Robert Matthew, Johnson Marshall & Partners ,1962The Commonwealth Institute
|Materials||brick, concrete, copper|
|Style||Festival of Britain|
|Listing Status||grade 2|
|Borough||Kensington and Chelsea|
The Commonwealth Institute is a great expression of post-war optimism. It pocesses a kind of architectural playfulness that was established at the Festival of Britain in 1951 and projected an idea of post-colonialism with confidence and structural daring.
The idea for the Commonwealth Institute came about in 1958 with the destruction of the old Imperial Institute. Britain had lost an Empire, but had gained a Commonwealth and the Institute’s role was to educate the masses as to what exactly this exciting new arrangement meant. An Act of Parliament committed government to its construction and appointed a board of trustees to translate this new global community into an official and very public place of display and education. The project cost £440,000 and was funded by contributions from Commonwealth nations.
The architects, Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM) produced a building that was a natural inheritor to the Festival spirit of architectural experimentation, delight and display. The Commonwealth Institute is essentially an ‘Expo’ building. It is a dramatic exhibition space with offices attached and a deliberate break from the formal style of Empire and traditional historical narratives. The main building is a huge hall, over three storeys in height, topped by a dramatic triangulated sheet-copper roof supported by a brick and concrete frame with its external walls covered clad in light blue panels. The building provided for the flexible and open arrangement of exhibits, events, fairs and debates. The uninterrupted space ensured the free movement of people and put the architecture central to their experience.
The main building’s dramatic roof profile is a daring piece of engineering and one of the earliest examples of its kind. It covers an area of 183 sq feet and is made up of equilateral and hyperbolic paraboloids in swept shell concrete. This flamboyant treatment of the roofline continued an international tradition, which included work by Saarinen in the USA, of pushing structural and engineering techniques in order to create dynamic building profiles. The Commonwealth Institute is almost unique in London for this early post-war structural flair.
The buildings are set well back from Kensington High Street amid landscaped gardens by Dame Sylvia Crowe. At street level the Institute provides a large public space dominated by a bank of flagpoles, once featuring each of the Commonwealth member states, reflected in simple areas of water and set against the distinctive tent-like profile of the main building. The informal composition of elements in this manner produced a colourful and considered urban setting.
The Commonwealth Institute formally closed its doors in 2004. This followed a lengthy period of decline in visitor numbers and increased running costs owing to the poorly maintained roof. Despite Grade II listing in 1988 and a £3 million restoration in 2001, the building was abandoned and its own trustees have since embarked on a high profile campaign to de-list, demolish and sell the site to fund its educational operations based in Cambridge.
In 2005, the trustees approached then Culture secretary Tessa Jowell with the aim of changing the law affecting listed building status, in order that they may realise the financial assets of the site. This act has caused huge consternation and anguish among those all who care about architecture. The act of selective de-listing in this case was described as ‘dangerous’ by English Heritage and ‘an abuse of power’ by others. It made a mockery of the listing process put at risk hundreds of historic buildings and undermined our system of cultural value.
The Commonwealth Institute is a building of exceptional significance. Some, writing on behalf of the trustees, cited the fact the roof leaks a lot, that it’s an anachronism, that it was built on the cheap, that its values are no longer applicable and that, if it were to be demolished, it would first be extensively documented for future generations and scholars. This is to entirely miss the point of the value of historic buildings and the cultural importance of living structures. In short, the leaking roof can be fixed.
In 2006, the application for de-listing was turned down and it happily retains its Grade II status. However, it remains empty and is in danger of falling into further decline if a new use cannot be found. The Commonwealth Institute is something of a turning point in taste. Post-war architecture finds itself on the receiving end of the kind of abjection once aimed at once thought redundant Victorian buildings. One has only to look around London for examples of what can be done. Camden’s Roundhouse is now a successful live music and arts venue, dockland warehouses are home to financial services, while canal basins are the desired site of sustainable communities.
The Commonwealth Institute is a challenge awaiting any architectural practice. The Institute ought to be hosting high-profile competitions and drawing attention to the opportunity provided in one of London’s wealthiest areas. Its successful adaptation could usher in a golden age for the place and its wider cultural value.