London’s Commonwealth Institute, once a thriving exhibition space on a prime west London site in Kensington, has lain empty for a decade. At last, yesterday, ambitious plans worth £80m were revealed to turn it into the “World’s Leading Design Museum”.
The plans see the sculptural concrete shell of the 1960s building carefully remodelled to house a much expanded institution. The Design Museum is currently housed in a 1940s banana warehouse on the south bank of the Thames, converted to make it look like a 1930s apartment block. It stood on the edge of Sir Terence Conran’s food and property empire on the south side of Tower Bridge, but the move to Kensington will place the Design Museum on the edge of Albertopolis, the area dedicated to Prince Albert whose enthusiasm for art and industry led to the foundation of the Science Museum and the eponymous Victoria and Albert Museum, both of which already, arguably, celebrate design and production.
The new building is being designed by British architect John Pawson, the minimalist architect once rejected for a monastery commission because the monks said his architecture might be a bit too austere for them. Having said that, the monastery he did build in NovýDvur, in Czech Republic, is truly great. Pawson proposes extensive if subtle surgical work (he calls it “re-tuning”) to insert a museum into a concrete case that has historically proved inflexible. The designs attempt to retain the essence of the theatrical interior, drawing visitors up a central stair towards the complex, hyperbolic paraboloid roof (a twisting, geometric bow). The slightly dull drawings demonstrate that this was always a great roof over a dim space. Nevertheless, Pawson has managed to conjure a series of neutral volumes to include education spaces, temporary exhibition galleries, a café, library and so on. All look suitably self-effacing, genuflecting before a 1960s version of modernism which was able to build expressive and structurally daring volumes now beyond the reach of public institutions.
The museum’s director, Deyan Sudjic, suggests that this is an opportunity to do for design what Tate Modern did for contemporary art through the appropriation of an existing hulk which would never now get planning permission. On the edge of the super-rich ghetto of Holland Park, the area’s astronomical prperty values are the reason why this project can go ahead at all – developer Chelsfield has given the Commonwealth Institute to the Design Museum and in return pushed through a dense, high-end residential scheme. The presentations scrupulously avoid showing the three chunky, bulky apartment blocks (designed by Dutch hyper-intellectual architects OMA) that will virtually obscure the museum from the main road, forcing it to turn itself towards the park behind instead.
Many museums have orientated themselves towards the design and architecture of the 100 years, from MoMA and MAD in New York to the V&A down the road in London, but few have thrown themselves solely into it. This is a daring, interesting decision and its success would see design firmly established as an equal to, rather than a subsidiary of, art.