London’s Design Museum has long been a vagabond of the cultural world. Starting life in 1984 as the Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum, it moved five years later to a banana-ripening warehouse on the Thames near Tower Bridge. But the need for more space soon became clear, and last week it opened on new premises: the late lamented Commonwealth Institute off Kensington High Street. The museum’s founder, Sir Terence Conran, describes it as a ‘magnificent new cathedral of design’, and declares this to be the proudest moment of his long career.
The contrast with the collection’s previous home could hardly be greater. ‘Bauhaus-on-Thames’, as it was sometimes described, was a white-walled, flat-roofed, rectilinear building whose picture windows constantly led your gaze away from the exhibits and towards the river. The new museum, with its blue-grey exterior, is a symphony of curves – and although it overlooks Holland Park, the focus is inwards and upwards, towards its extraordinary roof. The architectural term for this structure is a hyperbolic parabola, which means that it manages to combine a convex axis with a concave one: from the outside it has often been compared to a tent, and from the inside to a manta ray.
John Pawson, who redesigned the interior, has a metaphor of his own for the atrium: ‘an open-cast mine’. Lined with pale oak and speckled beige marble, it gives an uninterrupted view of the concrete ceiling and its supporting stilts; access is via a series of glass-fronted terraces linked by high-sided staircases, so that as you ascend you are constantly seeing the curves above from a new angle.
It’s an extravagant use of space, but – unlike at Tate Modern – it doesn’t leave the galleries squeezed into poky, claustrophobic corners. The double-height basement (which opens with an exhibition of nominees for the Beazley Designs of the Year awards) is particularly generous. Another good-sized temporary exhibition can be housed on the ground floor, while at the top of the building is a permanent display aimed at visitors unfamiliar with the concept of design, encompassing everything from the first fitted kitchen – created in Germany in1926 – to an Anglepoise lamp and a AK47. The museum also manages to fit in a 200-seater auditorium, a large events room, an educational centre, a shop, a coffee and juice bar, and a restaurant – which, if the chef knows his onions, could become as fashionable as its Thames-side predecessor, the Blueprint Café.
At the opening press conference, much emphasis was placed on the rescue of a great venue which had been on the verge of rack and ruin. Unveiled in 1961, the Commonwealth Institute was rated by English Heritage as the most important modernist building in London after the Royal Festival Hall (the two were designed by the same architect, Robert Matthew); but in 2002 the Institute closed and the structure was left to decay, with rain leaking in through the famous roof. The site was eventually bought by property developers, who welcomed the Design Museum in return for permission from Kensington and Chelsea Council to build three blocks of flats beside it.
We must be grateful that the building still exists and has been put to such good use. Aesthetically, however, the price has been appalling, because what made the Commonwealth Institute such an extraordinary experience for visitors was not just its futuristic, sky-blue façade and Thunderbirds-style interior walkways but the approach to it from Kensington High Street: a wonderfully imaginative piece of landscaping by Sylvia Crowe with lawns, trees, open water and a forest of flagpoles – one for every Commonwealth nation. Now almost all of that has gone to accommodate the unremarkable flats, leaving just enough room for a cramped little courtyard and a half-hearted fountain to remind us of a lost urban paradise. The museum, consequently, is like an elephant without its trunk and tusks: impressive, but not thrilling.
Inside, however, some of the original features have been preserved, such as the stained-glass windows framing photographs of life in different parts of the Commonwealth; and there are other, more surprising echoes of the past. The ‘Fear and Love’ exhibition, running until April, consists of eleven installations commissioned from leading international designers to explore ‘a spectrum of issues that define our time’ – among them the wastefulness of the fashion industry, the use of social media to search for love and sex, and the settlement of nomads in cities. But looking at Ma Ke’s selection of textiles woven on traditional wooden looms, André Jacques’ video about dating apps – shot to look like old Technicolor stock – and Rural Urban Framework’s glorified yurt, you feel a strange sense of familiarity. Where might we have come across things like this before? That’s right – in the Commonwealth Institute half a century ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.