Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Design Museum Heads West

The Design Museum is in the news because of its annual Design Awards (Designs of the Year 2012 exhibition now on at the Museum) and because the museum itself is on the move across London from Shad Thames to the old Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park - its best frenemy the V&A will be a near neighbour in South Kensington (target date 2014).

While part of me is thrilled that someone is giving this mad 50s folly a new lease of life (Grade II listed, no less, and apparently regarded as second only to the incomparable Royal Festival Hall in post-war British Modernist importance), the bigger part of me is sad the Design Museum will be leaving Shad Thames, which it has graced since the 1980s. I imagine it will be replaced with more expensive flats with river views, impoverishing the cultural life and diversity of this stretch of the Thames immeasurably.

Also worrying is what they intend doing to the old Commonwealth Institute building (Sir Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, 1960-2) , an architect’s flight of fancy if ever there was one, a triumph of form over function or even reason:

“Regarded by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London, after the Royal Festival Hall, the building has a low brickwork plinth clad in blue-grey glazing. Above this swoops the most striking feature of the building, the complex hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof, made with 25 tonnes of copper donated by the Northern Rhodesia Chamber of Mines. The shape of the roof reflects the architects' desire to create a "tent in the park" . . . The interior of the building consists of a dramatic open space, covered in a tent-like concrete shell, with tiered exhibition spaces linked by walkways. “

Those links include swooping stairs down to a floating mezzanine level beneath the immense expanse of that magnificent roof. This grand flourish is extravagantly wasteful of space, which no doubt the Design Museum covets. The proposed remodeled interior designs I have seen sweep away the stairs, walkways, floating mezzanine, etc, and close up that central block of empty space. The original complex and delightful spatial interplay is completely annihilated in favour of a grim heavy concrete platform with a rather mingy oculus allowing a partial view of the roof. My criticisms are purely aesthetic here - no doubt in practical ways the redesign will make the space function far more efficiently as a gallery, as well as generating more usable floor space. It’s just sad that something so intrinsic to the building will apparently vanish in the process. John Pawson has a lot riding on this - a very modish architect, most of his projects so far have been either commercial or private commissions by the super rich; this will be his first major public project. His brand of highly aesthetic minimalism seems a refinement of 60’s Brutalism - the movement which reacted forcefully against the effete and almost rococo modernism represented by the Commonwealth Institute. We shall see whether the styles can harmoniously cohabit.

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