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The Design Museum

A new home

Allies & Morrison, OMA, John Pawson, West 8 and Deyan Sudjic worked together to create a new home for London’s Design Museum. They tell Kim Megson how this unique project took shape


London’s Design Museum opened in its new £85m home on Kensington High Street in November, after the culmination of a highly innovative architectural collaboration.

The museum is located inside the former Commonwealth Institute, a Grade II* Listed building designed by architecture studio RHWL in the late 1950s, which had lain empty for years.

Developers Chelsfield LLP and Ilchester Estates wanted to create residential blocks that would fund the restoration of this modernist icon.

Architects OMA won a competition to conceive a plan for the site, developing three new residential cubes with 54 apartments that respond to the geometry and grid of the original building. Working alongside Allies & Morrison, they also found a way to revitalise the Institute’s structure, while retaining its distinctive copper roof and parabolic form.

In 2008, the Design Museum expressed interest in occupying the revamped building. John Pawson was brought in to finalise the interior spaces, Dutch landscape architects West 8 were commissioned to create the surrounding green space, planting and topography and Arup and Mace provided engineering services – including supporting the structure’s iconic roof, while intensive renovations took place to the building’s shell and envelope beneath.

The subsequent wholesale reconfiguration of the structure and a basement excavation has increased floor area to 10,000sq m. For the Design Museum, this means they have triple the space of their previous home in a former banana warehouse at Shad Thames, near Tower Bridge. New facilities include two major temporary gallery spaces, a free permanent collection display, a restaurant overlooking Holland Park, an auditorium, studios, a library, an archive and learning facilities.

The buildings façades have been completely replaced to meet current technical building standards, the glazing was redesigned and replaced, while a number of original stained glass panels were removed, refurbished and reinstated.

To discover how this unique project came to fruition, CLAD sat down with the key players involved in realising the development to talk about their input and collaboration and what they learned.

REBUILDING A LANDMARK

Reinier De Graaf - OMA partner in charge of the project

Reinier De Graaf
Reinier De Graaf

How did you become involved in the project?
In March 2008 we took part in a competition, which we won.

It had a very interesting brief – to bring back to life a site that was dead: the Commonwealth Institute was in a bad state and it was a huge burden for the council to maintain it.

It was built as a temporary structure, and had become listed in a way that had – weirdly – created a permanent state for something which had been intended to only have a limited life.

The exhibition hall had a service wing that even the original designers referred to as a train crash, but in spite of this, all the buildings were Grade II* listed.

Also, the grounds were registered, because Dame Sylvia Crowe had designed a garden that was never executed, so there was a bizarre situation where there was a modern ruin on a derelict parking lot, and both were listed.

The only option was refurbish the whole thing. With the competition, the developers wanted to know how various architects would go about this impossible task.

How did you come up with your concept?
We decided some parts are more listed than others. In the design we took away the service wing, kept the main exhibition hall – really the prize of the architecture because of the parabolic roof – and decided a derelict car park deserved a re-landscape. Our concept was to have Holland Park engulf the whole terrain, and in the residual triangles that emerged as a result of demolishing the service wing we added three residential cube blocks of a different size. It was a way of getting a fairly large development quantum in a fairly small site and making it look small.

The whole point was to start an opening negotiating position for discussions with English Heritage, the council and other parties.

What do you think of Pawson’s interiors?
I think his interiors are suitably tasteful. It’s a different interior to the one we would have done; I think we’d have done something rougher. Most of our work is a little more ambiguous about what’s new and what’s old. We tend to wrongfoot people a little more. But on the whole I think he’s done a very good job. The museum is buzzing, and in the end any minimalist architecture is always eventually overrun by its users – I tend to think that’s a good thing. It’s a very nice place, and it’s there, ultimately.

What part of this project are you proudest of?
In an age where there are precious few public subsidies, we managed to save a listed building, have a major cultural institution open to the public and have a community that’s not gated and is a public part of a public park. That’s an impressive achievement in the context of a public sector which, on the whole, is so passive and has relegated all the initiative to the market.

It was an arranged marriage between housing and a museum; that was the only way the whole project was going to get planning approval. A quicksand of multiple ingredients created an environment where it could happen. I’m very proud of the deal, and the choreography of making it happen over eight years. And I’m proud of the fact we worked successfully with so many people.

Had OMA been the sole architect, things would have been done differently, but in a way I prefer this. In the world of architecture, collegial collaboration isn’t something you hear about a lot. It’s an egomaniacal profession, so I’m very happy about the broadness of this project.

