I have put on record (if by record you mean Twitter) how much I adore the Design Museum and had some reservations about its move to Kensington High Street planned for 2014. But any doubts were blown away this morning as a panel including founder Sir Terence Conran, director Deyan Sudjic and architect John Pawson unveiled their ambitious plans for the iconic old Commonwealth Institute building, set to be transformed as part of the £80 million project.
The enthusiasm from all involved was plain to see at today’s press launch, with the new building set to treble the exhibition space (to 10,000 sq feet) and double the audience to an estimated 500,000 million people a year. For the first time ever, the Design Museum’s permanent collection will be on display.
Sir Terence Conran said they had to move from their current Shad Thames location because “we were full to the brim and bursting at the seams” and revealed they had been looking for the right new site for five years.
“The Commonwealth Institute is such an inspirational building – it altered the way many architects thought about design," he said.
“In this dour moment financially and in terms of employment we know the role design can play in giving us a new energy in this country. In Scandinavia design is part of their DNA. We have not achieved that here but we ought to."
He wants it to be “a great showplace” for the designers and products that define British design and added: “Sadly we are no longer the workshop of the world and never will be again but we can be a workshop and the new Design Museum will help us be a better one.”
Deyan Sudjic called the move a “unique chance” for the Design Museum and vowed the new space could do, “for contemporary design what Tate Modern did for contemporary art.”
“We are on the brink of something extraordinary,” he said. “John Pawson has the ability to very quietly give the building a new life and a new dignity in a subtle but powerful way.”
The Grade II listed building is a jaw-dropping example of post war British modernism with a hyperbolic paraboloid roof, with which Mr Pawson is clearly relishing working.
He said: “The challenge is working inside the skin of an existing building. The Commonwealth Institute is iconic, although I am not supposed to use that word these days. It’s over 50 years old but still to me seems very daring.
“The roof is extraordinary. It soars up to the highest point 16 metres over your head.”
The architect explained he saw his role as “more about retuning the existing architecture so it feels fresh” and to give Deyan and his team “everything they need to function as a world class museum.”
He said he will deliberately keep the palette “calm and quiet” using concrete and hardwoods to accentuate the natural light they want to flood the space as much as possible.
“The main thing is to retain and enhance all the spatial qualities of the building,” he said.
In a video message, Apple’s Jonathan Ive welcomed this new chapter for the “uniquely inspiring” museum.
He said: “Design as a process ultimately defines so much of our life and so much of our culture so good design is terribly important.
“The Design Museum has played a critical role over the past 20 years. The challenges we face as designers are becoming more complex and the implications of poor design more significant, so it is absolutely appropriate the museum is expanding its ambition.”
The residential development alongside the new museum has been designed by OMA, with Rainier de Graaf saying he and his colleagues loved 1960s architecture and that their role had been “an exercise in being humble – to fade into the background for once.”