Design Museum, Holland Park, London

John Pawson / Rem Koolhaas, OMA with Allies and Morrison
Date Built
Opened 2016
Kensington High Street
In November of 2016 London’s Design Museum moved from its home in a converted banana warehouse in Shad Thames to the former Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington.  The museum had been in search of larger premises for some time and this Grade II* Listed building from the 1960s had stood vacant and apparently unloved for more than a decade.  The museum’s website points out that it, “... worked with John Pawson on the interior fit out of its building. OMA were responsible for the overall master plan and in conjunction with Allies and Morrison for the refurbishment of the exterior of the museum.” 

The project to refurbish the Kensington building also drew on the expertise of Arup who add that, “... Arup provided innovative engineering services to enable the successful repurposing of the former Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington.  Maintaining the existing 1960s Grade II listed building provided a number of engineering challenges which required the team to develop an innovative approach to the project’s temporary works scheme. One of these challenges was developing a solution to keep the building’s distinctive copper-covered hyperbolic parabolic roof. The approach involved suspending the 1,500 tonne roof 20m above ground level by temporary works to enable the removal of the internal structural frame and all new flooring to be laid. Assessment of the existing roof identified that any movements of the key supports had to be controlled to within 5mm to avoid damage.”  Nigel Ciuffetelli, Lead Structural Engineer, Arup says on the Arup website that, “... The central hyperbolic paraboloid shell resembles that of a giant manta ray in full flight. The radiating rafters of the outer warped roof add a further dimension with the building appearing to come to life as one moves around the upper exhibition space. Its elegant construction was realised using post-tensioned concrete. This same technology, albeit further developed, was used extensively in the modern interventions. This astonishing roof will now be showcased as an example of great engineering design from the past and forms the ideal backdrop for the Design Museum’s exhibition space that will continue to inspire and delight all who visit.”

The move meant that the museum could triple the size of its exhibition space from 3,000 square metres to approximately 10,000 square metres.  This made it possible for it to include a permanent exhibition accessible free of charge by all visitors, a library, studios for its resident designers and two spaces for temporary exhibitions.  The OMA website explains that, "... Significant and complex refurbishment works were carried out, including the wholesale reconfiguration of the structure and basement excavation to increase floor area and organisational efficiency to suit the needs of the Design Museum, while balancing the retention of the dramatic views to the underside as agreed with heritage officers. The refurbishment was realised while retaining the renowned parabolic copper roof in-situ, which required significant engineering skill from Arup and the contractor, Mace.  The facades have been completely replaced to fulfill contemporary technical building standards. The glazing was redesigned and replaced to retain the pattern of the fenestration and the blue-glass appearance of the original RHWL building. This new system permits controlled daylight into and views out of future museum spaces. Original stained glass panels were removed, refurbished and reinstated to be enjoyed by future visitors to the Museum.”

To round things off, West 8 were contracted to landscape the area around the museum.  OMA add, “... Original features of the Commonwealth Institute have been painstakingly researched and reinterpreted back into the contemporary design with significant trees retained along the edge of Holland Park and Kensington High Street.” 

Today the site of the former Commonwealth Institute not only houses the Design Museum but also includes 3 residential blocks accommodating 54 residential apartments and the Design Museum shop.


The Inside

Inside, as the Economist article says, is, "... a somewhat Escherian symphony of blonde oak walls, open stairways and white marble recycled from the original building - designed by John Pawson, the high priest of high-end minimalism. It slots inside the structure as neatly as an iPhone inside its packaging, with an open central atrium that allows visitors to admire the roof’s exposed underbelly from a series of intriguing angles as they move through the museum. The original building was short on natural light, and the new space has worked within these constraints. Daylight is husbanded in a few zones—the members’ room, restaurant and ground floor shop—elsewhere the space is bathed in a warm glow from lights recessed into everything from walls to banisters."