Tag Archives: Commonwealth Institute

Short posts – Bignell in the Park

I’ve been continuing my trawl through photographs from the Planning department connected to Kensington High Street. The ones dealing with The former Commonwealth Institute have been especially interesting. Today’s pictures are notable because they are the work of a photographer well knows to regular readers of the blog, John Bignell, who has been featured  here many times.



On this occasion he concerned himself with trees, as you can see from the writing on some of the pictures. Bignell was just doing the work of a jobbing photographer, recording the existence or non-existence of the trees



The question that always arises with me is that given Bignell’s undoubted talents as a photographer, is there something special about this set of pictures? Has he seen more, done a better composition than a more workaday practitioner or an amateur might?



Or is the view enough in itself? A sunny day, a couple of people in deckchairs at the centre of the image, and a feeling of relaxation, with the iconic and still photogenic building in the background?



Why not? The offending tree is gone. We see a couple of guys sunbathing, and looking back at Bignell. In this picture you probably can’t see the woman in a  bikini sitting behind them, also sitting up and asking why is that guy taking a picture of me?



The admin block behind the wall is also gone now but the streamlined building with the sweeping roof is still there and you can still enjoy a view rather like this one. On a sunny day like this you can probably also sunbathe free from photography.

Short posts: looking back at the Commonwealth Institute part one

As part of my continuing trawl through photographs from our Planning collection I’ve been looking at the section preceding and following Earls Court Road. This of course includes the Commonwealth Institute. I have an odd selection of images which wouldn’t hang together for one big post but make sense in small batches. Hence, a few more short posts.


Who he?

Well, some sort of stylised ape, maybe a baboon. West African I would think although I can’t pin it down any further. In this picture he is sitting peaceably on a stone floor. But that’s not why Planning had a picture of him.


Can you see the place marked out for him on the right of the picture?

Here it is slightly clearer:

An orange shape next to the stairs and the path which takes you to the walkway entrance. It’s as though he was about to be beamed in, to materialize on a rainy day in Kensington.

Did it ever happen? Does anyone know?

Today of course the walkway is gone and one of the two Holland Green buildings stands in front of the former Institute. You still walk in that direction to get into the Design Museum, as my son and I did recently to see the Stanley Kubrick exhibition. ( Which finishes on September 15th so if you’re at all interested get down there quick. It’s well worth it. And it contains one image supplied by this department. Any guesses?)

More on the former Institute soon.


The Commonwealth Institute – the fallow years

I seem to have fallen into a pattern of one post on a subject followed by a supplement. I had originally intended to use some pictures of the dormant days of the Commonwealth Institute building and a few of the recent redevelopment work in last week’s post but I found so many interesting pictures of the Institute in action that there wasn’t space. So this week there are some pictures of the days when the Institute was closed and waiting for its fate to be decided, and some of the building work progressing.

I took these photos. I don’t claim to be a great photographer but I can point and click which is sometimes all you need to do to catch the essence of a place.

As with this image of open water, the pond clogged with branches and covered with algae.


The bridge, or walkway. Note the photographer’s error focusing on the barrier rather than what was behind it. It makes an interesting image, but only by chance.


Here it is in focus. I took this picture in 2007, when you could get quite close to the building without encountering any barriers.


The main building with the concrete supports looking like they really are holding it up, and the administrative block beside it.


The flags, in 2009..


and 2012, with the green boards cutting most of them off from access.


Work begins, with digging and metal barriers.


Is that a theodolite?


Another picture taken through the barriers.


Work on the wall of the main building.


The last weeks of the admin block.


In close up.


Ten days later, the dust is rising over the perimeter boards.


The curtain walls are stripped away.


And the new buildings rise.


You could only stand on the edge, looking for some action.


More of that dust, from the relatively tranquil Holland Park side.

Not quite finally, an image I’ve used before from the time when overgrown grass surrounded the main building. (The wilderness years, you might say.)


And finally, one more picture from the archives. Back in 1962:


The Queen, opening the Institute. Perhaps the visiting dignitaries thought it would last longer than it did.


The earlier photos were taken with an Olympus compact camera, the later ones with a big Nikon which is very forgiving and nearly always gives a good picture. I’ve told the story before, in the early days of the blog but now that the Design Museum is up and running I wanted to present a few more pictures of the declining years. Hopefully, the new Museum will redeem the building and make us forget the days when it could almost have vanished for good.

Thanks to Roger Morgan for some error correction, and for general support of the blog.

What is the Commonwealth Institute?


