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Pawson Pads London's New Design Museum
Transformation of space-y Commonwealth Institute gets underway.
A soaring hyperbolic paraboloid roof defines the interior space.
Alex Morris Visualization / Courtesy John Pawson

The Design Museum has hurled down a gauntlet—or rather a hyperbolic paraboloid—claiming title as the world’s leading design museum. Today the museum unveiled John Pawson’s subtle makeover plans for the insanely swoopy and also landmarked Commonwealth Institute, a 1962 exposition hall that has been much unloved and almost razed by Parliamentary edict in recent years but now has been saved by Chelsfield Partners who plan an enclave with a residential tower by OMA adjacent to the revitalized museum.

The ornately geometric original’s interiors look like sets for an evil mastermind’s lair in a James Bond film. A raised circular dais at the umbilical center of the space seems camera-ready for a Star Wars’ extra-planetary dictator’s inaugural threatening speech, or a dinner for Calvin Klein that actually did take place there last fall.

The original central dais is replaces by a grand stair (left) and the top floor gallery space (right).

Pawson’s design preserves that sense of dynamic and urgent energy while staking out 108,000 square feet of usable space—three times what the museum has now— mostly along the perimeter and with new below-grade galleries. The central dais for Darth Sidious has been moved so that a central staircase leads up to it giving arrivals a more advantageous view of the entire soaring space. The Design Museum’s director Deyan Sudjic said in a phone interview that he had confidence that Pawson would “bring back a faded landmark in an elegant way and show off the collection to best advantage.” He noted that Pawson’s reincarnation will be an eye-opener even for those who knew it before: “There was no sense of the space you were in,” he said. “It was conceived as a darkened tent with little dioramas showing off how sheep were sheered in New Zealand and copper extracted in Zambia. It will be seen anew as it was not even in the original.”

OMA will handle the building's exterior including updating the opaque glass facade and West 8 will landscape the grounds.

Galleries, event space, and administration offices are spread over five floors with the gallery for the permanent collection (installed by Studio Myerscough) taking the top floor with 53 feet of clear space overhead. (A restaurant will be up there, too.) Allowing the roof structure to remain the featured event, Pawson has opened the floor plate on the top not only to the main void but also with a smaller gap opening views to the first floor library. Arup is the engineer on the job, with an assist from the original structural engineer John Sutherland. The minimalist Pawson has not steered clear of complexity, but rather focused on pacing the big experiences and adding small comforts such as wood flooring to soften the concrete and even a few paneled rooms that the director has compared to cigar boxes. The exterior is in OMA’s bailiwick but the Dutch firm is following museum directives and the dated opaque glass will be swapped out for something sharper, while sections of transparent glass will be added to allow passers-by glimpses of that roof swoop.

Backing up against Holland Park, and with a new entrance from the park added, the Design Museum is located in residential Knightsbridge, a ten minute walk from the Royal Academy of Art, and a far cry from its former home on the hyper-hip Southbank alongside the Tate Modern. The bill for the re-do is expected to be £80 million, and over 60% has already been raised with a generous donation from design patron and co-founder Terence Conran, the Sakler Foundation (Dr Mortimer & Theresa Sackler are Pawson clients), and the government-allocated Heritage Lottery Fund. With construction imminent, it is slated for completion in 2014.

Julie V. Iovine


Clockwise from top left: A vintage view of the Commonwealth Institute; current view of the interior dais; the facility's exhibition space; John Pawson climbs to the building's hyperbolic paraboloid roof.
Charlotte Gilhooly / Flickr (right, Left), Chris Guy / Flickr (center), Julie Iovine (below)