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For the greater good?: the Commonwealth Institute/Holland Green housing by OMA with Allies and Morrison

Funded by luxury housing on once public land, the redevelopment of London’s Commonwealth Institute reveals a twisted perception of public benefit

The three starkly cuboid new housing blocks of Holland Green that now encircle the swooping roof form of the former Commonwealth Institute building off Kensington High Street – which reopens as the new Design Museum in November with an interior by John Pawson – appear to be a typical product of London’s recent high-end residential property boom. For the economic model of development whereby a site – commonly once municipally or publically owned – becomes stuffed with luxury residential for what often seems like token planning gain (usually few off-site not-so-affordable 80 per cent market value units), is a well-worn one in the city. Indeed it often seems to be the only mechanism left for councils trying to mitigate the excesses of the property market – in a system that’s so skewed to private profit over public benefit. 

Reinier de Graaf of OMA, who working with Allies and Morrison both renovated the old institute building and designed the housing, is clearly sensitive to this charge – having penned an accompanying press release to the new development entitled ‘For the Greater Good. The Case for Holland Green’ – admitting the problem but defending this scheme as essentially the best possible given the system: with the planning gain here being the very public benefit of a significantly expanded museum. He observes: ‘Housing projects for the rich, usually come in tandem with excessive security demands and unrealistic expectations of privacy – invariably promoting the private domain over that of the public … The Holland Green project is different. Not that it constitutes any major form of affordable housing – it does not – but for the simple fact that (part of) its revenues have been put to use for the greater good.’ 

‘Its form twisted by 45 per cent to create a break in the urban grain with its hyperbolic paraboloid roofline reading against the trees of Holland Park beyond’

A typical case of OMA having-their-cake-and-eating it – perhaps – critiquing the system while still playing the game? For while de Graaf is keen to underline that ‘the planning gain was the whole site itself’, the scheme’s restoration and repurposing of the listed postwar landmark building also involved the loss of the exceptional original postwar landscaping by Sylvia Crowe in the process.


So has it been worth it? Has there been enough of a public payback? Or is it a case, like the sorry carcass of Battersea Power Station across town – currently being hemmed in cheek-by-jowl by housing blocks – essentially of having thrown the baby out with the bathwater? 

Ten years ago, the very existence of the old institute building, designed by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners in 1962 and listed in 1988, was in the balance. After closing in 2002, it lay dormant for four years looking for a new use, and in 2006 was threatened with delisting, which would have cleared the path to demolition: the building then being seen more as a hurdle to the site’s development than the key to it. 

However, the following year in 2007, the conundrum of how to finance the preservation of the old building and unlock its potential was approached afresh by the developers Chelsfield who acquired the site. And to give them their due, from the start they at least set their aim high in terms of design for this new (if very pricey and semi-privatised) chunk of city, holding an international design competition in 2008, which garnered a shortlist that included among others Rafael Moneo and Caruso St John – and which OMA won. 

‘The whole site indeed, sloping gently up, is carefully calibrated and orchestrated to differing levels of public and private usage’

The scheme, which has stayed pretty much the same since, has involved the demolition of the original long low-rise administration block of the institute – referred to not totally affectionately as ‘the train crash’ – to enhance the original concept for the main institute building as being like a ‘tent in the park’: its form twisted by 45 per cent to create a break in the urban grain with its hyperbolic paraboloid roofline reading against the trees of Holland Park beyond. 

The spaces created around this swivelled orientation are now occupied by three blocks, their hefty orthogonally gridded facades and forms in strong contrast to it. These contain just 54 flats in all, ranging from 60m2 studios to 1,625m2 mega-flats.

OMA describes the blocks in terms of ‘Russian dolls’ given their proportional similarities and differing sizes (rounded and colourful they are not). The first seven-storey block (A), set back from Kensington High Street, to which its scale responds, has a footprint of 25 x 25m2. Behind it a larger, nine-storey block (B), sporting a 30 x 30m footprint, takes its vertical cue from two adjacent 1960s blocks of flats, while to the rear, the smallest block (C) of 22 x 22m2, and seven storeys, is scaled back down to meet the edge of Holland Park. 

Perhaps a better metaphoric model for the three blocks would be the three bears, with all three, in particular the more overbearing central block, rather uncomfortably crowding round (the Goldilocks of) the original building, somewhat undermining any sense of a ‘tent in the park’. 

Site plan - Click to expand

Site plan - Click to expand

Site plan - Click to expand

Indeed saying ‘original’ building is pretty relative anyway, as due to structural and other problems, it was essentially completely rebuilt except for the roof (‘a conservation, became restoration, and ended up being a replica’ as de Graaf puts it). The 1960s glazed facade has been replaced by energy-efficient fritted facades designed to ‘resemble’ the original, while inside the opportunity was taken for the floors to be ‘rebuilt at new levels to accommodate the needs of the Design Museum’. Hmm: so far, so authentic. It was of course the Design Museum’s agreement in 2008 to become the new tenant that saw the last major piece of the planning-gain jigsaw fall into place. The museum was no doubt attracted in part by the involvement of OMA, but the building also offers three times as much space as its previous Shad Thames home, has been reconstructed to contemporary museum standards, and is being offered to them on a 375-year lease rent-free – all leveraged by the inflated value of the site once planning had been granted. As they say: what’s not to like? Just the fact perhaps that the original building was built with government money, as was the £215,000 paid then to the Holland Estate for a 999-year lease on the site: working out at less than £250 per year, prepaid in any case – and which today would still have over 940 years to run. 

