diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 18, 2011

Open House: Commonwealth Institute

When I was small, my parents took me to the Commonwealth Institute. Or maybe it was the cubs. Or maybe I went with school. It was that sort of place - worthy, educational, dark - and not a building you'd visit for a wild day out. Outside stood an entire forest of fluttering flagpoles, while the inside was filled with a variety of exhibits relating to our former Empire. Some Rhodesian shields, some Inuit clothes, several garments made from beads and a lot of other ethnic bits from somewhere. But school trips can't sustain an underfunded exhibition, so eventually the Commonwealth Institute died. It closed its doors as recently as 2002, with all the exhibits relocated to Bristol and the structure abandoned to decay. Fret not, there may just be a happy ending.

The Commonwealth Institute is one of London's greatest modern buildings [photo], deemed second in importance only to the Royal Festival Hall. It was built in the early 1960s to replace the Imperial Institute (a drum-banging tribute to colonial superiority since replaced by an extension to Imperial College). The new building on Kensington High Street was a precursor of the Big Society - underfunded by government and therefore reliant on voluntary donations. The hardwood floors were made from timber from Nigeria and the like, whereas the copper for the roof came from what's now called Zambia. And it's the roof that makes this building special, and without which it would have knocked down for housing a decade ago. Officially the roof is a hyperbolic paraboloid, although you'd more likely describe it as saddle-shaped. It was terribly advanced for its time, some would say over-ambitious, and proceeded to leak every time it rained. That's since been fixed, but what to do with the interior has been a headache ever the building was listed.

The future has arrived courtesy of the Design Museum, which has outgrown its former banana warehouse in Shad Thames and plans to relocate to the edge of Holland Park in 2014. There's a lot of work to be done before then, which'll involve ripping out most of the interior and filling it in with new bits. Let's not dwell on that for now, and instead rejoice that for one weekend only the old Commonwealth Institute has reopened for Londoners to pay their last respects. The Design Museum's directors have been more than keen to showcase the building's shell for Open House, and were perhaps surprised that there weren't queues forming around the block to look inside. Last chance to reminisce, last chance to see.

Entry from Kensington High Street is beneath a peeling covered walkway [photo]. This won't survive the renewal - one of three new apartment blocks is due to be squeezed-in here to surround the 1960s survivor. Let's not dwell on that for now, and instead let's head inside through the main entrance. It still says Welcome to the Commonwealth Institute on a colourful board inside the door, and then there's a lovely relief map highlighting our sister countries on the wall in the foyer. Bet that won't survive either. And then up the stairs (there are a lot of stairs, and no lifts - there was no disability access legislation in the 1960s) to enter the building proper.

Wow. It didn't look quite this open last time I was here, because the galleries were filled with cases and exhibits and head-dresses and stuff. Now, however, there's nothing but an empty shell plus two layered galleries encircling a great void [photo]. Museum visitors entered via a central marble platform, with steps leading off in all directions to give equality of choice [photo]. We got a welcoming chat and the chance to stare, before being ushered up to the next level to hear more from the volunteers. It all ran a little quick, with relatively short speeches at each location, many of which repeated what we'd already been told. Feel free to take photos, they said, then rushed us on before there was much opportunity to take anything at all. I took several, only to return home and discover they were almost all awful. Grainy, speckly exposures, my camera straining in the interior gloom, which is not really what you want on a unique unrepeatable last-chance encounter. [photo]

It was great to walk around the former galleries, taking care on the decaying hardwood floors, and staring out and across and down and up. The roof is indeed a marvellous structure, comprising a twisted surface of concrete blocks between parallel wooden struts [photo]. The giant saddle hangs heavy across one diagonal, and I was pleased to hear this upper level should survive the refit. The museum's permanent collection will be displayed around the upper level, permitting approximately three times the space afforded in the existing Shad Thames venue. But staff were a little cagier about what might appear in the lower two-thirds of the building. We should expect much of this to be boxed in, definitely for offices on the ground floor, but also for other unmentioned facilities elsewhere. There'll be a cafe, obviously, and a shop, and probably several big rooms they can hire out to make money. Architect John Pawson has been given the task of repurposing the existing building for practical modern functionality, and will no doubt create a completely different kind of 'wow', but the days of the Commonwealth Institute as a single open space are over. [36 lovely photos]

By 2014, if all goes to plan, the New Design Museum will open its doors and you'll be able to see the end results of the Institute's imminent transformation. But this weekend it's an old friend on the cusp of transition, and there really ought to be queues round the block to say goodbye.

224 Kensington High Street W8 6NQ, Sat 10.30am-4pm/Sun 10.30am-4pm.
Access via tours only, last tour 4.15pm. Tours of former exhibition hall led by Design Museum staff.

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