The Design Museum opens its new building in Kensington this week. Jessica Cargill Thompson had a look around.
Since Sir Terence Conran and Stephen Bayley opened the Butler's Wharf incarnation of the Design Museum in 1989, it is fair to say that the capital's cultural kudos has undergone a seismic shift. London is no longer the shabby relation of Paris, Milan and Barcelona, but a design force that attracts admiring glances from around the world.
'A dream that has been a long time coming'
Having at least a decade ago grown out of its banana-ripening warehouse downstream of what could reasonably be considered London's tourist map, it is with palpable relief to all involved, not least Sir Terrence himself, that the museum finally moves into its expanded new Kensington home this month. At last Thursday's press launch, Conran described the moment as 'a dream that for me has been a long time materialising; it allows all our dreams and ambitions to come true and promote a world class space that's truly international.'
Reminding everyone of his own part in London's embracing of contemporary design, and the need for Government to get behind it, he said: 'It really does feel like our moment has arrived and that the importance of design to our lives and our economy is now truly appreciated.' And to shared laughter: 'Moving the Design Museum to Kensington is the most important moment of my career in design…so far.'
Commonwealth Institute revival
The new £83m home marries the showpiece architecture of the former Commonwealth Institute, a 1960s Grade II*-listed building by RMJM, famed for its hyperbolic paraboloid (saddle-shaped) roof, with the sleek interiors styling of John Pawson, and interventions by a number of leading architectural and engineering practices, most notably OMA, Arup and Allies and Morrison for the structure and exteriors.
As with the old Design Museum, a sense of light and space prevails here, but amplified tenfold. Arranged around a central atrium stretching the building's full height, galleries, learning spaces, cafes, offices, and other amenities are arranged off walkways around the edges ('like an opencast mine' according to Pawson). This superficially featureless (but, of course, meticulously detailed) space of pale-oak panelling, leather seating and glass balustrades is animated by the flow of visitors up and down the grand staircases and around the walkways.
The roof's the star
But, as is fitting, the roof is the star, an omnipresent underbelly of white concrete, hanging like a giant sail over the whole space. Clearly visible in the concrete is the pattern of the shuttering – evoking a connection across the decades with those original, radical builders, architects and engineers; climb to the top level, where the permanent collection is on display under the title of 'Designer, Maker, User' (now free to visit), and one could, if one were tall enough, touch it.
In fact the roof is the only bona fide part of the original building left, a not-uncontroversial decision that raises questions of architectural authenticity that hopefully won't detract from appreciation of the finished product. When the original concrete floors were found to lack the loadbearing capacity required to stage major exhibitions, the lower part of the building was removed and replaced. At one stage in construction the hyperbolic paraboloid roof was left suspended 20m in mid air on a temporary steel frame. In deference to the original, the new facade faithfully matches the 1960s blue dotted glazing (with the addition of 21st century insulation).
Putting on a show
With three times as much space as the Butler's Wharf building, Design Museum mk II now has three luxuriously double-height galleries: as well as the (free entry) top-floor permanent collection, there is a main exhibition space on the ground floor and a secondary space deep in the basement. For its inaugural (paid-entry) exhibition 'Fear and Love – reactions to a complex world
', the museum explores key issue of our time, from Grindr and robotics to wearable tech that displays city-dwellers' repressed emotions; urbanists should ensconce themselves in the reconstructed yurt to watch the fascinating films of the informal ger nomadic settlements (yes, it sounds like an oxymoron, that's the point) in the edgelands of Ulaanbaatar.
A new public piazza
Ultimately the success of the museum will stand or fall on its exhibition and public programming, how it engages with the public and how it uses the space. But what a space! Free to enter from Kensington High Street or neighbouring Holland Park, the atrium provides this traditionally shopping area with exciting new public piazza, complete with superb people-watching potential from the comfortable bench that runs along the mezzanine level. Finally opening to the public on Thursday 24 November, it's currently all still a bit squeaky clean, as if someone's only just peeled off the protective plastic, but it's not too much of a stretch to imagine how it will age to something warm and full of character, a process that will be a pleasure to watch.
The Design Museum opens to the public on 24 November, at 224-238 Kensington High Street, London W8. designmuseum.org
Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic will be leading a special tour for London Society members early in the New Year. For more information, make sure you're on our mailing list