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Cathedral of Design: £83m Paraboloid Raises the Roof in Kensington

Design Museum Paraboloid Roof
Design Museum's Paraboloid roof

Aerial views: The paraboloid roof dominates the landscape at the new Design Museum | Gravity Road

Cathedral of design”, was how Terence Conran, founder of the Design Museum described the newly redesigned former Commonwealth Institute. Deyan Sudjic, the museum’s Director soon provides empirical proof: “We have more designers per square inches in this place that at any other place.” The 200-seat Bakala auditorium was certainly filled to the rafters by the press with many standing leaving Sudjic scratching his head about their original calculations.

Founded by Sir Terence Conran, the Design Museum started life in 1989 in a former banana ripening warehouse on Shad Thames, following its successful original incarnation in 1983 as the Boilerhouse Project, in the basement of the V&A. Moving to Kensington is like entering the premier league of cultural institutions with the museum tripling its size to 10,000 sq. feet.

Sir Conran says: “I’m full of excitement as we enter the final stages of this long journey and prepare to open our magnificent new cathedral of design. It really does feel like our moment has arrived and that the importance of design to our lives is now truly appreciated. With three times the space and John Pawson’s beautiful architectural work I hope we can now educate, inspire and delight future generations for years to come and truly make a difference to the world around us.”

Stained glass

Cathedral of design: Stained glass with images from the Commonwealth Institute has been incorporated into the new building | Helene Binet

Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum adds: “This project is important not just for the museum but for the investment in the creative future that it represents. The Design Museum sees design as borderless, international in scope and a vital means of understanding the world around us.”

In 2010 a partnership formed by Chelsfield and the Ilchester Estate to redevelop the site was granted planning permission by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for the construction of three residential buildings and the refurbishment of the Grade II listed structure located at the centre of the site. Following the terms of a Section 106 agreement that formed part of the planning permission, the Design Museum was granted a 175-year lease of the listed building at a peppercorn rent.

Completed in 1962 and designed by Robert Matthew, the Commonwealth institute, famed for its marquee-like copper roof had been empty since 2012 and had fallen into disrepair. It was facing the ignominy of losing its listed status until the Design Museum came up with a grand rescue plan to refurbish the building and relocate in 2014.


Critics and residents who have become battle-hardened from taking on rapacious private property developers have long been uncomfortable with the sudden appearance of three private blocks on the site — the Holland Green residential development — which has obscured the museum’s main attraction, the paraboloid roof. But the pragmatism of raising funds for the project in the age of swingeing government cuts to cultural institutions led to a new accommodation of private funds.

A royal borough of Chelsea and Kensington spokesperson in an interview with WLT explained the early constraints and trade-offs: “The borough had an early role in linking our empty site with the known need for the Design Museum to find a new home.  We then worked with the Design Museum and the commercial developers of the site to find a way for homes to be built on the site.  The funds raised from the residential development funded the significant investment in making the building suitable for the museum to take on.

“The residential was complicated not least because the main building is Grade II listed and the grounds were also a registered park and garden.  We also had to make sure the controls were in place so that we didn’t end up with the valuable residential but no museum.”

The Design Museum is the first major public work of John Pawson — a designer renowned for his minimalist and refined use of materials. Pawson’s previous projects include an apartment building in New York for Ian Schrager, the new Cistercian Monastery of Novy Dvur in the Czech Republic, the Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens and Christopher Kane’s first store in Mayfair.

Design Museum at night

Design junction: The old Commonwealth Institute has been refashioned into the new Design Museum | Luke Hayes

Pawson, himself a local resident tells WLT of the journey re-designing an iconic building: “It’s been such a pleasure for me. I live on the other side of this park [Holland Park] so I’ve had three or four years of walking to the site. Most of my jobs are in Japan or America, so it’s been a treat.”

The complex renovation of the museum saw Pawson collaborate with a consortium of designers and architects to bring the landmark post-war British architecture back into use. Using radical engineering techniques, the original concrete floors were removed – a process that entailed suspending the roof on a temporary steel structure 20 metres above the ground. The only stringent condition was that the atrium had to be a certain minimum size and once Pawson decided to position it in the middle of the building all that was left was to construct all the new facilities.

