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Commonwealth Institute
Kensington High Street, Holland Park, London, UK
associated engineer
A.J. & J.D. Harris
James Sutherland
date  October 1960 - 6th November 1962
UK era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ249794
The tent-like roof of the Commonwealth Institute is the first British example of shallow prestressed concrete constructed in an hyperbolic paraboloid shape. The Grade II* listed building is one of the most important modern buildings in London. It is undergoing redevelopment.
The first Commonwealth Institute was housed in the Imperial Institute building designed by Thomas Edward Collcutt (1840-1924) and built 1887-1893. From 1957, most of the original building was demolished to make way for extensions to Imperial College of Science & Technology, though the central Queen's Tower (TQ266792) survives.
The present building is located to the south of Holland Park, about 1.6km west of the old site. It was designed to accommodate exhibition spaces, a cinema, an art gallery, a restaurant and offices. Its principal feature is the tent-like roof over the exhibition area, constructed using Freysinnet prestressing techniques. A covered walkway links it to Kensington High Street.
The institute is founded on spread footings with a maximum ground pressure of 22 tonnes per sq m — a site survey revealed that piling was not necessary. The main building has three storeys and a 47.2m square ground floor footprint. Floors are of 305mm thick reinforced concrete beam and slab construction, with steps or ramps between storeys.
Internally, 457mm diameter columns are set out on a square grid of 8.2m. Externally, on all four sides, the building's brick plinth carries concealed blockwork walls clad with panels of blue-grey Hills patent glazing. Cast in situ reinforced concrete props buttress the north and south corners of the building.
The centre of the complex hyperbolic paraboloid roof is of prestressed concrete, 28.3m square. It is generally 76mm thick, increasing to 178mm at the junctions with the prestressed triangulated edge beams. The central shell has a geometric grid of rectangular generators surrounded by four warped surfaces, which extend the roof plan to 55.8m square, including the eaves overhang. Each of the radial precast concrete ribs in the outer warp differs in length and twist.
The outer warps are covered with 'wood wool' boards topped by a 32mm thick insulating layer of vermiculite. The whole roof structure is clad in copper.
The contractor took possession of the site in October 1960 and concreting (basement slab) began in January 1961. Queen Elizabeth II opened the Commonwealth Institute on 6th November 1962. Its project cost of 440,000 was funded by contributions from commonwealth nations. The government of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) donated the copper sheets for the roof.
In the early 1970s, the institute was extended in the north-west corner of the site. In October 1988, it became a Grade II* listed building. The exhibitions mounted by commonwealth countries were removed in 1996.
In 2000-1, a 3m programme of refurbishment works included repairing the leaking roof, renewing the copper cladding with 25 tonnes of copper strips, laid to follow the rooflines, and replacing the original glazing with opaque blue-green toughened glass panels.
In 2002, the Commonwealth Institute decided to dispose of the building and site, creating a replacement facility — the Centre for Commonwealth Education — at Trumpington House (TL461564) within the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Education. The institute building closed in 2004. In 2006, demolition was avoided after a (failed) government attempt to have it removed from the listed buildings register.
In September 2009, the Planning Committee of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea approved plans to renovate the Commonwealth Institute site as a new location for the Design Museum, with three new apartment buildings added. The Design Museum will have three times more space than at its present location near Tower Bridge. The architect is the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), founded in 1975 in Rotterdam by Rem Koolhaas (b.1944) and Elia Zenghelis (b.1937).
On 18th September 2012, a ground-breaking ceremony was held at the Commonwealth Institute site. The new Design Museum should be completed by 2014-5.
Architect: Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall & Partners (Peter Newnham, Roger Cunliffe)
Landscape architect: Dame Sylvia Crowe
Exhibition designer: James Gardner
Architect (2000-1): Avery Associates
Architect (2009-15): OMA
Contractor: John Laing Construction Ltd
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH Lond

Commonwealth Institute