There are builder’s boards up around the Commonwealth Institute at the moment which means that it’s not quite forgotten. Since 2009 it has been intended that the Design Museum should move into the building and we know that 2014 is the planned opening date. But it was touch and go for a while. In 2006 it was announced that the government’s intention was to de-list and demolish the Grade 2* building. So it nearly became a forgotten building.
In a way we’ve already forgotten it. It closed in 2002. The tranquil spell of decay was hanging over it when I took these photos in 2009. Nothing is quite so still as a recently abandoned building. That grass is much longer now and the impression of neglect is stronger.
I never visited it when it was a going concern. I had to ask my wife who went there several times as a teenager, once even by choice, about what it was like as a museum. An interesting interior design especially the stairs and ramps she said, but curiously flat and static displays. This was before museums went interactive. No buttons to press.
In 1962 when the Institute was opened it was a brave new venture. Here’s an architectural model:
And here it is under construction with daring workers strolling around on the dramatic copper roof:
The finished article was hailed as a triumph of modern design.
The main building is distinctively sixties in character, especially the concrete buttress and the ornamental pond.
The Administration block on the other hand looks like any numbers of hospital or university buildings from the period. Take the cars away and you could have any 60s building from the northern hemisphere. Imagine it in an episode of the Sweeney with Regan and Carter interviewing a suspect, or even a David Cronenberg film as one of his strange academic institutions
The most interesting images of the building are interiors.
The lady on the central platform looks a little lost. She’s consulting a guide to the Institute, which was deliberately designed to allow visitors to wander at random up and down the staircases and ramps. Here’s the Canadian section:
There’s an impressive map, and I like the trees, but the stuffed wolf looks out of place. A closer view of the roof from the inside:
You can see the intricate wooden beams at the top level. But although the overall effect is striking I can’t help being reminded of a high tech 60s department store rather than a museum.
Can’t you see dining room furniture, televisions and three piece suites being sold just out of sight in this picture? I think I’d have been quite keen to visit a store like this if I’d been a young homeowner in the early sixties.
Whatever its merits as a visitor attraction, the Institute survived forty years. Fast forward to 2004 to one of those autumn days when traffic and pedestrians alike went past the building without a second glance. We had almost forgotten it.
Here’s that lawn again a couple of days ago.
And the best shot I could get of the main building:
The Commonwealth Institute building will survive, and enjoy a second lease of life. The plan calls for a number of six-storey housing blocks to be built on the site including one in front of the man building so it will never look quite like this again. However successful the new venture we should still remember the bold new building as it was when new, poised on the edge of Holland Park like a kite about to take off: