Commonwealth Institute

Commonwealth Institute
The Commonwealth Institute building on Kensington High Street, currently disused. (November 2005)

The Commonwealth Institute was an educational charity connected with the Commonwealth of Nations, and the name of a building in West London formerly owned by the Institute. The successor charity is now based at New Zealand House in central London.


The Imperial Institute

Arthur Sullivan conducts his Imperial Ode as Queen Victoria lays the foundation stone, 1887

The Imperial Institute, as it was first known, was established in 1887 as a result of the Colonial and Indian exhibition of 1886, by the governments of the United Kingdom and several countries of the British Empire to promote research which would benefit the empire. Initially this was strongly biased towards scientific research that supported the industrial and commercial development of the dominions and colonies. At this time the UK had a policy of Commonwealth Preference in its trade relations.

The Imperial Institute was from 1893 located in a building on Exhibition Road, South Kensington, designed by T.E. Collcutt and built by John Mowlem & Co from 1887–1894,[1] it was paid for by public subscription.[2] The 85-metre tower, Queen's Tower off Exhibition Road, is now the last remaining part of the Imperial Institute; the remainder was demolished in the 1950s and 1960s[3] to make way for Imperial College. Originally, there were three copper-roofed Renaissance-style towers, but only one survives.

The Commonwealth Institute Act of 1958 changed both the name of the Institute, and its mission, to education rather than research.

The Commonwealth Institute 1962–2002

In 1962, the Commonwealth Institute moved to a distinctive green-roofed building on Kensington High Street, immediately to the south of Holland Park. The building was opened on Tuesday 6 November 1962 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The building was open to the public and contained a permanent exhibition about the nations of the Commonwealth, which was designed to promote trade between them.

From 1962 to 2000, the operation of the Commonwealth Institute was funded by the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). In addition to the exhibition, the Institute ran an important library of Commonwealth literature and hosted cultural events. In 2000, ownership of the building was transferred to a Trust managed on behalf of the High Commissioners to London of the Commonwealth nations. Comprehensive repair works were carried out in 2000–1, funded by the FCO, including the complete replacement of the roof by a London-based roofing company called NDM Metal Roofing & Cladding Ltd, but by this point the Trust had closed the building to the public.

In 2002, the Trust entirely closed the Commonwealth Institute building, returning some exhibits to member countries and donating the remainder to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol. The closure of the Institute building led to controversy because of the secrecy under which it was carried out, the recent expenditure of money on repairs to the building, and the proposal by the trust to demolish the building and sell the site for residential development. Restructuring of the charity and disposal of the building cost approximately £7m in redundancies, restructuring and professional fees by July 2006.

Current work

The work of the Institute is now carried on by a registered charity, The Commonwealth Education Trust,[4] was established in 2007 as the successor trust to the Commonwealth Institute.[5] The aim of the Trust is to promote education in the Commonwealth, through activities that include support for the Centre for Commonwealth Education at the University of Cambridge. The assets of the Trust exceed £13m.

The building

Built on a site of 3¼ acres with a frontage onto Kensington High Street of 125 feet (38 m). The total floor area of the building is 132,000 square feet (12,300 m2) made up of an Exhibition Hall (60,000 sq ft), Administration block (47,500 sq ft), Art gallery and ancillary rooms (5000 sq ft), cinema, stage and dressing rooms (6000 sq ft) and basement workshops and storage (13,500 sq ft). The Commonwealth Institute was designed by Robert Matthew/Sir Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, architects, and engineered by AJ & JD Harris, of Harris & Sutherland.[6] Construction was started at the end of 1960 and completed in 1962.[7] The project was funded by the UK government, with contributions of materials from Commonwealth countries. The exhibition designer was James Gardner, who worked on the Dome of Discovery in the influential Festival of Britain of 1951, and the gardens were designed by Sylvia Crowe. The contractor was John Laing Construction Ltd. The Institute stands on a piece of land acquired from the Holland estate on a 999-year lease for £215,000. The design of the building and gardens were strongly influenced by their proximity to Holland Park.

Regarded by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London, after the Royal Festival Hall, the building has a low brickwork plinth clad in blue-grey glazing. Above this swoops the most striking feature of the building, the complex hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof, made with 25 tonnes of copper donated by the Northern Rhodesia Chamber of Mines. The shape of the roof reflects the architects' desire to create a "tent in the park". The gardens feature a large water feature, grass lawns, and a flagpole for each member of the Commonwealth. The interior of the building consists of a dramatic open space, covered in a tent-like concrete shell, with tiered exhibition spaces linked by walkways. The diagonal, diamond shaped exhibition block was clearly different from the rectangular administration wing and the junction of the exhibition and administration blocks created a considerable design problem.

The Art Gallery measured 95x44 feet and relied primarily on natural lighting. A large picture window facing the park was included to postpone the desire for escape that the four solid walls of many art galleries quickly engender. The cinema beneath the art gallery was designed for daily showings of Commonwealth news and interest films but was adaptable for other purposes. It seated 450 and could be used as a lecture hall, and had a workshop stage and stage lighting for the staging of theare productions. The building was listed Grade II* in 1988 for its roof, place as a post-war building, importance in the history of museum and exhibition design, and historical significance in marking the transition from Empire to Commonwealth. On 22 July 2005 the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell rejected a proposal to remove the building's listed status, seen by the building's owners as an obstacle to its demolition. In April 2007, the Commonwealth Institute building was acquired by property developers Chelsfield Partners. Its redevelopment is currently being planned, in the light of a planning brief issued by the local council in August 2007. This calls for the preservation of the main structure of the building, preferably for a use such as art gallery that will retain its essential components. The brief also calls for greater integration of the gardens with Holland Park.

Plans for redevelopment of the site were drawn up by Rem Koolhaas’ practice OMA and submitted for planning permission to the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea in April 2009. They include construction of three six to nine-storey residential buildings, replacing the former Administration wing, and large-scale internal modifications to the interior of the main structure, to enable its use by the Design Museum. After criticism by local residents' groups and the Twentieth Century Society, relating both to the impact of the new buildings on the local streetscape and to the skyline of Holland Park, and to the large scale of the internal modifications to the existing structure, revised plans were submitted in August 2009. The new blocks will be lower in height, with fewer internal modifications to the existing structure. The revised proposal was approved by the Council on 17 September 2009 and by English Heritage on 25 September 2009.[8] The architect John Pawson will be responsible for the conversion of the Exhibition Hall to provide a new home for the Design Museum.[9]


  1. ^ Imperial Institute, Survey of London: volume 38: South Kensington Museums Area (1975), pp. 220-227.
  2. ^ Albertopolis: Expansion of Imperial College "Royal Institute of British Architects"
  3. ^ Albertopolis: Demolition of the institute "Royal Institute of British Architects"
  4. ^ Commonwealth Institute, Registered Charity no. 1119647 at the Charity Commission
  5. ^ Commonwealth Institute, Registered Charity no. 1078736 at the Charity Commission
  6. ^ Concrete: Building Pathology, Susan Macdonald, Blackwell Publishing, 2002
  7. ^ Sutherland, RJM & Poulton VT, the Commonwealth Institute. The Consulting Engineer, May 1962, 600-03
  8. ^;
  9. ^

External links

Coordinates: 51°29′59″N 0°12′01″W / 51.49986°N 0.20018°W / 51.49986; -0.20018

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