For me it was all about people, when they came in I wanted them to feel welcome and relaxed. So it’s really a place for people to gather and be inspired by design.JOHN PAWSON

Though faced with a challenging brief Pawson was clear in his mind about how he would re-interprete the new space, so no need for scribbles on napkins along the way nor any need for bragging rights. “I’m a hopeless draughtsman, my drawings are cartoon-like and the office keep them as a joke,” he says lightheartedly.

“For me it was all about people, when they came in I wanted them to feel welcome and relaxed. So it’s really a place for people to gather and be inspired by design.”

He argues the new residential blocks have not taken the shine off the new museum, rather it had been a pull factor for the new buyers. “Even the roof was shielded by the plane trees in summer, so it was always set back from the high street. We live in a city and wherever you have your building there is a juxtaposition with other ones. And of course the apartments have paid for the museum to exist. What pleased me the most was that several people bought the apartments because of the Design Museum. They can look onto the roof.” Penthouses in the Holland Green apartments sold for £12m.


The original façade has been replaced with a double glazed skin, significantly improving insulation and allowing daylight into the interior. Even a stubborn leak in the old building has been fixed for good.

The new exterior has been meticulously detailed to resemble the original blue skin of the building. Although an old landmark, the fluttering flags of the Commonwealth nations have gone — the countries’ names are now engraved on the pavement — a new public plaza complete with fountains has been installed at the entrance to the museum.

Inside the new museum, visitors are transported into a central atrium with striking views of the iconic hyperbolic paraboloid roof. The stunning concrete roof spans the length of the building, rising on the two opposing corners to create a manta ray-like structure above. Galleries, learning spaces, café, events space and a shop are arranged like an opencast mine around the main atrium, allowing visitors to navigate the space with ease and to discover everything the building has to offer by simply walking up its oak staircases.


Making an entrance: The atrium and main steps with views of the paraboloid roof | Helene Binet

Loads of room to breathe, race up the stairs, even swing a cat or two. Who wouldn’t dream of such a luxury in London?

The building has two generously proportioned temporary galleries, one on the ground floor, the other on the museum’s lower level. Both featuring double-height spaces and textured concrete columns, these galleries will display up to seven temporary exhibitions per year, priced between £10 and £18. The double-height basement also features a dedicated museum collection store with a glass window, allowing visitors a behind-the-scenes glimpse of pieces not on display. The old map of the Commonwealth from the old building has also been preserved and forms a focal point on the wall here.

The oak staircases form the circulatory heart of Pawson’s design. Strip LEDs line the handrails and banisters, adding theatre to the experience of moving round the building, as visitors follow the light towards the top floor and the soaring underside of the roof. Bench-style leather seating across a section of the main staircase provides a comfortable place for visitors to pause and take in the scale of the surroundings.

A Pawson signature, a wooden bench with concealed lighting spans one side of the Weston Mezzanine. The bench sits in front of a series of marble panels conserved from the original building, which before that had previously been installed in the Imperial Institute in1857.


Pawson a strong advocate for sustainability says: “You don’t need to knock buildings down and put new ones up all the time. There are ‘moments’ in the building that I relish every time I walk around, but I think it is really the way everything comes together – the new and the old – that gives me the greatest pleasure. I hope the Design Museum shows people that you don’t have to tear down and start from scratch to make exciting new cultural spaces.”

Terence Conran

Design guru: Sir Terence Conran was the guiding light for the new museum | Design Museum

I feel like I’d like to live here.SIR TERENCE CONRAN

The main attraction on the museum’s top floor is the new permanent collection display, Designer Maker User.  The exhibition is free to visit and displays almost 1000 objects, viewed from the perspectives of designer, manufacturer and user, as well as a crowd-sourced wall. Standout pieces include a 1:1 scale model of the new London tube train, the British road signage system, an AK47 and an interactive digital fashion display.

The top floor of the building offers sweeping views down to the ground floor and a chance for the anticipated 650,000 annual visitors to come within touching distance of the roof. Sudjic knows the new museum cannot afford to rest on its laurels with the never-ending arms race in the culture world, he says: “China and Singapore will no doubt come up with something bigger. But better? I doubt.”

Sir Conran, the design mastermind whose indomitable spirit seemed to have guided the project to its final conclusion declares contentedly, “I feel like I’d like to live here.” Loads of room to breathe, race up the stairs, even swing a cat or two. Who wouldn’t dream of such a luxury in London?

Design Museum opens to the public on 24 November 2016.

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