Balance and sacrifice at
the new Design Museum, London
19 Apr 2017 | Emma Dent Coad
It is very difficult to write about a building that feels like a family friend. I have visited the Commonwealth Institute throughout my life, starting with regular primary school trips. We would traipse up Earl's Court Road in twos, to the inspiring building where our very international mix of pupils felt entirely at home. We even used the theatre for school plays. Later I took my children there, we giggled at the cow milking exhibit and admired beautiful and strange artefacts from around the globe. Later still I campaigned with the Docomomo-UK Working Party to save the building from dereliction and demolition. Finally as a Councillor I sat on the Planning Committee that approved the application to accommodate The Design Museum (though I voted against), and there could hardly be a more worthy tenant. But how would I cope with the 're-purposing' of this icon?
The best approach to the building is through the park. The beautiful sweep of the roof, and the renewed exterior cladding, is tastefully updated without being compromised. The courtyard when entered from the park is pretty and welcoming. And then you enter, and it all changes. In place of the processional route past the flag court via the famous loggia and lobby, into the exhibition hall with its sweeping stairs and galleries, you are smacked in the face by the awesome wood-cladded atrium rising far above you. There are few clues as to its purpose. The first impression is more of a prestigious hotel-cum-conference centre in Dubai.
Legibility has been sacrificed on the altar of architecture. Circulation space is generous, if not excessive, but it is also very confusing. Some visitors quickly got lost. "There's a lovely library, where IS the library?", "Is this the way to a basement car park, or another gallery?" Anonymous doors may lead to a private office, meeting space, gallery, auditorium or – eventually – a library, but the building keeps its secrets and some found this annoying. If this is deliberate, a public building is not the place to mess with people's minds.
Spaces such as course rooms, the library I eventually managed to find, and most other public spaces are generously located on the outside of the building with lovely views of Kensington. There are cafés where we will all feel blessed and privileged to be seen, if we can afford it. There will be a lot of sponsored exhibitions, for which the justification, to some, may be questionable. But that is the sad and inevitable path taken by many modern cultural institutions. Students will of course flock to the exhibitions, which needless to say will be intelligent and inspiring, and they will love it.
Others more qualified than I have written at length about the building itself, so I will turn to how it works within its physical location, and how it might change the dynamics of the neighbourhood. As a Planning Councillor I have been involved from the 'game-keeping' end of this story, which began in 2011. I was unsure then about the placement of the three OMA blocks – and I was right. In essence the original courtyard has been sacrificed to Mammon. The housing blocks completely obscure the view from the street of the well-loved Commonwealth Institute building, infuriating local people who have to look at them every day. The blocks are heavy on architecture and light on sensitivity in relation to the street, more like funky battery chargers keeping the old building going, than any kind of urban improvement. Paving stones carved with the names of Commonwealth countries – a tribute to the former flag court – are a graveyard to our imperial ambitions. From the street it is, frankly, joyless.
I left the building and walked down Kensington High Street with visitors who hadn't been in the area for a while. They were truly shocked at the state of the formerly vibrant High Street, barely clinging onto life with its empty, charity and pop-up shops, looking more and more like Edgware Road, but without the buzz. I explained to the visitors that the Council is gambling the entire future of the High Street on the success of the Design Museum. This reactive rather than proactive position is a frustration to those of us who have seen Ken High Street decline over the past decade. School or uni students will be looking for McDonalds not The Ivy, and I'm unconvinced that the better heeled evening and weekend visitors will spend enough to sustain a bright new future for central Kensington. A Planning 'fail' in my opinion; time will tell.
Right across the road from this hothouse of education and design idolatry sits another casualty of Mammon, our beautiful Art Deco Kensington Odeon, boarded up and awaiting its outcome. On the table is an execrable Ritblat/Minerva plan to wrap a mere vestige of the façade in luxury flats. This application was so unsympathetic that it was thrown out by a usually developer-friendly Planning Committee, but sadly it won on appeal. An alternative scheme preserves the current building and its gorgeous marbled lobby and stairs, and turns it into a mixed-use arts centre, which has the support of 20,000 residents and a shed-load of money. In another Planning 'fail' however, the Council has controversially refused applications to designate the building as an Asset of Community Value so the alternative plans can be drawn up. The good people of Kensington are enraged.
The irony is that the OMA flats that have supposedly saved the Commonwealth Institute building from demolition have made the area so insanely expensive that positive and trip-generating ventures, such as reinvigorating the High Street with independent shops and the proposed arts centre, could lose out to yet more luxuriously empty flats.All this brings us to the attitude of Kensington and Chelsea Council to the conservation of the borough. We are currently undergoing a Review of our Local Plan, and I am charged with coordinating the response from the Labour Group of Councillors (numbering 11, for you disbelievers).
So we have Policy CF7 on Arts and Cultural Uses, and we have Strategic Objective CO5 on Renewing the Legacy. Their relationship is somewhat tortured. CO5 reads thus, and is pretty encouraging: "Our strategic objective to renew the legacy is not simply to ensure no diminution in the excellence we have inherited, but to pass to the next generation a borough that is better than today, of the highest quality and inclusive for all. This will be achieved by taking great care to maintain, conserve and enhance the glorious built heritage we have inherited and to ensure that where new development takes place, it enhances the borough."
This is all very reassuring as an objective, but the actual policy, on which Planning Councillors have to base their determinations, is antithetical, and sets up a conflict around the lurking gremlin of 'enabling development'. There have been more hotly contested debates on this issue at committee than any other, and unless we get this right, now, it will continue to allow vested interests to triumph while our built legacy is sacrificed on the altar of developers' 20% profit margins.
First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 32