Commonwealth Institute

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The Commonwealth Institute building on Kensington High Street, in November 2005

The Commonwealth Institute was an educational charity connected with the Commonwealth of Nations, and the name of a building in Kensington formerly owned by the Institute. The successor charity, The Commonwealth Education Trust, is now based at New Zealand House in Central London. The building near Kensington High Street will become the new home of the Design Museum in an £80 million redevelopment opening in 2016.

The Imperial Institute[edit]

Imperial Institute, demolished 1957
Arthur Sullivan conducts his Imperial Ode as Queen Victoria lays the foundation stone, 1887
Imperial Institute architecture

The Imperial Institute, as it was first known, was established in 1887 as a result of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 by the governments of the United Kingdom and several countries of the British Empire to promote research which would benefit the empire. Initially this was strongly biased towards scientific research that supported the industrial and commercial development of the dominions and colonies.

The Imperial Institute was from 1893 housed in a building on Exhibition Road, South Kensington. The building was designed by T.E. Collcutt and built by John Mowlem & Co from 1887 to 1894;[1] it was paid for by public subscription.[2] Originally, it had three copper-roofed Renaissance-style towers, but a single 85-metre tower, Queen's Tower, is all that remains of the Imperial Institute after demolition in the 1950s and 1960s[3] to make way for Imperial College.

The Commonwealth Institute Act of 1958 changed the name of the Institute, and also changed its mission to education rather than research.

The Commonwealth Institute 1962–2002[edit]

The interior in 2011

In 1962, the Commonwealth Institute moved to a distinctive green-roofed building on Kensington High Street, immediately south of Holland Park. The building was opened on Tuesday, 6 November 1962, by Queen Elizabeth II. The building was open to the public and contained a permanent exhibition about the nations of the Commonwealth, which was designed to promote trade among them.

From 1962 to 2000, the operation of the Commonwealth Institute was funded by the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). In addition to the exhibition, the Institute ran an important library of Commonwealth literature and hosted cultural events. In 2000, ownership of the building was transferred to a Trust managed on behalf of the High Commissioners to London of the Commonwealth nations. Comprehensive repair works were carried out in 2000–1, funded by the FCO, including the complete replacement of the roof, but by this point the Trust had closed the building to the public.

In 2002, the Trust closed the Commonwealth Institute building completely, returning some exhibits to member countries and donating the remaining 11,800 items to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, which itself closed in 2009 amid allegations of the unauthorised sale of some items from its collection[4] - the remainder now reside with the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.

The closure of the Institute building led to controversy because of the secrecy under which it was carried out, the recent expenditure of money on repairs to the building, and the proposal by the trust to demolish the building and sell the site for residential development. Restructuring of the charity and disposal of the building cost about £7 million in redundancies, restructuring and professional fees by July 2006.

The Commonwealth Education Trust[edit]

The work of the Institute is now carried on by a registered charity, The Commonwealth Education Trust,[5] was established in 2007 as the successor trust to the Commonwealth Institute.[6] The aim of the Trust is to promote education in the Commonwealth, through activities that include support for the Centre for Commonwealth Education at the University of Cambridge. The assets of the Trust exceed £13 million.

The building[edit]

The location of The Commonwealth Institute

Built on a site of 3¼ acres with a frontage onto Kensington High Street of 125 feet (38 m). The total floor area of the building is 132,000 square feet (12,300 m2) made up of an Exhibition Hall (60,000 sq ft), Administration block (47,500 sq ft), Art gallery and ancillary rooms (5000 sq ft), cinema, stage and dressing-rooms (6000 sq ft) and basement workshops and storage (13,500 sq ft). The Commonwealth Institute was designed by Robert Matthew/Sir Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, architects, and engineered by AJ & JD Harris, of Harris & Sutherland.[7] Construction was started at the end of 1960 and completed in 1962.[8]

The project was funded by the UK government, with contributions of materials from Commonwealth countries. The exhibition designer was James Gardner, who worked on the Dome of Discovery in the influential Festival of Britain of 1951, and the gardens were designed by Sylvia Crowe. The contractor was John Laing Construction Ltd. The Institute stands on a piece of land acquired from the Holland estate on a 999-year lease for £215,000. The design of the building and gardens were strongly influenced by their proximity to Holland Park.

