Almost forgotten: the Commonwealth Institute

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:




12 responses to “Almost forgotten: the Commonwealth Institute


    Poetic post. Thank you

  • Hasenschneck

    I lived nearby as a child and visited the Commonwealth Institute frequently. I last visited it in the nineties when it was being used as an exhibition centre and it was sad to see how neglected it was. It will be great to see it housing design classics, although to put a block of flats in front of it is criminal. But with land values what they are, it’s not surprising.

    I love your last aerial view too, which shows my school (Holland Park) and the reservoir on Campden Hill (flats built over it now) in the middle of the picture right at the top with the tower, next to the tennis courts of the Campden Hill Tennis Club.

    Keep this up. You’re making me very happy.

  • squidgybod

    Thanks Dave for a great pictorial. My father, the architect, told me that the shape of the beautiful roof that you’ve pictured, and that he admired, was called a ‘hyperbolic paraboloid’.

    With a ‘full house’, my brother and I enjoyed a John Williams guitar concert in the theatre inside. We went frequently from school to watch educational films all about the commonwealth of course.

    Progress I suppose, but a pity that the stunning roof will no longer be readily visible from Kensington High Street.

    Thanks again Dave for these mementos.

  • Nick

    I visited this place as part of a school trip back in 1975….. Always remember a Laser sailing dinghy being on display in the central area on arrival……

    Shame that London is becoming a bland , redevelopment paradise (Since quite a while )……

  • Paul Brian Edwards

    i worked in the commonwealth institute at the end of the 1970s. my position was audiovisual technician which entailed maintaining a lot of 16mm, 8mm and super8 projectors. and hundreds of kodak carousel slide projectors in the many wonderful displays. i have many beautiful memories and a massive debt of experience owed to the people there. loved it.

    • Tess

      Hi, I remember being taken here (a lot) as a young kid in the 1970s by my mum who had immigrated in the 50s from Guyana. I recall seeing Grizzly Adams on a cinema of sorts (was there one?); and if displays of national costumes etc.
      Really interested to know what the cinema/screenings were all about if you know?

    • John Pulver

      I too worked at the Coimmonwealth Institute as the Audio Visual technician in the 1975. The AV equipment in ‘the malaysian simulator’ was a nightmare
      Under Mr Churchman my life was difficult. Eventually, Fred Lightfoot made me unwanted. The best thing about it was Sally in the shop!

  • Claire

    Some great pics, my dad worked here for many years and have many fond memories of him taking us there and seeing behind the scenes.

  • karelspeaksout

    I’ve just revisited it (after many years) in its current incarnation as The Design Museum, and OMG – what have they done..? Very sad.

  • Susan Tebby

    Does anyone remember a tall, blue steel sculpture/construction by Kenneth Martin here in the mid/late 1970s? Outside the main building entrance? Do you have any photographs please, or know where any records might be held? Thank you.

  • Gill Lucraft

    I haven’t forgotten it, I loved the place, it was like nothing I’d ever encountered before or since. I first went with the school and then my father took me. Just loved looking at all the things that came in from overseas and I remember having a precious box of jute in various stages from raw to a finished product.

    For many years I watched the decline with great sadness.

    Delighted it is being reused but why put flats in front of it? Planners eh?

  • Cristiana

    Very interesting article, thanks! The first time I came to London I was 16 and it was in 1987. I went to visit the commonwealth because I was interested in British empire history. I was well impressed by the architecture of the building and I found the interior very interesting. I came back 3 times more in that years. I mean, any time I visited London my two obliged stops were the commonwealth and van gogh’s sunflowers! Very romantic!!

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