"Had OMA been the sole architect, things would have been done differently, but in a way I prefer this"

 / photo: Philip Vile
photo: Philip Vile

THE PROCESS

Simon Fraser - Allies & Morrison

Simon Fraser / Allies and Morrison
Simon Fraser Allies and Morrison

What was your involvement with the project?
We were invited to join OMA to develop the [original] design. The project resumed again at the start of 2011, and we were invited again to join them.

OMA retained authorship of the scheme and when we got involved we evaluated the overall site and looked at the scheme, investigating a number of changes – how the structure of the basement would work, for example, and the orientation of entrances in the residential buildings. The early months were spent re-looking at how the ground engaged with the building. Initially there was a rolling landscape that came right up to the residential buildings. In time that got pushed back with the creation of small patios and terraces involved bringing value back.

How was the process of collaboration?
What we could bring to bear was a more detailed knowledge of residential housing standards, and our experience of refurbishing listed buildings. For the Commonwealth Institute we were involved with the dramatic changes to the façades and the structure being gutted, new floors put in and the creation of a new envelope to satisfy the requirements of the Design Museum.

We regularly met up with OMA, John Pawson and West 8, to have discussions and create combined drawings. There are always moments of disagreement, but it was an enjoyable process.

Do you have a personal favourite part of the building?
There’s a jaw-dropping moment where you open the front door and you see the underside of the original building and the roof. And seeing the exhibition hall completed is the last piece of the puzzle.

"There’s a jaw-dropping moment where you open the front door and you see the underside of the original building and the roof"

OMA designed the three housing blocks (one pictured) that stand alongside the Design Museum / photo: Luke Hayes
OMA designed the three housing blocks (one pictured) that stand alongside the Design Museum photo: Luke Hayes

THE INTERIORS

John Pawson

John Pawson
John Pawson

How would you describe the design of the new museum?
From the beginning I approached the design as an exercise in re-tuning. I didn’t want to fight the building – to bend it to my will. I’ve arranged the new programme like an opencast mine around the central atrium, with the atrium framing the views to the original concrete roof. I like the fact that everywhere you are, there are sightlines connecting you with other areas of the museum

What was your starting point?
The thought I found myself coming back to again and again during the design process was the exhilarating sense of vertical expansion I experienced when I first visited the deserted building and stepped out onto the central dais, into the void under the hyperbolic paraboloid roof structure. That experience was something I wanted to preserve and enhance.

What were the biggest challenges of this project?
There are specific challenges associated with working within an existing structure, especially one that is Grade II* listed, but I think constraints generally stimulate rather than hamper the creative process. The project has certainly required some memorable feats of engineering: when we were excavating the basement levels, the entire building, including the original roof structure, had to be propped on stilts.

Did you think about how to retain the spirit of the Shad Thames building within this much bigger space?
More space opens up so many new opportunities, but for me the crucial thing was to get the atmosphere right: serene, but also charged with a sort of underlying spatial excitement.

You want to make a place that people feel good to be in and where the focus falls naturally on the installations.

How did you approach the design?
It was important to me that we redrew the relationship between the architecture and its surroundings. I wanted to make the threshold a soft, permeable one that would draw people in and through. A significant change we’ve made to the building is that its skin has become transparent on the north and east elevations, meaning that people in the park will be able to look in to the museum and vice versa. This is very much in the spirit of the original architects’ concept of the building as a ‘tent in the park’. As I see it, we’ve opened the tent flaps.

What does this project mean to you personally?
I feel very fortunate that my first public building is in the city where I’ve worked and lived for almost four decades.

Do you have a favourite part of the new museum?
There are ‘moments’ in the building that I relish every time I walk around, but I think it’s really the way everything comes together that gives me the greatest pleasure.

How do you hope the public will respond to it?
Before this project, there were good examples of repurposing existing industrial buildings for cultural purposes, but very few instances involving the retuning of an existing cultural building for a new cultural life. I hope the Design Museum shows people that you don’t have to tear down and start from scratch.

How did you find the collaboration process?
So much of architecture rests on dialogue and in this project we have been fortunate in the creative relationships.

If you find clients and collaborators with whom the chemistry feels good, then everything else follows.

