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Was OMA and Allies and Morrison's Holland Green the best way to fund the Design Museum?

  • 2 Comments

BUILDING STUDY: Three apartment blocks on the Commonwealth Institute site may be funding the Design Museum’s new home, but this is still more luxury housing for the very rich, says Laura Mark

ARCHITECTS’ VIEWS • PROJECT DATA • PLANS • ISOMETRIC • DETAIL

OMA’s Reinier de Graaf has ambitions to build social housing; he told me so at this year’s Venice Biennale. But this, the practice’s first residential project in the UK, is not it. This development of three blocks of housing by OMA and Allies and Morrison is luxury, though with ambitions beyond just housing London’s rich.

Speaking about the capital’s current housing crisis, de Graaf says: ‘The trend seems irreversible and inescapable. Architects are now as much part of it as property developers. Even if mentioning these two categories in a single sentence might offend most architects, the statement is no less true.

‘Developments like One Hyde Park, One Kensington Gardens and One Berkeley Street – number one is becoming the norm – have helped transform the city into a playground of the over-privileged, offering little in return. Housing projects for the rich usually come in tandem with excessive security demands and unrealistic expectations of privacy – invariably promoting the private domain over that of the public.’

The sales of its 54 residential units have helped save an important part of English architectural heritage

This is what he hopes is being avoided at Holland Green’s new model in west London. There’s no social housing and it doesn’t play any part in offering affordable housing, but the Robin Hood-like model uses the income from the housing development to fund cultural facilities – financing the Design Museum’s new home in the former Commonwealth Institute and meaning its rent has been waived for the next 375 years.

‘The revenues have been put to use for the greater good,’ says de Graaf. ‘The sales of its 54 residential units have helped save an important part of English architectural heritage’.

The Commonwealth Institute, designed by RMJM and completed in 1962, has sat empty since 2002. When the building reopens in November as the Design Museum’s new home, the only part of its Grade II*-listed structure that will remain will be its hyperbolic paraboloid roof. The rest, from its walls, floors and columns to its curtain walling glazing, has been rebuilt to meet modern standards.

The cluttered mess of administration buildings that surrounded the institute has been demolished to make way for the new housing, and these three new blocks have been orientated at 45° to Kensington High Street – just like the Commonwealth building.

The different sizes of the three cube-like buildings echo their context; the smallest block responds to the park, the middle one to the street, and the largest to the height of the institute’s sweeping roof, and they are all surrounded by lush landscaping from Dutch firm West 8.

Beneath all of this is a basement, which squirrels away all the unsightly things such as car parking, storage and the service access to the museum, alongside the additions of a luxury housing development including a swimming pool, cinema room, gym and a room for oligarchs to practise their golf swing.

The apartment interiors are pretty much sacrificial. Although the architects were encouraged to create something neutral and of a high quality to minimise the need to rip them out and start again, they know that is what will nevertheless happen when the rich buyers move in. In one of the blocks the brand-new interior has already been replaced by a Syrian art collector who bought a full four floors and hastily called up John Pawson to redesign the interior of the huge multi-storey apartment. The spaces that have been designed to stay– although not by OMA or Allies and Morrison – are the lobbies but it feels a shame that their showy interiors could not have in some way linked to the Design Museum and the work that will be on display there.

Outside, the buildings do very little to show what is going on within. The windows reflect the glazing of the Commonwealth Institute while the blocks’ strict forms erode away at the corners, where terraces or projecting forms can be found. The regimented Jura limestone facades, de Graaf reveals, are a combination of two schemes that were rejected during planning consultations. The planning, it seems, was a series of negotiations and it was never expected to be an easy scheme to get through planning.

‘When we came, nothing was allowed,’ says de Graaf. ‘But the best possible form of preservation is a new use.’

It has opened up a debate about what can be done around a listed building of this period especially at a time when more 60s buildings are being protected.

‘[The Commonwealth Institute] represents a still undigested period of our architectural history,’ adds de Graaf. ‘The 60s are history without (yet) enjoying the respect normally paid to history.’

It is also the planning agreement that could successfully ensure the development’s ambitions are actually put into play. With security gates already in place to protect the owners of the luxury flats from any unwanted visitors, the socialist agenda could easily go awry. But a clause in the planning means the Design Museum has the right to insist the site remains open to the public, and de Graaf tells me the institute would be able to take legal action if this openness were prevented.

For the developer the scheme has been successful; just three apartments remain unsold and they can fetch up to £45,000 per month in rent. But the real test for the development will come once the Design Museum opens in November. How will the housing’s rich owners really deal with the public access, and how will the lines between public and private be drawn?

Let’s not kid ourselves, this is still housing for the very rich, and a scheme that attempts to tackle a social agenda by providing space for an art museum is probably only really emphasising art as a pastime of the educated middle classes.

