London’s new Design Museum, which opens to the public today, is a case in point. Its genesis was the result of a negotiation between the property developer Chelsfield and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The listed Commonwealth Institute building was in need of refurbishment and reuse, but funds beyond the council’s grasp were required. A developer wanted access to the disused central London site, but the council were unwilling to see the institute surrendered to private enterprise.
The resultant agreement saw the Commonwealth Institute restored to house the Design Museum on a long-term lease, and three luxury residential buildings on the surrounding site. Though architectural designer John Pawson crafted the interior of the museum, the conversion of the Commonwealth Institute and the new buildings were helmed by architecture practices OMA with Allies and Morrison. Reinier de Graaf of the former company served as partner-in-charge.
Raised in Rotterdam and based in Amsterdam, de Graaf joined OMA in 1996. Since 2002, he has been the director of AMO, the firm’s research and design think-tank, where he has overseen the company’s strategies for sustainability and future energies. As a partner in the firm, de Graaf has supervised projects including De Rotterdam (2013), the Timmerhaus (2015) and Stockholm’s in-progress Norra Tornen residential towers. A prolific writer and lecturer, he has curated several exhibitions.
Disegno met de Graaf ahead of the opening of the new Design Museum to discuss the project.
When did you become involved with the project, and how did you form a plan for the site?
We’ve been on the project since 2008, when we won the competition against five other firms. It was a very interesting situation. We were asked to bring this building back to life, but also to build 50,000ft² of housing on the site so that money could be generated for the former: a set of competing interests.
On the site, there was the Commonwealth Institute, and a service wing running parallel to the main building. And there was a derelict car park. The funny thing is that car park was listed too – or at least registered as a protected site – because Dame Sylvia Crowe, the famous post-war landscape designer, had designed a garden there. The garden was never executed, but the site was listed as a result of that garden. The mere fact that she had contemplated making a design made the landscape qualify for the listing.
So there was zero place, in theory, to put something. In 2006, the government had proposed to delist it, so they could demolish the building and do something else on the site. The building remained listed but without user, which meant that the council was faced with a massive cost generator in terms of maintenance and nothing in terms of revenue. And nothing to build on either, as there was practically no room except the derelict car park. In the situation, we phrased it thus: ‘they're all listed, but some parts are more listed than others.' So we chose to remove the administration wing, and that freed up chunks of the site.
It's a weird triangular site, because the building's positioned at 45 degrees. So we had two triangular sites, and took a site from the front. In them we placed three horizontal buildings – we didn't want to do high-rise, we wanted to keep the buildings are compact as possible. So we made three sites, rotated parallel to the museum. Their facades were deliberately boring – way more minimal than they are now – so that the curving of the Commonwealth Institute’s roof would look like a graph against an axis.
How did the Design Museum become involved?
Once we won the project, we looked all over for a client. We looked at an office, we looked at a museum, and I think in some point the BBC even wanted to put a concert hall there for their orchestras, but obviously the building wasn't suited to it. So we drew an interior with Prada it in. We drew an office and put Google in it.
Those images didn’t attract the people they were aimed at, but they did get into the public realm. There was talk in town that the site was being worked on. At which point the Design Museum expressed an interest. It was good in that it gave us a specific brief. But it was also clear that the building could in no way accommodate the climatic, structural and load-bearing demands of a contemporary museum.
How, then, did you transform the building to its present form?
The Commonwealth Institute was originally designed in a very provisional way, as a tent in the park. [Chelsfield CEO] Stuart Lipton found the project architect from the original building, and he worked with us on the team. So we knew a lot about the original intentions of the building, beyond what Heritage England and the 20th Century Society said about it.
It was clear the thing needed a new basement, it needed new floors, it essentially needed a new façade – the old façade was blockwork, and essentially a single glass rainscreen. And we needed to put in meeting rooms, office spaces and the learning spaces. So we eliminated the blockwork on two sides, so that the fritted glass actually allows light to enter the building. At the end, strangely, what we have is a roof that is original, and a replica underneath. It began as a refurbishment then became a conversion, but the degree of conversion is such that it’s a replica. The façade is reconstructed from old colour photographs.
How do you regard John Pawson’s interior?
The interior was commissioned separately, by the Design Museum. Pawson did a good job, but it’s very different from what we would have done. We would have designed the whole thing with a bit of a wink as to what is original and what is new. It would have been more provocative. As it is, it’s all done in very good taste – but good taste is hardly a compliment in this day and age.
The project resulted from the alignment of several different groups. Did this present any difficulties?
We have got a lot of support now, but we initially encountered resistance. The council wanted the museum, but they didn’t want the developer. We won after a casting vote at a six-hour town hall meeting. Deyan Sudjic was asked whether he could guarantee that the museum would be there. And, put on the spot, he had to say yes.
The project was rattled repeatedly by the increasing degree of conversion, which caused the costs to escalate. In a strange way we’ve been saved by the insane London property market, because the prospective sale prices of the homes on the site went up and up. They’ve all sold out at ridiculous prices. If you consider yourself a socialist, this is a very odd project to be involved in.
The essence of this project was a clever triangulation between a cultural institution, the public sector in the form of the local council, and a property developer. The residential aspect wouldn’t happen if the museum didn't happen because the council wouldn't allow it. Then the museum wouldn’t happen if the residential didn't happen because there would be no money for the restoration. So there I thought, when power is kept in check, that's where good things emerge. And as an architect you can very opportunistically mobilise that space for quality. Somehow between greed and oblivion, you can find an optimum.
Does the preservation of the Commonwealth Institute bode well for other post-war buildings in the Britain?
I find the whole regime of what is to be kept and what is to be demolished strange, because since working on the Commonwealth Institute, BBC Television Centre got listed, and Robin Hood Gardens got axed. Which is a very weird decision for me. The trend to list modern work and post-war work, is a recent trend really, and in the UK it is often erratic. Whether or not to list something here is increasingly informed by future chances of survival – that means by an economic estimation rather than an estimation of its architectural worth. This is because the public sector has retreated a lot further here than in continental countries. Park Hill in Sheffield has been refurbished, so I can’t see why something similar wasn’t done to Robin Hood Gardens. And if you talk about "future use," what about the housing shortage? Britain has a housing crisis. It’s pretty obvious what the most in-demand future use is.
What did you uncover about the original Commonwealth Institute building?
We looked at floor plans, and it was very interesting. Great Britain, Canada and Australia had very prominent places near the entrance, while African countries were in remote corners. It was meant to be the end of British Empire and the beginning of a free membership of equal states, but there was a hierarchy.
In the early 50s, Britain wanted to make membership of the Commonwealth open to new countries, hoping to form a European Union of their own – hoping in a way that the EU could be prevented, and the countries of Europe would be tempted by the bridge to the Americans and join the Commonwealth. So it was their alternate to the European community that was being founded in Brussels between Germany and France. In a way, a competing offer – I never knew that.
You designed an installation, the Pan-European Living Room, for the museum’s inaugural exhibition Fear and Love, which contains an object from each EU country and a blind based on OMA’s EU barcode. Given recent events, how is the UK represented?
It's the Peony Place wallpaper, designed by Nina Campbell for Osborne & Little – deliberately garish wallpaper. So the UK is still present, even though the blind has fallen on the floor, the wallpaper is still there. There was a big debate whether the wall should be blank, because if we had been consistent, the UK should not have been present because they formally atrophied. But we wanted to do it anyway. Behind the blind is an image of Rotterdam in the 1940s, after the Luftwaffe had paid it a visit. The point is that what you’re seeing is long ago, but not that long ago – the sudden nearness of a past we thought was over.