11 May, 2009

Will this classic be fit for purpose?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

As a prime mover in founding the Design Museum, our architecture critic considers the merits of its move to a refurbished Commonwealth Institute

Here’s a fine thing. The Twentieth Century Society, founded to cultivate educated enthusiasm for modern architecture, has declared itself “dismayed” by the Design Museum, founded to cultivate educated enthusiasm for modern design. Two cats in a sack here.

Object of the dismay is the proposed reuse of the Commonwealth Institute, the historic centre of an ambitious new development in Kensington, west London, now up for planning approval with the local council. The Design Museum wants to make this redundant, mid-century classic, with signature parabolic roof and unmissable traces of late-imperial pomp, its new home.

Designers of the reuse are the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and West 8. These are a cover for Rem Koolhaas, the cartoonishly hip, Prada-clad globaliser whose big interest, just as everyone else is beginning to appreciate the importance of small scale and locality, is “generic” cities. Koolhaas would like it very much if he could design the whole world. Then Balham could look exactly like Bahrain and his design project would be complete.

When Koolhaas won the competition to redevelop this important site in March 2008, the Design Museum was already and somewhat restlessly looking for new premises. Tate Modern was considered, but Nick Serota ‘s ego took up all available space in the planned extension. Potters Fields , next door to City Hall, was also scouted. But last October, the Design Museum committed to move upmarket from wharf-side Bermondsey to the wrong end of a Kensington shopping street. Why?

What real benefit a larger home brings to the Design Museum, which has recently had problems making best use of its existing space, has not been explained; it has, for example, no very large permanent collection in need of storage. But for the developers of the whole site, which includes the inevitable “luxury newbuild” flats, the presence of the museum is what’s known as a “planning gain”. This is a sort of culturally flavoured bribe: we get to build nine-storey apartment blocks, you get a spiffy new museum.

The architect and developer have hired Roger Cunliffe and James Sutherland, architect and engineer respectively of the original RMJM design for the 1962 Commonwealth Institute, to oversee Koolhaas’s reuse. This is to guarantee authenticity and credibility or, at least, provide a simulacrum of them so perfect no one can tell the difference. Still, if the profile is unchanged, the institute’s original gay flagpoles have been removed in the reuse and replaced by boring, generic fountains that are so wearily predictable they might have been found in a catalogue of architect’s impressions. Along with the luxury new-build.

Koolhaas originally promised to “capitalise on the dynamic interior spaces” of the Commonwealth Institute. This means gutting it to create a huge void. It is this evisceration and the inevitable loss of period detail that has so outraged the Twentieth Century Society, which says provocatively that the Design Museum, with its rapacious intent, is not a suitable tenant for so distinguished a building.

Meanwhile, the council has expressed reservations about the height of the apartment blocks. So here is a fabulous and paradoxical scrap: the Twentieth Century Society, with its Osbert Lancasterish, broad-church approach to architecture, seeks to conserve with archaeological thoroughness a modern building in the style of Le Corbusier. The Design Museum, less willing to articulate its new purpose than pursue real-estate deals, seeks to “vandalise” it.

Design is a fugitive idea, so it’s appropriate – perhaps – that the Design Museum has become a migratory institution. Maybe the impending occupation of a new-old building will force a reinvention of the idea of each.

It was 20 years ago today, or very nearly, that the original Design Museum opened. At the launch party, we served miniature fish and chips wrapped in cones made from the Financial Times. I danced with Akihiko Amanuma, one of the Sony designers responsible for the original Walkman. We also had the first public demonstration of Apple’s hypertext file system, a quaint electronic card index that seemed utterly sensational.

We did not have email. We used fax. “We” being Terence Conran, who paid for the original Design Museum, and myself… who talked it into existence. Ten years before, Conran had discovered my first book, a crudely ambitious study of design called In Good Shape. He liked it and lured me from the obscurity of provincial academe to help make his monument to design. That was 1979.

And by 1989 we had a very clear idea what we wanted to achieve. Design was not well understood. We wanted to explain to government and industry and the public that design was one of the great organising forces of the 20th century: a way of tidying up industrial and social mess through the application of practical art. In this we passionately believed.

And then came the 21st century. The rare expertise of design, which required so much special pleading, suddenly got diversified and available. With design everywhere, what need is there for a Design Museum? I had a small intimation of that 20 years ago. Standing on the terrace looking at the river on the opening day, I remember musing that we have spent all this money and 10 years of effort and we have just opened a museum that looks like Habitat. Right now in Munich, the Neue Sammlung fur Angewandte Kunst, one of my models for the Design Museum, has an exhibition on Ikea.

If the Design Museum moves into the Commonwealth Institute, the fate of its first home may also weirdly become a concern to the Twentieth Century Society. It was an early example of creative reuse. The original warehouse we vandalised was found for us by the late Max Gordon who, as architect of the original Saatchi Gallery, has a real claim to be an eminence grise in London’s museum world.

We tore most of it down and built a sheer white box around the remaining concrete frame. The beautiful and uncompromising gallery interior was by Stanton Williams. The thing about what we may soon call the old Design Museum is that it’s a museum of itself. Whatever happens to the Commonwealth Institute, I do hope it is preserved, although my blue plaque will ruin its clean lines.

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