Holland Green by OMA with Allies and Morrison

Holland Green by OMA with Allies and Morrison

Source: Nick Guttridge

Architects’ views

London’s booming property market has been the subject of much criticism. For good reason. The recent soar of London’s house prices has increasingly reduced the city from a real place into a game of Monopoly, forcing many ordinary Londoners to live ever further from their original neighbourhoods. Developments like One Hyde Park, One Kensington Gardens and One Berkeley Street – number 1 is becoming the norm – have helped transform the city into a playground of the over-privileged, offering little in return. Housing projects for the rich come in tandem with excessive security demands and unrealistic expectations of privacy – invariably promoting the private domain over that of the public. 

The Holland Green project is different. Not that it constitutes any major form of affordable housing – it does not – but for the simple fact that (part of) its revenues have been put to use for the greater good. The sales of its 54 residential units have helped save an important part of English architectural heritage: the former Commonwealth Institute, designed by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners [RMJM], completed in 1962, listed since 1988, empty since 2002. After a failed attempt by the government to get the building delisted, it barely avoided demolition in 2006. 

The rescue of an important piece of modern heritage to house a major cultural institution, London’s Design Museum, in a publicly accessible green setting is not something the average London residential development can boast. Despite these obvious benefits, it was by no means easy to obtain planning permission for the project. Only because of the council chairman’s casting vote (in favour) did the project pass. Meanwhile, the local community seems to have considerably warmed to the development, as shown by the many expressions of support received from local residents. Seven years later, some of the project’s fiercest opponents have become its staunchest advocates.

Reinier de Graaf, OMA

Holland Green by OMA with Allies and Morrison

Holland Green by OMA with Allies and Morrison

Source: Nick Guttridge

This project presented us with an interesting and multifaceted challenge, which was to help create bold new buildings while carefully restoring one of London’s most important modern buildings. 

We had to prepare the Grade II*-listed former Commonwealth Institute for occupation for a new tenant, the Design Museum, which is now moving in. The complex alteration and refurbishment of the future museum required extensive modification to the structural frame with a new facade that meets the technical and operational requirements for the future museum yet upholds the distinct character and qualities of the revered 1960s original building. A ‘dot-on-dot’ frit to the glazing now permits controlled daylight into and views out of the museum, and retains the painted blue-glass colour associated with the original building facades. 

The residential buildings are ‘sculptures in a park’ with gridded forms that contain the apartments in a supportive neutral geometry. The patterning of their facades may appear random, but it isn’t. It allows for a diversity of individual apartment layouts, which are expressed in the facade by balconies, projecting bays and recessed terraces. These create a diverse and unique composition for each facade. It also allows private open spaces to be distributed to the majority of apartments, avoiding a more standard repetitive facade expression. The building concept design has proven an enduring and robust strategy, permitting design changes to the apartment layouts by adjusting balcony, entrance and skybox positions, always as a careful composition, but without compromising the integrity of the overall design.

Simon Fraser, Allies and Morrison

Holland Green by OMA with Allies and Morrison

Holland Green by OMA with Allies and Morrison

Source: Sebastian van Damme

Site plan

Oma a and m site

Oma a and m site

Typical floor plans

Oma a and m plans

Oma a and m plans

Isometric

Oma a and m isometrics of blocks

Oma a and m isometrics of blocks

Detail

Oma a and m detail

Oma a and m detail

Project data

Start on site September 2012
Completion 2016
Gross internal floor area 213,000m2 (residential), 73,065m2 (public realm), 110,000m2 (design museum parabola)
Construction cost £120 million (total development)
Architect OMA with Allies and Morrison
Client Chelsfield Developments
Structural engineer Arup Structures
M&E consultant Arup Services
Facade consultant Arup Facades and FMDC
Fire consultant Arup Fire
Acoustic consultant Arup Acoustics
Interior designer CZ
Quantity surveyor Aecom
Landscape architect West8
Main contractor Mace

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • Chris Rogers

    Mussolini's EUR comes to Kensington. God, how awful.

    And it's implied but not made clear that the entire site - these 3 blocks and the Institute/Design Museum building - are now surrounded by a new permiter that can be gated. As I recall, the old building was open-access in terms of walking in from the High St?

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  • For Chris Rodgers:
    It does seem very odd to have already installed security gates when the Design Museum has the right to insist the site remain open to public access.
    This reminds me of the gated 'high end' residential development blocking pedestrian access to the harbour side adjoining the National Maritime Museum Cornwall (designed by MJ Long) in Falmouth.
    And if some architects are in the habit of flitting between London and Cornwall, so - maybe - are some of the Russian mafia.

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