Paul Williams tours the Design Museum’s new London home in the former Commonwealth Institute, which has been remodelled by John Pawson


Paul Williams 

Gareth Gardner

I have watched the development of the Design Museum with keen interest since its first tentative steps at the V&A in the early 1980s. The Boilerhouse Project, as it was known, staged a number of ground-breaking shows (including a wonderfully provocative exhibition of ‘tools’ with black, wedge-shaped vitrines designed by John Pawson), that paved the way for the creation of the world’s first museum devoted to industrial design and contemporary architecture. In 1986, The Boilerhouse became the Design Museum and began its occupation of a remodelled 1940s ‘Bauhaus’ warehouse at Butler’s Wharf.

Having explored the world south of the river, the museum has now returned like an errant child, but older, wiser and more knowledgeable, and keen to join the top table of the museum elite in South Kensington. Here it has appropriated a building three times the size of its previous premises, and now shelters under the wonderfully eccentric copper-clad, hyperbolic paraboloid roof that once contained the Commonwealth Institute.

It is a remarkable story, and one of which the museum’s initiator and patron, Terence Conran – designer, restauranteur, retailer and writer – can be justifiably proud: “If you forced me to pick the single most rewarding achievement in my long design career, then I would not hesitate to say the founding of the Design Museum in London”. As I walked the short distance from High Street Kensington underground station to the museum’s new home, I started musing about what I might encounter, and recalling sound bites from early press interviews given by Deyan Sudjic, the museum’s director since 2006: “We are a design museum, not a design centre… our role is to explore what an object means to people who use it and make it, as well as what it does and how it is made…It’s not about the imposition of taste or mindless celebration… it is a museum of ideas rather than things”, adding that “this move will re-define the Design Museum as the most inspiring, exciting and engaging contemporary design museum in the world”.

Well, I thought, if I’m inspired and engaged, what more could I ask for? The only niggle I had was Sudjic’s implied suppression of ‘things’ – I like to encounter ‘things’. I like ‘things’ that are aesthetically pleasing and challenging, whether high-end or ordinary and everyday, and I want to be moved by what I see as well as what I read. I want space for reflection, and to be provoked by the tangible as well as the intangible.

What also came to mind, as I neared my destination, were two quotes by the revered art critic and curator, David Sylvester, with whom I was fortunate to work closely for a number of years. “Of course”, he said “I am not interested in ideas, I am interested in ‘things’”. And, admonishing his children on a non-stop sightseeing tour of Italy, “don’t look at the guide book, just look, just look”.

On arrival at the site the visitor encounters the first of three residential blocks designed by OMA – the development that paid for the museum’s move – occupying the former forecourt of the Commonwealth Institute. Much has been written about the scheme and the public-private funding debate that I don’t wish to add to, other than to say I rather like the orthogonal purity of the blocks, even if they do somewhat compromise the setting of the dynamic tent-like structure as it nestles against the edge of Holland Park.


And their presence is a small price to pay, perhaps, for the rebirth of this remarkable grade II*-listed building, now saved from obsolescence and possible demolition. So let’s celebrate, and congratulate all parties on a remarkable achievement.

OMA and Allies & Morrison have done an excellent job in refurbishing the structural shell and external envelope into which John Pawson has inserted the new Design Museum. The facade has been completely replaced, with the glazing redesigned so as to retain the fenestration pattern and striking blue-glass appearance of the original. Free of the brutalist, linear administration block, the 1960s building looks extremely handsome, but I do miss the original long and low entrance canopy that used to funnel you into the building, intensifying that sense of compression before you encountered the expansive interior volume.

Internally, the space has been ambitiously reconfigured to allow for the creation of a deep basement in order to increase the floor area and the organisational efficiency of the building, and to meet the programme needs of the museum – and all carried out whilst retaining the parabolic roof structure in-situ: no mean feat!


With regards to the interior intervention, Pawson was clearly aware from the outset of the challenges the reworking would bring. English Heritage’s priorities included not only the obvious retention of the roof structure and buttresses, but also that any new intervention should echo the original tiered internal spaces, retain the sense of spatial progression experienced by the visitor, the prominence of a central platform, the top-lit quality and the enclosed nature of the original interior, as well as expressing the dramatic sweep of the concrete roof – quite a prescriptive list.

In response, Pawson has created a well-crafted, restrained, warm, pale-oak-lined atrium, a public forum where the eye is immediately drawn upwards to the sensual curves of the soft grey underbelly of the concrete shell. The floor slabs of the public levels are clearly expressed as white horizontals, with a sequence of staircases that effortlessly leads you up towards the top floor and ever closer to the roof’s unfolding lines.

As John Pawson explains, “the design has significantly redrawn the choreography, so that all the patterns of circulation for visitors and staff feel natural and instinctive”. And I agree with him, but here’s the rub: during the ascent, you don’t encounter any form of display or reference to design and creativity, other than the atrium itself, until you arrive on the top floor where the permanent gallery is situated, and even this space, in my view, is too compact and didactic in its present form.


And that really is my only real gripe – the captured atrium space, as it is presently orchestrated, seems to lack engagement. However, behind its timber-lined walls, Sudjic and Pawson have delivered a rich and varied sequence of spaces, including two large temporary exhibition galleries, a lecture theatre, library, education rooms and studios for designers-in-residence, and of course a generous restaurant and members’ room with wonderful views out to the surrounding landscape. Together, these spaces will offer far greater programme opportunities than at Butler’s Wharf, which I assume was the reason for the move in the first place. These are spaces that will inevitably evolve and develop over time as the museum begins to challenge the present spatial dynamic and seek new directions. As Sudjic himself says, “design is continually reconfiguring itself”.

I do understand Sudjic’s concern about the imposition of taste or mindless celebration, and the museum’s present agenda that is less about its permanent collection and more about ideas than things. Perhaps selfishly, my niggle remains, because I wouldn’t want the pendulum to swing too far away from the visual and ignore the potential of ‘things’ to engage and inspire.

Additional Images

Download Drawings


Design Museum architect
John Pawson
Engineer (structure, services, facade, fire)
Chapman BDSP
Turner & Townsend, AECOM
Chelsfield Developments with Ilchester Estates
Developer’s architect
OMA, Allies & Morrison
West 8

Flooring, oak panels
Retail, furniture
Retail shelving