Now that the new version of the Design Museum has now opened in the former Commonwealth Institute building it seemed like a good time to look again at the old place. I’ve written about it as an empty vessel and a near forgotten building but not really as a going concern.


So,  according to this explanatory pamphlet: “What is the Commonwealth Institute? Put simply it is a centre for information about the Commonwealth; a supermarket of resources and activities……The Commonwealth Institute exists to promote a better understanding of the Commonwealth and its people in Britain.”

Or was it a place for children to race around on school trips or during the holidays?


I never went there myself but I know that a generation of London school children frequently did so I asked one of them, my wife, what she remembered and this odd object on the central platform was one of them.


She recalls some kind of globe in there, but I’m happy to get further information. Most of this week’s images come from Commonwealth Institute publications from 1964, 1965 and 1973. My wife would of course have been too young to have been there in the early years.

She also remembers this sort of time honoured activity, still happening in museums today.


The institute shop, featuring a brownie. At this point my wife gave me a detailed account of the changes in uniform she remembered. This will strike a chord with some of you.


The art gallery has a distinctly 1970s look in this picture.


And a 60s look here:


The exhibition: “Commonwealth Art Today”.

Many people also remember the entrance hall, with its stained glass.


And some of the exhibits.


This one was recalled by more than one person.


The lion was described as “a bit mangy”, but he had his fans.


Diplomats were also a significant category of visitor.


“Well, that’s our bit, now shall we go to the shop?”

The Institute also had a library, in the now demolished administrative wing.


And this place, the Resources Production Unit, which used all sorts of new-fangled equipment.


Not to mention the restaurant with its view of the park, which some people I’ve spoken to remember fondly.


Another feature now gone, much recalled by many was the walkway to the entrance. (My wife remembers it as “a bridge” which is how it would have seemed to the groups of children passing over it.)


You can find some other views of it in my previous posts.

As we started with a postcard, let’s finish with an artist’s impression of the new building as it would look in 1962, the start of an new era.


And let’s wish the Design Museum success in its new home.


The Commonwealth Institute was one of those buildings I have photographed myself on many occasions. I’ve used a few of those picture in previous posts but there will be some more next week in a supplementary post featuring more images of the building’s fallow years. If you have any memories or pictures of this quirky but much loved building please feel free to share them with us, so that the Commonwealth Institute does not ever become a forgotten building.

The empty museum: the last of the Commonwealth Institute

Why do we love empty spaces? Why is it exciting to stand in a deserted building and feel the solitude, especially if the place was once full of people going about their daily lives, or enjoying an excursion? This feeling is there in any empty location but especially in large spaces. There is fading grandeur, melancholy decay, a reminder that even in the inanimate world things come to an end.

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It’s hard to say from the picture where this sad space was or what purpose it served. It could be any condemned building, except for the extrovert ceiling tiles which tell you that this once an ambitious place.

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The ceilings are often the first parts to go in an abandoned building. Tiles start falling, water gets in and nature starts to stake a claim on what is left.This room was destined for destruction but other parts of the empty museum are going to survive.

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I’m not completely sure if this long room is one of them.

It still commands a pleasant view of the park.

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This room on the other hand is definitely here to stay.

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The empty museum is still a unique place.

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In fact, stripped of its contents you can concentrate on this enormous room’s most striking feature, the ceiling.

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And above all the shape. The museum is the direct descendant of the interiors we looked at a few weeks ago in Halls of Empire. Although the Commonwealth Institute shared some of the uncertain purpose of its Imperial predecessor you can see that the sixty or so years which separate the two have not dimmed the desire to impress.

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Even after being empty for many years the central space retains the optimism of the early 1960s.

Let’s walk downwards.

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We can take a closer look at that slanting supporting pillar.

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There are wires everywhere in here like the rigging of a yacht. And here is the centre of the space, now marked simply with an eight pointed star.

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We have to take one last descent to the ground floor.

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The stained glass window represents different countries of the Commonwealth.

We can go now. The main building of the Commonwealth Institute will be reborn as the new Design Museum so the empty museum will be filled again. But there are some stairs that will never be walked down again.

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And some views which are gone for good.

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These pictures were deposited in the Library by Montagu Evans Chartered Surveyors . As part of their brief they created a record of the Institute as it was. The photographs are by Ben Murphy. He has done a remarkable job both in terms of creating that visual record but also artistically in catching the look of the interior. I know some of you will never get to the Library for a visit but if you’re interested in the Commonwealth Institute this set of images is a valuable part of its history.

Mr Murphy’s website has more of his work: www.benmurphy.co.uk

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:



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