Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

Outrage: Commonwealth Institute Betrayed

Commonwealth Institute

OMA’s residential towers at the former Commonwealth Institute have destroyed a precious example of modern landscaping

There is a feeling sometimes that the absence of a building can be more magical than its prolonged existence; that the memories of happy times spent in a lovely place are by their very ineffability more elevated than the experience of being confronted by the same building, somewhat mutilated and in ugly circumstances. In The Monkey’s Paw, the Edwardian short story by WW Jacobs, a mother makes a wish to see her son who has been killed in a gruesome accident; her husband steps in just in time to prevent her opening the door to a mangled corpse. And so it is sometimes better not to see a beautiful structure reduced to a wreck. 

OMA's addition to the former Commonwealth Institute

OMA1

Source: Nick Guttridge

OMA’s addition to the former Commonwealth Institute

The Commonwealth Institute was listed Grade 2*: that is, ‘of particularly great importance to the nation’s built heritage: [its] significance will generally be beyond reproach’. The self-justifying statement by OMA that accompanies their scheme apparently claims that it is an enabling development that saved the Institute. But it has not been saved; it has been rebuilt, with revolting new cladding in fritted glass. And more to the point, the integral landscape at the front of the Institute was itself listed as Grade 2, and OMA’s blocks of flats have obliterated it. They evidently had no idea of the significance of the place with its lawns, its pools, its flags, its trees. I doubt that anyone in the office had even heard of Sylvia Crowe, whose landscapes shaped the public realm in postwar Britain, let alone Maurice Lee who conceived the garden layout, or indeed Johnson-Marshall, described at his death as ‘the most influential architect in the United Kingdom’.

Commonwealth Institute

Commonwealth Institute

Source: Henk Snoek / RIBA Collections

Commonwealth Institute

What makes this development so appalling is that so many rushed in to destroy the old building once its Commonwealth guardians had left it and it became vulnerable. It came as no surprise that two senior government ministers ignored the advice of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in an effort to cash in on a space set aside by a wiser, poorer but more generous generation for public benefit and enjoyment; but it was a new low to suggest that they would cut the international aid budget if deprived of their pound of flesh, and children in Africa would die. A bizarre episode followed in which claims were made on behalf of the cashers-in that the building was structurally irreparable. This was not true: Avery Associates Architects had overseen a comprehensive repair of the roofs, described in detail in February 2002 in the Specifier supplement of Building magazine, probably not a publication read in the trendsetting salons of Rotterdam. Bryan Avery says today that the claims that the building had to be demolished or rebuilt for structural reasons were ‘completely overstated’; yet for some inexplicable reason the previously unimpeachable Peter Carolin waded in for the prosecution, writing somewhat obsessively about it in a letter to the Architects’ Journal published some five years after Avery had put the problems right.

As for the architects: no one could have expected anything better. I am reminded of the ones who persuaded the Archbishop of Birmingham (against his better judgement) to allow the demolition of Pugin’s Bishop’s House there, one of the most original and influential structures of the early nineteenth century, and presumably profit from the fees on their miserable and forgettable office block that overlooks the site, now a traffic island. Who knows what Allies and Morrison thought they were doing getting involved in the disgrace at Kensington; it is unclear from their website what they actually did, or gained from it. OMA is another matter however: they are accomplished show-offs. In Content, a Rem Koolhaas book from 2004, an architect called Joshua Prince-Ramus who had founded the New York office of OMA gave a pious speech on the importance of the public realm. ‘The last decade has revealed an accelerated erosion of the Public Domain … The essence of the Public is that it is free.’ Well, so much for that; no doubt it suited OMA at the time to say it.

OMA's addition to the former Commonwealth Institute

OMA2

Source: Nick Guttridge

OMA’s addition to the former Commonwealth Institute

The great wonder of this building was the route to it from the street: the expectant wait at the end of the promenade, often filled with excited schoolchildren; the joyous flags of friendly nations; the patterned paving; the open walkway; the change in angle as one crossed the bridge; the moat; the dark foyer with the stained glass; the fabulous explosion of space inside as the exhibition opened out in all directions under the tented roof from that magical elevated circular podium. Cunliffe told me that all this was Johnson-Marshall’s unified concept, and Crowe, the exhibition designer James Gardner and the others were brought in like musicians under the maestro’s baton. The experience was heightened still by the fact that Kensington High Street is a busy road and the Institute site provided not only a breathing space, but a sense that at any moment one could escape from the traffic and experience this fabulous sequence, free of charge, and at any time of day.

In the nation of shopkeepers the beauty of a thing is unlikely to justify its survival.

For the building of the Commonwealth Institute was intended at the outset as an educational project. We learned nothing new from the death of it. We were already aware that in the nation of shopkeepers the beauty of a thing is unlikely to justify its survival; we had quickly grown familiar with the moralistic nagging that passed for an arts policy in New Labour Britain. And of fashionable architects everywhere who rush into jobs they scarcely understand, we were reminded again that it matters not how fancy their publications; how magnificent their prizes; how adoring the lecture halls of students; how lavish the colour supplements of the Sunday newspapers; how fawning the television documentaries, if, at the end of the day, they add up to no more than a bunch of men who joined a gang that raped a sacred landscape.

This article was amended on 8 February, 2017 to remove comments suggesting Roger Cunliffe always considered the Commonwealth Institute to be temporary. Cunliffe says, ’I have recently considered the building obsolescent; I have never considered it temporary.’