A version of this essay was originally published in Portuguese in the online magazine ArteCapital in February 2016
On the 6th of November, 1962, Kensington’s wealthy residents were finally able to inspect the strange building that had been under construction for the past two years: a copper tent with a vaguely paraboloid shape clad in milky-blue curtain waling and intercepted by an extensive pergola and a low-lying volume; the 17 different flags flapping in the entrance plaza the only clue about its contents.
The new Commonwealth Institute museum was part of the British post-war curatorial agenda where the empire should no longer appear exotic and subjected to the crown but transformed into a community of equals. This tendency was inaugurated ten years earlier with the Festival of Britain and its complete transformation of the southern bank of the river Thames. The museum’s architecture was commissioned to Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall & Partners and James Gardner was in charge of the exhibition, which he designed not as a sequence of rooms, but as a great hall where one could access directly and individually the spaces dedicated to each country.
Unfortunately neither the exuberant shape, nor the sincerity of its internal structure or the twenty-five tons of Zambian copper could resist the curse of every masterpiece: the roof leaked.
In 1982 it was estimated that £312,000 were needed for repairs. In 1988, only to keep the structure intact it was already £700,000, with the bill reaching £5M for basic upgrades.
With the costs of repair work duplicating every few years – but now with listed building status constraining any ambitious proposal or change of use – and with its popularity diminishing, the museum was dismantled in 2003, the various objects returned to their countries of origin and the dusty dioramas stored in some institutional basement. In 2007 the building was sold to a private developer so that it could be properly monetized and transformed into luxury shops and flats; but the local authorities had different ideas: as a condition for the approval to build three new residential blocks they demanded that a civic use be given to the old museum.
This is where the main characters of this story come in – Deyan Sudjic and the quest to find a home for his Design Museum, evicted as he was from the small building on Shad Thames (destined now as Zaha Hadid’s archive) and the duo OMA/John Pawson, authors of the project that opened to the public this past November.
Those who follow the work of these two architects will find strange that Pawson was given the museum and Koolhas the apartment buildings and not the other way around. In fact the old Commonwealth Museum – a collage of contrasting elements – could easily pass for one of the Ducth office’s earlier projects next to the Kunsthall Rotterdam or the house in Bordeaux, while the Englishman based his carreer on being an ultra-aesthete and last resistant of dogmatic minimalism (his online journal has entries with titles like “in search of white”) more suited for villas in the Greek islands or monasteries in the Czech Republic.
The three residential buildings, varying between seven and nine floors and rotated forty-five degrees, occupy a strip of land between the street and Holland Park and are a bit like back-up singers to the museum. Koolhas tried, as much as possible for buildings with such different contents, to have a dialogue between the residential blocks and the museum (the apartment’s grid façade follows the verticality and the proportion of the museum’s façade; the museum’s entrance is actually through the ground floor of one of the apartment buildings) leveraging the somewhat exotic circumstances that led to the site’s acquisition, but also making those circumstances all-pervading. An interesting strategy that inevitably oppresses the small museum: it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that around the corner there’s a sign that reads “private property” and one supposes that residents don’t enjoy having hordes of tourists peaking into their dinning rooms. Little else is left to say about the museum’s exterior, only that the new curtain walling has subtracted something to the original: the frames look heavier and the glazing is in a more primary blue.
The first reaction when entering the Design Museum is that this is a building that is immediately understood: there are no antechambers or convoluted routes to go through. One enters directly the heart of the building, a void that like an inverted ziggurat reveals the roof’s geometry and creates various platforms from where each of the museums spaces are accessed and like in a well designed foyer people’s movement is an event in itself. This clarity was inherited from the original layout and was part of the brief. In general Pawson uses few materials and the floor and walls in light oak panels dominate the space; nevertheless the use of this material is not obsessive enough to create the impression of wooden structure that contrasts with the original concrete and ends up having a decorative rather than conceptual effect. Pawson masters the rest of the design: even with a rather more restricted budget than he’s used to, wherever direction one looks every element is carefully detailed. From some angles there’s even the impression that the roof fits the atrium like the lid of a jewellery box.
Still, the existing building asked for a less well-behaved design, challenging instead of domesticating the original. John Pawson responded diligently to the brief but perhaps wasn’t able to interpret the spirit that guided Gardner to create a exhibitional panopticon.
The most interesting question that the building could address was “what is a design museum?”, a task that Koolhas would presumably have pursued with a bit more joy. In the permanent collection exhibition – that contrary to the old Design Museum is free – there’s an insistence in the absurd showcasing of objects that most visitors have in there living-rooms (who want’s to look at the blank scree of a latest model MacBook Pro?) that transforms them into unsuspicious objet-trouvé.
Even if curators normally think that they have the power to change any particular space, a museum’s architecture should at least suggest how its content is to be exhibited (an obvious example is the opportunity generated by the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, a model often exported but rarely with success) and such a sanitary space as is put forward by the Design Museum is not inviting a new way of interacting with objects that require manipulation. Nothing invites us to behave any differently than if we were in the lobby of a business hotel. At least there you could sit on the chairs.
It has to be a difficult recipe to master if after more than one hundred years of museums dedicated to the exhibition of industrial objects no one has been able to complete it quite effectively. Certainly a good first step would be to get rid of the stickers saying, “Do not touch”.