The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

C20 Society appalled at government betrayal of post war architectural masterpiece.

Tessa Jowell and Margaret Beckett have both backed a move to delist the grade II* Commonwealth Institute by introducing a special bill – after DCMS turned down a request to delist in July 2005.

C20 Society Director Catherine Croft says “I am completely appalled by this proposal. If a bill is allowed to de-list the Commonwealth Institute then no listed building will be safe. There is no doubt that if the building were demolished then ‘substantially greater value’ could be realised by the Trustees – that is in part why buildings are listed to protect them from market forces.

The point is that we recognise that there are other values worth considering than pure financial worth – the Commonwealth Institute building is listed because of its outstanding cultural value as one of the very best examples of post war British architecture. If the Foreign Office values the work of the Commonwealth Institute Trustees then they should consider grant aiding them from their own funds, they should not try and help them raise money by depriving the rest of us of major cultural asset. Tessa Jowell’s job is to protect our heritage, not to help her friends in other departments find ways around the legislation that she is supposed to defend.

We have no doubt that if the Commonwealth Institute was offered for sale on the open market at a reasonable price it would find a sympathetic new owner who would be able to make great use of this stunning architectural masterpiece.

If the Commonwealth Institute trustees are allowed to demolish a listed building because their potential good works are perceived as being more important than keeping a building that the Government itself has identified as being one that should be kept, (and DCMS turned down an application to demolish in July 2005), then what is to stop other charitable owners of buildings asking to be given special treatment too? For instance, we could see every almshouse in the country demolished to make way for big developments on the grounds that raising money in this way would allow their trustees to house more people”

Read the letter from Tessa Jowell and Margaret Beckett backing the move to de-list.

Background information:

Commonwealth Institute
Kensington High Street, London W8
Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, 1960-62
Grade II*

Sanctioned by an act of parliament in 1958 after the demolition of the Imperial Institute (1887) on Exhibition Row, the Commonwealth Institute was designed and constructed by architects RMJM between 1960-62 on a new site on the southern edge of Holland Park. Essentially a modern ‘pavilion’ in brick and concrete, supporting a dramatic triangulated curved sheet-copper roof, it reflected post-colonial thinking of the 1960’s with a brief to be educational, user-friendly, informal and flexible. The huge three-storey open-plan public exhibition space at its heart was originally fitted out by James Gardner, the outstanding British exhibition designer of the period. It conveyed the idea of the unity and diversity of the modern Commonwealth and pioneered the concept, established at the Festival of Britain, of closely relating architectural form and display. The exhibitions could be viewed from a circular platform overlooking the entire space, dramatically lit with a combination of natural and artificial lighting set into the coffered ceiling, the latter activated automatically to maintain a constant level of light.

The main building is an important example of post-war construction and engineering advances. The 183 sq ft roofscape – the largest of its kind at the time – is made up of equilateral and ‘bastard’ hyperbolic paraboloids in swept shell concrete, and its listing description by English Heritage calls it the “first major swept roof contribution to the international traditions of dramatic roof profiles”, a movement pioneered by Nowicki, Saarinen and Stubbins in the USA, Otto in Germany and Candela in Mexico. The surrounding lower level administration and conference buildings, which were largely hidden by a curtain of brightly coloured commonwealth flags along Kensington High Street, are attractively set in landscaping to designs by Dame Sylvia Crowe. Crowe created a bold but serene design using water to reflect the buildings, sky and flags, spare in its simplicity and successful in enhancing an urban site.

During a period of nearly 40 years the Institute played host to royalty and statesmen from across the globe and giving several generations of schoolchildren their first glimpse of the wider world through a kaleidoscope of exhibitions and educational programmes supported by an impressive library.

Despite a recent £3 million refurbishment, the Institute is now empty.

In July 2005 Tessa Jowell said “the advice from English Heritage could not be clearer. Our experts on the historic environment believe that this is one of the two most important post-War buildings of that period in London.”