One from the archives: Forensic approach gives an iconic London building a modern future

Insights 28th February, 2020 in Europe

By the early 2000s, the former Commonwealth Institute building had seen better days. The dilapidated Grade II* 1960s building in London’s Kensington was on a long lease and low rent to the Institute, while a number of strict covenants had frustrated previous developers.

It was a scenario that had deterred many but at Chelsfield, our expertise in these sorts of complex planning and willingness to delve into the detail to navigate a way through, made us the ideal partner. We soon entered into a joint venture with the land owner, Ilchester Estates, to buy the modernist building and set about conceiving our Hollandgreen development.

To get the best results, we work hard to liaise directly with local planning authorities and politicians, in this case, meeting the Chief Executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) to ask what the council’s aspirations were for the site. “They said it was imperative that the building should remain in public institutional use. If we found a suitable organisation they would be open minded as to the residential development they would permit alongside, which was crucial to the viability of the project,” said Patrick Waters, Chelsfield’s Group Deputy Head of Developments.

We commissioned a global search for institutions, seeking RBKC’s opinion on the long list to be aligned from the beginning. From a list of possible occupiers, we identified the Design Museum as the ideal one. “The next step was to consider what shape the development might take,” said Waters.

We were forensic in our approach; we engaged the building’s original architect Lord Cunliffe and structural engineer James Sutherland to better understand the design philosophy behind the building. We also launched a design competition, led by Richard Burdett, Professor of Urban Design at the London School of Economics, to find the best architect to suit the whole scheme. The council also held a seat on the selection panel. We felt the right match was world-renowned architects Rem Koolhaas and Reinier de Graaf of OMA as well as Allies and Morrison. Their understanding of the importance of this example of 1960s modernist architecture was vital in the delicate planning negotiations with stakeholders including English Heritage.

The Design Museum needed a completely new shell within the listed building so our biggest challenge was to work with English Heritage to agree to a new internal design and construction. It took three years of negotiations, but planning was then granted for the new 100,000 sq ft Design Museum within the listed building, alongside a new luxury residential development of 54 apartments.

The strong cubic-style of the three residential blocks is unequivocally modern, but with their deliberate neutral backgrounds, they continue to allow the Design Museum to be the main feature at the site. All the buildings sit with a new garden landscape, which extends the lush greenery of the adjacent Holland Park.

Hollandgreen was initially seen as a controversial project but, following delivery and the sale of all the apartments before completion, it is now cited as a successful example of the integration of modern architecture into a historic setting. All of this would not have been possible without our foresight, resolve and ability to complete the scheme.