Regarded by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London, after the Royal Festival Hall, the building has a low brickwork plinth clad in blue-grey glazing. Above this swoops the most striking feature of the building, the complex hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof, made with 25 tonnes of copper donated by the Northern Rhodesia Chamber of Mines. The shape of the roof reflects the architects' desire to create a "tent in the park". The gardens feature a large water feature, grass lawns, and a flagpole for each member of the Commonwealth. The interior of the building consists of a dramatic open space, covered in a tent-like concrete shell, with tiered exhibition spaces linked by walkways. The diagonal, diamond-shaped exhibition block was clearly different from the rectangular administration wing and the junction of the exhibition and administration blocks created a considerable design problem.

The Art Gallery measured 95x44 feet and relied primarily on natural lighting. A large picture window facing the park was included to postpone the desire for escape that the four solid walls of many art galleries quickly engender. The cinema beneath the art gallery was designed for daily showings of Commonwealth news and interest films but was adaptable for other purposes. It seated 450 and could be used as a lecture hall, and had a workshop stage and stage lighting for the staging of theatre productions. The building was listed Grade II* in 1988 for its roof, place as a post-war building, importance in the history of museum and exhibition design, and historical significance in marking the transition from Empire to Commonwealth. On 22 July 2005 the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell rejected a proposal to remove the building's listed status, seen by the building's owners as an obstacle to its demolition. In April 2007, the Commonwealth Institute building was acquired by property developers Chelsfield Partners. A planning brief, issued by the local council in August 2007, called for the preservation of the main structure of the building, preferably for use such as an art gallery that would retain its essential components. The brief also called for greater integration of the gardens with Holland Park.

Plans for redevelopment of the site were drawn up by Rem Koolhaas’ practice OMA and submitted for planning permission to the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea in April 2009. They include construction of three six to nine-storey residential buildings, replacing the former Administration wing, and large-scale internal modifications to the interior of the main structure, to enable its use by the Design Museum. After criticism by local residents' groups and the Twentieth Century Society, relating both to the impact of the new buildings on the local streetscape and to the skyline of Holland Park, and to the large scale of the internal modifications to the existing structure, revised plans were submitted in August 2009. The new blocks will be lower in height, with fewer internal modifications to the existing structure.

The revised proposal was approved by the Council on 17 September 2009 and by English Heritage on 25 September 2009.[9] The architect John Pawson will be responsible for the conversion of the Exhibition Hall to provide a new home for the Design Museum.[10] In January 2012 it was confirmed that the Design Museum would move to the building with an £80 million makeover opening in 2016.[11]


  1. ^ Imperial Institute, Survey of London: volume 38: South Kensington Museums Area (1975), pp. 220-227.
  2. ^ "Albertopolis: Expansion of Imperial College", Royal Institute of British Architects.
  3. ^ "Albertopolis: Demolition of the institute", Royal Institute of British Architects.
  4. ^ "Rise and Fall of the British Empire Museum", The Art Newspaper, 3 September 2011.
  5. ^ Charity Commission. Commonwealth Institute, registered charity no. 1119647. 
  6. ^ Charity Commission. Commonwealth Institute, registered charity no. 1078736. 
  7. ^ Susan Macdonald, Concrete: Building Pathology, Blackwell Publishing, 2002.
  8. ^ Sutherland, RJM & Poulton VT, the Commonwealth Institute. The Consulting Engineer, May 1962, 600-03.
  9. ^ "The reasons why English Heritage backed Commonwealth Institute plans", Architects Journal, 28 September 2009.
  10. ^ "Calvin Klein architect wins brief for Design Museum", Evening Standard, 4 June 2010.
  11. ^ Turner, Lauren (24 January 2012). "£80m Design Museum plans unveiled". The Independent. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°29′59″N 0°12′01″W / 51.49986°N 0.20018°W / 51.49986; -0.20018