At night, at the heart of Imperial College in South Kensington, London, the 85 metre-high blue-floodlit tower of the Queen’s Tower acts as a beacon from miles around, a celebration not only of the College’s international importance in science, technology and medicine, but also of the old Imperial Institute, opened in 1893.
In 1982, already having changed its name to the Commonwealth Institute, the old building was vacated for its new home near Holland Park designed by Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM) to allow for the expansion of Imperial College. Following public protests, the tower was saved, with a major engineering exercise to stabilise it after demolition of the buildings which supported it.
In the early years of the 20th century, the Commonwealth Institute, with its hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof – considered by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London after the Royal Festival Hall – had become run-down and in poor condition. It has now been transformed by the architect John Pawson as the new home for the Design Museum, providing it with substantially more space than the previous building in Butler’s Wharf, which has been acquired by Zaha Hadid.
The Commonwealth Institute site has been developed by the property developers Chelsfield Partners with restrained modern residential buildings designed by Rem Koolhaas’ practice OMA with the original exhibition building refurbished by John Pawson for the Design Museum after a £80 million refurbishment, opened in November 2016.
Unfussy and minimalist, as is Pawson’s style, there is a great deal of new timber joinery which gives warmth to the interior, with its dramatic unifying space at the centre and compliments the original building and its geometric roof structure. Some people might find it a little too austere, and this is a criticism that could be levelled at the exterior, though they have tried to liven it up with a sculpture by Eduardo Paolozzi and the planting will grow up in time.
Currently there are three exhibitions, one of which is permanent and free – showing items from the permanent collection. In the ground floor galleries, 11 different architects and designers have created installations reflecting their views on the complex and contradictory world of today in “Love and Fear” while in the lower level, the exhibition of the Beazley Designs of the Year displays the innovative projects in all areas of contemporary design a range of a wide variety of design has a substantial amount to see, from all areas of design from typeface to products to digital to architecture.
More could have been made of the exterior space and the connection to the street. The original building is better inside than out. It might have been better to locate the café at the front where it could spill out into the outside space during warm weather and it is slightly confusing having two shops. There is also a missed opportunity with the ground floors of the residential blocks which could have been given over to other retail, café or restaurant uses, such as at Bankside at Tate Modern, to enliven the whole area. Perhaps this space might develop in time, but the residential blocks and the museum alongside each other may create complications.