The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

C20 Director writes to The Observer

with robust explanation of our standpoint on the Commonwealth Institute

The Editor, The Observer

Re: Will this classic be fit for purpose?, Stephen Bayley Sunday 10 May 2009

Stephen Bayley is sceptical about the Design Museum’s need for larger premises and the suitability of its projected move to the Grade II* listed Commonwealth Institute building on Kensington High Street, but he doesn’t explain what the full impact of this would be.   The Twentieth Century Society (which exists principally to campaign for the preservation of the best buildings of the C20)  is against the idea because it would involve not just the “gutting” of the main tent structure of this iconic post-war masterpiece, but the complete demolition of the listed ancillary buildings, and destruction of one of the most distinctive and atmospheric bits of contemporary landscape design.

Contrary to his belief, we are not looking for a solution that conserves the site “with archaeological thoroughness”—far from it.   Having been part of the team that recommended  the selection of  OMA architects, we were optimistic that this firm would have the verve and imagination to retain the significant elements and fuse them with great new design.   Sadly the current proposals completely miss the mark—no doubt in part because of the enormous pressure on the architects to squeeze a huge amount of new accommodation onto the site.

Either the Design Museum needs to radically modify its brief for a new home, or an alternative user needs to be found.   There are few post-war buildings listed at this high grade, and few that generate such warm nostalgic feelings with so many people.   Its good, pioneering architecture that remains popular—we are confident it can be revitalised without destroying all that is best about it.

Incidentally I enjoyed SB’s reminiscences about the early days of the Design Museum and although the current building was only completed in 1989, if they move out we will certainly campaign for its sympathetic reuse—he is right that it should be recognised as innovative and influential.

Catherine Croft
Director, C20 Society