of that radicalism, does it matter that OMA’s apartment blocks, with the involvement of Allies and Morrison, have a politely retro, Colgate-white SuperDutch look? Or that John Pawson has, in effect, created a beautifully made (if not beautiful) three-storey high piece of oak-faced furniture under the marvellous ram-jam skews of the concrete roof elements? We shall return to those questions.

The interior of the Design Museum takes the form of an inverted ziggurat, which has certainly created a very engaging atrium volume. From the ground-floor reception space, one sees virtually the whole of the roof structure and much of the Brutalist concrete buttressing – an impossibility in the original building, whose interior was relatively cluttered with elliptical voids, perimeter elements, and stair-bridges.

Faced with the showstopping roof structure and the massive supports angling up from the corners of the plan, a maximalist rather than minimalist response was needed. The staircases are substantial, with extremely wide, smooth caps on one side and illuminated handrails on the other, leading the gaze precisely and diagrammatically upwards.

Pawson takes us upwards via three staircases, beginning with a rather grand ‘social’ run of steps from the ground-floor reception area to a wide mezzanine (with a 15m-long bench) above the north side; the wall of the mezzanine is inset with a panel composed of marble from the 1857 Imperial Institute – an oddly arbitrary, rather than engaging, appliqued touch: tick here if interested in history; see also: types of marble.

From here, stairs proceed up along the west side of the atrium to the second level; the third level is reached by stairs rising from the east side to the south side of the atrium. The restrained detailing of all these elements is well achieved.

The above-ground functional segments are set out around all four sides of the second and third levels. The Swarovski Foundation Centre for Learning runs along most of the glazed south side of the first upper level, with design studios and the Sackler Archive and Library along the western edge.

design museum GGARDNER 1156

design museum GGARDNER 1156

Source: Gareth Gardner

The Design Museum’s big office space is on the east side, with views out on to the edge of Holland Park – an unthinkable prospect for both Terence Conran when he founded the first Design Museum in an ex-banana warehouse in Shad Thames in 1989, and for Sudjic when he began his search for new premises a decade ago.

The new museum’s top level contains two substantial exhibition spaces, a café-bar-restaurant looking out from the southern façade, and a frightfully suave monochrome members lounge created by Universal Design Studio. The basement holds an auditorium and exhibition space, with a further big, and very high, exhibition volume beneath it. The signage, and pictograms based on those created by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Munich Olympics, work well.

None of this would have been possible without OMA’s original masterplan, which generated four key outcomes: demolishing the service wing to make room for the apartment blocks; removing the blockwork walls behind the building’s original blind rainscreen glazing, and replacing it with fritted colour-matched glazing to create outlooks; removing the original ground floor which, according to Arup, wouldn’t have supported the new functional loads; and then propping up the roof structure to allow the dig-outs that created the two new basement levels. ‘We’ve made a replica of the original building,’ says OMA partner and project leader Reinier de Graaf.

Conran described the Design Museum’s new home as cathedral-like. It isn’t. As a whole, the £83 million scheme produces a calm, orderly atmosphere, and there is not the slightest aura of worshipful creative mystique about it – not least because the huge central volume, delightful though it is, is typologically evasive; you might imagine that you’d stepped into an uber luxe hotel rather than an uber informed pulse-point of international design.

Does this matter? Does the architecture of a design museum have to express the fact that 21st-century design is an increasing protean collage of the physically solid and the immaterial? The fact that once-distinct fields of design are increasingly smearing into each other doesn’t mean that the buildings containing or explaining these phenomena must also be sensually phenomenal.

The Design Museum expects to attract 650,000 people annually, and that target will only be met if the exhibitions do indeed make sense of what’s going on around us. And so, ultimately, the most significant fact is that the Design Museum has 10,000m² of floor space – three times that of the Shad Thames building. Three of these exhibition spaces are genuinely big and will give Deyan Sudjic’s team – and notably the chief curator, Justin McGuirk – every opportunity not only to make sense of what is going on around us, but also to fail to make sense of it – as interestingly as possible.

The Design Museum’s opening salvo of exhibitions seems a promising start: 1,000 20th and 21st-century design items in Designer Maker User, Beazley’s Designs of the Year, and McGuirk’s eclectic and engrossing Fear and Love. As the still, central point in exhibition mixes like this, it is not necessarily a negative criticism to note that John Pawson’s well-mannered interiors have therapeutic qualities.

From the archive

Page 2 copy

To read The Architectural Review’s building study of the Commonwealth Institute from 1963, click here

In December The Architectural Review will be publishing a special issue celebrating its 120th anniversary. To browse selected back issues, visit the AR Store

Architects’ view

In conceiving a future for one of London’s Modernist buildings, we pay tribute to a period that continues to inform contemporary architecture. The Design Museum is flanked by the new residential blocks; like discreet servants, their restrained, orthogonal geometries pose a contrast to the dramatic hyperbolic lines of the historic exhibition hall’s roof.

Reinier de Graaf, partner, OMA 

We relished the opportunity to contribute towards re-imagining a promising future for the Design Museum. The project has resulted in a striking assemblage of buildings within an enhanced urban park setting, which sensitively balances the needs of residents with the public benefit for future visitors to the new museum. The experience afforded us the opportunity to deepen our unique skills in the re-adaptation of Modernist landmarks, analogous to our work on the 2007 Royal Festival Hall transformation.

Simon Fraser, partner, Allies and Morrison 

Site plan

27 design museum site plan 01 copyright oma + allies and morrison

Lower basement plan

Design Museum Lower Basement 1 500

Ground floor plan

Design Museum Ground Floor 1 500

First floor plan

Design Museum First Floor 1 500


Design Museum Section A 1 500

Design Museum Section B 1 500

Project data

Shell & core: OMA + Allies and Morrison 
Interior design and fit-out: John Pawson  

Structural & facade engineer Arup 

Building services ChapmanBDSP 

Contractor Mace 

Fit-out contractor Willmott Dixon 

Landscape architect West 8 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Chris Rogers

    'From the ground-floor reception space, one sees virtually the whole of the roof structure and much of the Brutalist concrete buttressing – an impossibility in the original building, whose interior was relatively cluttered with elliptical voids, perimeter elements, and stair-bridges.' A curious assertion, refuted by my own pictures - taken during Open House a few years ago - and indeed the 1963 review you link to.

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