The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Press digest on the de-listing proposal for the Commonwealth Institute

National newspapers

The Telegraph on 27 May 2006 quotes English Heritage’s Chief Executive Simon Thurley:
“There is already a constructive and democratic way of resolving cases like this. Forcing thorugh a Bill in the face of opposition would be an unacceptable rash destabilization of the planning system. To engage in a fundamental change to the law undermines the whole system of protection in England”.

From the Evening Standard, 30 May 2006:
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has announced that the Commonwealth Institute building is to be de-listed. It must have been a different Tessa Jowell who decreed on 22 July 2005 that the Government would not alter the status of the Holland Park structure. “Our experts believe that this is one of the two most important post-war buildings in London,” she said then. So why the about turn?

From a letter by James Porter in The Times, 3 June 2006:
The building now stands dark and empty. The magical landscaping designed by Sylvia Crowe is now shamefully neglected. Less than four years after funding a large refurbishment, the same Government is now going to extraordinary lengths to have the building demolished.

Deyan Sudjic remarks in the Observer, June 18, 2006:
The fate of the Commonwealth Institute is one of those turning points in the history of taste, like the Euston Arch, the great Doric Victorian entrance to the station demolished in 1962 in the name of modernisation at exactly the moment that the Commonwealth Institute was being built. It was designed by the dependable but stolid practice started by Sir Robert Matthew, known as RMJM.

This was the one project with which RMJM decided to kick over the traces. The firm produced a modish hyperbolic parabaloid roof, sitting like a witch’s hat perched precariously on a blue box.

It was designed to house the Commonwealth Institute’s collection of handpainted dioramas celebrating the finer points of bauxite-mining in British Guiana, tea-planting in Ceylon and rubber-growing in Malaya, which I, for one, remember with a certain fondness from my school days.

When it was new, this was as modern as official London got: a slightly shocking intrusion to the skyline against the backdrop of a Royal Park, with an interior that had something of the flavour of an expo.

Marcus Binney in The Times, 19 June 2006, quotes Derek Ingram, a former governor of the Commonwealth Institute:
“This is a very important building which must be kept. The British Government gave a golden handshake to the institute of £8.5 million, half ring-fenced for repairs to the copper roof which have now been carried out. The rest was intended as an endowment but has been frittered away. The proposals for demolition have been bulldozed through and people have not been consulted as to how the building might be used. The purpose of the institute was to tell people in Britain about the Commonwealth. The current proposals will not go to the education of children in the Commonwealth but to a research institute in Cambridge”.

Patsy Pobertson, Director of Information at the Commonwealth Secretariat from 1988-93, writes in The Times on 19 June 2006:
Tens of thousands of pupils attended (the Commonwealth Institute’s) exhibitions, lectures and displays each year and began to understand the complexity of Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth. It was one of the few places in the country where artists from Commonwealth countries could display their works and perform at a venue accessible to all.

Lord Fellowes refers to the £8.5 million that the Government gave the trustees in 2000 so that the institute could go its independent way. Half was ring-fenced to repair the copper roof and the cladding. That was done. Within two years, the trustees abandoned the building and, although it has been neglected for four years, a recent inspection showed that it was still perfectly fit for the purpose for which it was designed.

The trustees must not be allowed to demolish this building. Its trust deeds should be examined to allow its use by other organisations which can fulfill the ideals of its founders.

Jonathan Glancey in the Guardian, 20 June 2006, calls the Commonwealth Institute,
“one of the most enchanting modern English buildings” and goes on to say: “Designed by Robert Matthew and opened in 1962, the characterful and daring Commonwealth Institute, all swooping roofs and happily wooded parkland setting, was a truly altruistic concern as well as a delightful building.”

Architectural Press

From a letter by Gavin Stamp, Chairman of the Twentieth Century Society, to the Architects’ Journal, June 2006:
We in the Twentieth Century Society have been struck by how many are rather fond of the Commonwealth Institute – but that is not the point. Listing is an index of architectural and/or historical importance, regardless of whether the roof leaks, and the correctness of the Institute’s listing (or the basic soundness of its construction) has not been seriously disputed. There is already a perfectly adequate system for deciding if demolishing a listed building can be justified by its intrinsic flaws or redundancy; it is called a public inquiry (and we can only assume that the Institute’s trustees do not care to follow the normal procedures in case they lose the argument). For if worthy aims allowed to override the listing system in favour of realizing maximum profit, then no historic building owned by charitable trustees – whether the Commonwealth Institute or, say, an almshouse by Wren – will be safe.

Peter Stewart of the Peter Stewart Consultancy writes in Architects’ Journal on 8 June 2006:
The system already allows buildings to be de-listed if the status is no longer justified. What the government is proposing, in order to get around the awkward facts of the case, is an abuse of power – a dodgy wheeze to suit the interests of influential friends.

Catherine Croft, Director of the Twentieth Century, writes on 9 June in Building Design:
It’s a fabulous and dramatic bit of post-war architecture, with a great bit of landscape architecture by Sylvia Crowe. It’s also a very popular landmark. In the last week, we have been inundated with messages form people praising the building.

Richard Coleman of the Richard Coleman Consultancy says in a letter to Building Design, published on 16 June 2006:
If demolition is purely motivated by a wish to exploit the site for its development value, regardless of the future of the listed building, government action outside normal planning guidance would make an impossible precedent. The Institute certainly needs help and I sympathise with its wish to raise funds. The government should indeed step in, but by providing the funding the institute deserves, not by ‘buggering up’ the listing system.

From a letter by Alan Powers, Trustee of the Twentieth Century Society, to Building Design, 20 June 2006:
Several organisations have expressed interest in buying and using the existing Commonwealth Institute building. Were this not the case, the argument for demolition might be stronger. On the positive side, the Commonwealth Institute satisfies many current criteria for good architecture, with its contribution to public space, its striking silhouette and mass, and its potential to be a place of public assembly well served by public transport. In fact, one could say that as an exhibition building it failed to reach its full potential, and that its best years of public service lie ahead.

Letters and press releases

In a press release of 31 May 2006 Councillor Daniel Moylan of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea says:
This is an amazingly underhand proposal from a government that only six months ago refused to de-list the Commonwealth Institute. As the guardian of literally thousands of listed buildings in Kensington and Chelsea, we would have to oppose this unprecedented resort to a special Act of Parliament: it could open the floodgates.

Anthea Case CBE, Chairman of Heritage Link, writes in a letter to Tessa Jowell on 7 June:
Despite the assertion that the international aspect makes this a unique situation, we fear that the proposed Bill would set a dangerous precedent, encouraging other owners to think that in special circumstances the protection afforded by listing can be circumvented. DCMS and GOL should stand firm and seek to resolve the issue through the normal planning system, not a hybrid Bill or any other device.

Stephen Cox, from 1991-7 Director General of the Commonwealth Institute, says in a letter to Tessa Jowell on 19 June 2006:
The Commonwealth Institute is a wonderful building and site whose concept and architecture mark a dramatic and deliberate break from the traditional buildings of The Empire. The design embodies the ideals of the new Commonwealth; a grouping of independent nations coming together in an atmosphere of equality, mutual respect and inter-dependence. It is, to my knowledge, the only building constructed to give physical representation to the new political and social ideals which drove the decolonisation process and which resulted in the emergence of the Commonwealth.