The museum can now show its permanent collection – but John Pawson’s blonde wood conversion of an imperial relic could have been so much more exciting
The £20m apartments in Kensington’s Holland Green must have a good view of the 25 tonnes of Rhodesian copper that roll across the vaulted rooftop of the former Commonwealth Institute. Featuring aluminium window mullions from Canada and exotic hardwood floors from Nigeria, this big concrete tent was a physical showcase of the spoils of empire when it opened at the foot of Holland Park in 1962, replete with a forest of flagpoles on Kensington High Street trumpeting Britain’s network of resource-rich former colonies.
Times have changed, and the flagpole-studded forecourt has been replaced by a seven-storey block of luxury flats. It is one of three such cubes that now surround the 60s relic, providing the mechanism for funding the building’s revival. This icon of post-war optimism has been reborn, after an £83m renovation, as the new home for the Design Museum.
If part of the museum’s role is to expose the invisible mechanics behind how things and places get made, it couldn’t have a better object lesson on its doorstep. In 2007, five years after the Commonwealth Institute closed its doors as an outmoded curiosity (only kept alive so long because its dusty dioramas were on the national curriculum), the Grade II*-listed building was acquired by property developer Chelsfield.
It had hoped to convert it into a high-end fashion flagship store, or possibly a casino, at the heart of its new luxury enclave, but the council had other ideas and insisted on a more civic-minded use. The Design Museum was selected as the perfect candidate, bringing cachet to the development with a swanky design store located above the residents’ private swimming pool, spa and cinema. Chelsfield would contribute £20m to the renovation costs of the building and gift it rent-free on a 300-year lease in exchange for the right to fill the rest of the site with expensive flats. […]