"I hope the Design Museum shows people that you don’t have to tear down and start from scratch"

Pawson designed the large atrium so that it frames the views of the original roof
Pawson designed the large atrium so that it frames the views of the original roof

THE CLIENT

Deyan Sudjic - Design Museum director

Deyan Sudjic / photo: Luke Hayes
Deyan Sudjic photo: Luke Hayes

What impact will the move have on the Design Museum?
We’re still exploring what the move actually means. We’re just realising the scale of the transformation from Shad Thames to here. With that has come the sense of excitement, and of understanding just how complicated a building is.

We’re expecting an audience of around 650,000 a year, as opposed to the 250,000 we had in Shad Thames. We’ve got a building with three times the space, we’ve increased our budget so we’ll be operating on about £11m a year, as opposed to the £5m before. It’s growing on all fronts.

What are your goals for the new museum?
The point of this move is that we’re growing up without growing old. I was hired with a brief to grow the museum; to take us from the edge of the conversation to the centre stage.
We’ve built a theatre with multiple stages, and now our task is to fill them with a great repertoire.

Justin McGuirk, our curator, has worked hard to achieve that.

The location will bring life to Kensington High Street; it was once a very vibrant and fashionable neighbourhood but has lost that recently. The Tate Modern turned contemporary art from something that was seen by the tabloids as a joke to something part of the mainstream conversation. We have a chance to do that for contemporary design and architecture.

Having worked with John Pawson, OMA and a host of other practices, have you learnt much about designers through this process?
I trained to be an architect, but I didn’t become one because I was grossly incompetent and impatient! It was a good starting point for working on this project though. The process with this building has made me realise over the years how much respect I have for any architect or designer who can keep the essence of an idea alive throughout the long drawn out process of realising a project.

Do you have a favourite part of the building?
I knew the building as a child, so it’s great to see it brought back to life. I think what John Pawson has done is create a new building inside the old one, which frames the original and almost turns it into an exhibit. I love the way he has made it into a better building than it was before.

What will be the philosophy of the Design Museum moving forward?
We see design as borderless. Opening a museum is a very optimistic thing. We are open to the world and design is a way to understand the world. I’ve always thought design is too important just to leave to designers, and I think we’re trying to demonstrate that.

I’m sure it’s going to succeed. I can feel it in the building.  

"We see design as borderless. It’s a way to understand the world. Opening a museum is a very optimistic thing"

CURRENT EXHIBITIONS

The museum is currently hosting three exhibitions in its new home

The Beazley Design of the Year

Comprising over 70 nominations, the exhibition celebrates the best designs from around the world in the last 12 months across six categories: architecture, digital, fashion, graphics, product and transport. Designs include a drinkable book, a flat-pack refugee shelter, a robot surgeon and the last David Bowie album cover.

 / Luke Hayes
Luke Hayes

Fear and Love:

Reactions to a Complex World

Eleven newly commissioned installations by some of the world’s most innovative and thought-provoking designers and architects explore a spectrum of issues that define our time, “including networked sexuality, sentient robots, slow fashion and settled nomads.” Fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, architect Neri Oxman and OMA are among the contributors.

 / Luke Hayes
Luke Hayes

Design, Maker, User

For the first time in the museum’s history, a wide range of its collection is accessible as a free, permanent exhibition. Almost 1,000 items of twentieth and twenty-first century design are on show, including a Bible, a Coca-Cola can, the £5 banknote, a pair of rubber gloves, a plastic garden chair, the London 2012 Olympic Torch and an AK-47 assault rifle.

 / Luke Hayes
Luke Hayes

FUTURE EXHIBITIONS

The following exhibitions, explained here by the Design Museum, will take place in 2017

Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution

15 March – 3 June 2017

Marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this exhibition explores Moscow as it was imagined by a bold new generation of architects and designers in the 1920s and early 1930s. Large-scale architectural drawings are supported by artwork, propaganda and publications from the period.

 / Luke Hayes
Luke Hayes

California

24 May 2017 – 15 October 2017

While California’s mid-century modernism is well documented, this is the first exhibition to examine the state’s current global reach. Picking up the story in the 1960s, the exhibition charts the journey from the counterculture to Silicon Valley’s tech culture, revealing how this culture of design and technology has “made us all Californians.”

Hella Jongerius: Breathing Colour

28 June – 24 September 2017

We see the world in colour but rarely do we appreciate how colour shapes what we see. Drawing on years of research, designer Hella Jongerius presents Breathing Colour; an installation-based exhibition that takes a deeper look at the way colour behaves, exploring shapes, materials, shadows and reflections.

Hella Jongerius / Photo credit - Markus Jans
Hella Jongerius Photo credit - Markus Jans
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