Mike Gold visits Holland Green in London’s Kensington, designed by OMA and Allies & Morrison


Mike Gold

Rem Koolhaas, co-founder of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, once wrote that “progress, identity, architecture, the city and the street are things of the past: Relief… it’s over”. But the redevelopment of London’s Commonwealth Institute site,on the southern edge of Holland Park, by OMA partner Reinier de Graaf with Allies & Morrison, suggests, to our relief, that “it’s not over after all”.

Here the architects do grapple with progress, identity, architecture, the city and the street. For this is a consciously retro-modernist, objects-in-a-landscape layout of expressed-frame cubical buildings, polite, not too tall, with more polished detail than much else around, and actually flat roofs ­– with no tanks, plant rooms nor even railings to be seen.


Ph: Philip Vile

In 2008 OMA won developer Chelsfield’s competition for the Commonwealth Institute, built in 1962 by RMJM and largely unused since 1996. No one seemed concerned to rejuvenate its purpose of promoting trade, but the heritage people wanted to preserve the grade II*-listed building. Bereft of the magic of its predecessor, the 1951 Festival of Britain’s Dome of Discovery (which was sadly demolished along with the elegant Skylon), the Institute was somewhat stolidly detailed beneath its parabaloid roof. Gutted and revamped by OMA/Allies & Morrison in preparation for an interior fit-out by John Pawson as a new home for the Design Museum, it is considerably improved. The museum is due to relocate here in November, but in the meantime a residential development by the OMA/A&M team has been completed in the grounds, cleared of RMJM’s outbuildings.

Another issue in dotting buildings about is what to do in between them”

Kensington High Street, apart from the Commonwealth Institute/Holland Park gap, is made up of frontage buildings. Should there be a mending? Could Holland Park extend into the site? What height of building would be reasonable, so as not to overwhelm innocent bystanding buildings and people? What shapes to make? Ones to impress, astonish?


Ph: Nick Guttridge

A revisionist debate seems to have arisen at OMA: what about being reserved, not being astonishing at all? The conclusion has been to let the Commonwealth Institute roof do the astonishing, and place around it a set of three cubic white residential blocks, A, B, and C. The mood is in peaceful classicism, apart from a collision of Soviet Constructivist cantilevered boxes against Casa del Fascio-like indents, erosions, and open ‘bomb-damage’ frames.


Ph: Sebastian van Damme

The plans of the largest block, ‘B’, spin four similar flats around a core, a scheme originally devised so that successive floors can be flipped or twisted to allow living room balconies at the corners to avoid another one directly above. Here the pinwheel is used to allow the living rooms themselves to occasionally cantilever out, effecting a motif previously used by OMA at the Dutch Embassy in Berlin (2003).

Since the projections are primarily enclosed rooms rather than open terraces, shallow, recessed ‘Juliet’ balconies are introduced elsewhere. By making these very wide, with equally wide glazed screens to the rooms able to slide fully open, the rooms themselves can perform as balconies. The reference to Shakespeare’s mise-en-scène strikes me as a reminder that we’ve lost much of our understanding of what is actually romantic, and how to incorporate it in contemporary architecture.

A potential drawback of the pinwheel plan is that it demands vertical circulation at the centre, precluding lifts from opening directly into apartments. Here the necessarily internal lobby is sufficiently spacious not to be depressing. In the smaller ‘C’ block, however, some of the plan is dissolved into a single apartment per floor, and the lifts do deliver direct.

Ph: Nick Guttridge

Another issue in dotting buildings about is what to do in between them, and how to deal with resident, guest and service vehicles, refuse collection, privacy at ground level and so on. Here, much is solved by the introduction of a basement across the site, its ramp well concealed by curving it and putting shrubbery before its entrance.

The basement accommodates generous, creatively detailed enclosed vehicle parking, and a spacious recreational suite including pool, changing rooms, gym, playrooms and for-hire cinema rooms, part daylit by round skylights interrupting the landscape above, à la Foster & Partners’ Albion Riverside (2003). In comparison, the entrance lobbies are less wonderful, though the generous plain paved area in front of Block ‘A’, extending the public pavement, is welcome.

Ph: Philip Vile

The architects wanted a rolling grassy landscape, which could have resonated with Holland Park and the English landscape tradition, but were defeated. Instead we have a landscape designer’s smorgasbord of world plants, their colourful daftness oddly arousing some affection. The show apartment and entrance hall furnishings – another consultant contribution – are as may befit the market, apart from some nice imitation Charles Eames office chairs here and there, reminding one that modern interior designs can be beautiful.


Ph: Hufton & Crow

While the repair, adaption and future maintenance of the Commonwealth Institute for the Design Museum has formed part of the development deal with the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, it is surprising that, with 54 apartments (priced at £5m for two-bedroom flats and more than £20m for a five-bedroom apartment), the sums haven’t allowed for any contribution to affordable housing. Such matters are outside the architects’ remit, however, and shouldn’t distract from the evident high architectural qualities that OMA and Allies & Morrison have brought to Holland Green.

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OMA, Allies & Morrison
Structural, services
Arup Facades, FMDC
Quantity surveyor

Jura limestone
Szerelmey, Geiger
Windows, curtain wall
Martifer, SAPA
Green roofs
Lyons & Annoot