Still the surrounding site is certainly no gated community, approached as it is by a piazza which seamlessly extends from the pavement to the foot of the first block. This obscures the view through to the future museum building – but makes sense doing so, as unexpectedly it forms its front gate, with the main public route passing through at the block’s lower right-hand corner, hollowing it out – in what de Graaf terms ‘an erosion’ of the facade. To its left the museum shop will occupy the rest of the ground-floor frontage of the block, providing the museum with a strong presence to Kensington High Street. This route also leads through to an entrance directly into Holland Park, meaning there will be a flow of people who are not just museum-goers, passing under the high-end flats above, which themselves are accessed through an entrance lobby on the block’s other side.

Plans - Click to expand

Plans - Click to expand

Plans - Click to expand

The whole site indeed, sloping gently up, is carefully calibrated and orchestrated to differing levels of public and private usage, cleverly landscaped by West 8, through banks of planting and trees, to baffle and define areas, with few hard barriers.

While all three blocks have wide shared surface paths leading up to them – for both pedestrian access and drop offs – an overall openness has been achieved through the site by its being liberated from parking and service traffic due to having been entirely excavated to form one enormous linking undercroft basement. While this is mainly given over to an underground car park – its bays beginning to fill with Bentleys and Ferraris – it also has a pool, gym, cinema and golf driving practice room and other must-haves of the wealthy.

The new blocks are concrete frame structures, arranged around a central core, their facades, clad in a limestone facing with strikingly graphic arrangements of severely gridded windows, cut-backs and cantilevers.

De Graaf characterises the original design concept for these as being like graph paper against which the curvature of the original building’s roof plots itself and describes the huge amount of thought that went into their exact calibration, variation – and detailing – to maintain the graphic simplicity yet save them from monotony or a Superstudio-like scaleless abstraction. 

The design went through various stages, with the final one chosen, that of a ‘collision’ of two types of grid. A primary one reads as wrapping around the building, with tall vertical window slots slim enough to appear like punctures in the limestone surface rather than just voids in its thick grid. This contrasts with a secondary fully glazed ’grid’, that lines cut-backs such as balconies and terraces. The largest of the latter form further dramatic double-height ‘erosions’ of the facade, framed Terragni-like by the expressed columns and beams continuing around them – a feature that in the case of the tallest block also ensures a cut-back to maintain the right to light of an adjacent block of flats. A further element of the facades’ design are the cantilevered ‘skyboxes’ – glazed only at their ends – which further break up and half question the dominant ordering without challenging it. 

‘It all feels spatially a bit like a hotel’

In a more subtle move, the stainless-steel frames of the glazing are set slightly proud of the limestone surfaces, allowing a rich animation of shadow play when the sun hits them obliquely. 

In all this, careful detailing has ensured a suppression of any elements that would mess up the graphic cuboid simplicity, with plant minimised on the roof, and fall-back drainage on horizontal elements, designed to mitigate rain marking and weathering. 

Internally, OMA had wanted to design the main lobbies and communal parts, continuing the abstracted play of grids through to these. This would have brought the controlled elemental nature of the architecture inside and up to the thresholds of the flats, nicely fleshing out the buildings more as integral wholes rather than exercises in just facades around internal fit-outs – albeit high-end ones: one block has four storeys being designed by John Pawson for a single foreign owner.

In the event the developer opted to fit the lobbies out themselves, and given the deep plans of the square blocks, and their low ceiling heights – suppressed to less than 3m due to a planning compromise between number of storeys and overall height – it all feels spatially a bit like a hotel.

Continuing the hotel-like air, the lift lobbies are essentially corridors that lead inside the flats to further corridor entrance halls, and room arrangements akin to space-planning exercises, more to do with bedroom and bathroom statistics than any spatial qualities. In the larger flats – vast lateral units which take up half-floor plates of the smaller blocks – there is a feeling of a labyrinth at times, but one that does not lead to any revelation or goal.

Only the upper flats have the wow factor, with the huge double-height terraces, enclosed by expressed concrete frames, reading like enormous outdoor rooms. 

Axonometries - Click to expand

Axonometries - Click to expand

Axonometrics - Click to expand

It seems strange to review blocks of housing, in which the interior qualities of the flats are essentially undiscussable, even irrelevant, in terms of any normal critique of need and function – existing more as stacked investment units than anything else, ones which will inevitably be individually reconfigured by whoever buys them in any case. 

The qualities of this scheme architecturally do lie, as de Graaf suggests, in its successful site parti that brings old and new surprisingly comfortably and elegantly together and the way the ‘public’ space and permeability has been maintained through the site bears out the fact that, given the circumstances, OMA working with Allies and Morrison and West 8, have produced a fine scheme on its own terms, and an apt, if somewhat crowded, setting for the new Design Museum. 

And yet while you can argue that it’s perhaps better to be in the system mitigating it from within, underneath it all remains the questionable ethics and mechanics behind this system of development. That somehow we should be grateful that a site which was previously public has not become a fully gated community ultimately shows just how twisted perceptions of public benefit have become.

Walking around the site, its street-to-park setting and the incremental increase in height of gridded, twisted blocks, all sitting in carefully orchestrated landscaping, is gently reminiscent of the Cranbrook Estate in Bethnal Green. Designed as council housing, by Berthold Lubetkin working with Francis Skinner and Douglas Bailey, with its generous, efficient plans and thoughtful detailing – right down to the careful, economical but functional layout of storage and kitchen units – the genuine public benefit and social aims were clear of such a housing development, of a type that is unthinkable today. The comparison to schemes such as Holland Green – however successful on its own terms – just serves to show the void of thinking that divides the country and society which once built housing for ‘a better tomorrow’, from the one in which we’ve arrived at today. 

Commonwealth Institute

Architects: OMA with Allies and Morrison
Partner in charge: Reinier de Graaf
Structural engineer: Arup Structures
Landscape: West 8 
Photographs: Philip Vile, Sebastian van Damme, Nick Guttridge

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