The former banana warehouse at Butlers Wharf by the River Thames is "bursting at the seams", said Sir Terence Conran on Tuesday 24 January, speaking about his creation, the Design Museum, which is itching to accommodate expanding visitor numbers up to 500,000 per year. "We've been looking for about five years for another site." The answer to the Museum's prayers emerged a couple of years ago as a clear favourite over two others: the former Commonwealth Institute, a Grade II* listed, 12,300m2 building on the edge of Holland Park bought in 2007 by developers Chelsfield Partners, an historic landmark of British Modernism from 1962 designed by Sir Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, and still seen as a very daring piece of architecture.
Notable for its superb complex hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof intended by the architects to symbolize a tent in the park, it is regarded by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London, after the Royal Festival Hall. Plans to bring the new Design Museum to life involving architects OMA, John Pawson and West 8 have advanced hugely since 2010, with the injection of public and private funds and it is due to open in 2014 in the preserved structure.
Its location puts the future Design Museum inside Albertopolis, the cultural quarter encompassing the Royal Albert Hall, Royal College of Art, Serpentine Gallery, Science Museum, Natural History Museum and the V&A Museum. The coming of the Design Museum to west London looks likely to help boost the fortunes of Kensington High Street, depressed since the Westfield shopping centre opened in nearby Shepherds Bush.
The building at the moment is "falling to pieces", Conran added. "It hasn't been occupied for years." But, with full support from London's Mayor Boris Johnson, Conran, the Design Museum's Director Deyan Sudjic, and his Trustees have already raised 60% of the €53 million (£44.5 million) it needs towards the total budget of €95 million (£80 million), from trusts, foundations and individuals. It was announced this month that the Dr Mortimer & Theresa Sackler Foundation has supported The Sackler Library, adding to €5.89 million (£4.95m) from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and €20.25 million (£17m) from The Conran Foundation.
The new Museum will triple the amount of spaces Sudjic has, transforming the former Institute in a way that will allow it to show all of its collection, and be far more extensive than its first home in the 1980s in the old boilerhouse of the V&A Museum, where there was little scope to expand further. "It's time to grow up, and move beyond the niche", said Sudjic, adding that the V&A is today very different and would be "natural allies". "I hope it will persuade government that design is vital to all forms of life", said Conran, recalling that he persuaded Margaret Thatcher to put the subjects of design and technology into the National Curriculum of required educational topics, not because she loved modern design but because she thought it would help create "a better educated consumer" which would in turn "help manufacturers design better quality products. We [the UK] can be a workshop and the new Design Museum will help this."
The Museum, working with Chelsfield and collaborating residential property developers the Ilchester Estates, engaged OMA to restore the building because of their "respect for the past and attitude to the future" (according to Chairman of the judges, Paul Finch), with the structural engineers Arup. To help fund the restoration, OMA is designing three residential buildings on the west of the site where currently there sits an administration building that will be demolished. The architects will also modify the interior of the main entrance as part of an overall scheme John Pawson described as "slightly calm for OMA". It includes gardens designed by renowned landscape architect Sylvia Crowe which will be adapted by West 8. In July 2010 the local council gave planning permission, adhering to their original brief for the scheme to achieve greater integration with Holland Park.
Architect John Pawson, renowned for his rigorously simple architecture, is converting the Institute building's enormous central hall, a concrete shell with tiered exhibition spaces (in its day showing the transition from Empire to Commonwealth) linked by walkways, which has a certain shopping mall quality about it. "The challenge is working inside the skin of an existing building". The ground floor will have a café and gallery space; first floor, administration offices and the education centre with fantastic views of the park and including a 195 seater auditorium, and the second floor more galleries and a members' room. The central atrium – 16 metres up to the roof – will be retained. "It's very unusual to have a space where you can see up almost as much as down", said Pawson.
To embellish this "true icon" of post war British Modernism he is using concrete terrazzo, and hard woods as well as recycled materials from the existing building, "I hope the result will demonstrate that you don't need to demolish old buildings to make wonderful new public space." "We (OMA) love this period but this is not shared by everyone else", echoed Reinier de Graaf. "We pay tribute to a period that continues to inform contemporary architecture. It's a new setting for a building already there, to give it a new relevance." Lucy Bullivant