The Commonwealth Institute building on
Kensington High Street, currently disused.
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.
successor charity is now based at New Zealand House in central London.
The Imperial Institute
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
. At this time the UK had a policy of
its trade relations.
Imperial Institute was from 1893 located in a building on Exhibition Road, South
Kensington, designed by
and built by John
Mowlem & Co
from 1887-1894. 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 to
make way for Imperial
Originally, there were three copper-roofed
but only one survives.
The Commonwealth Institute Act of 1958 changed both the name of the
Institute, and its mission, to education rather than
The Commonwealth Institute 1962–2002
the Commonwealth Institute moved to a distinctive green-roofed
building on Kensington High Street, immediately to the south of Holland Park.
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
to 2000, the operation of the Commonwealth Institute was funded by
the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth
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, but by this point
the Trust had closed the building to the public.
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.
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.
The work of the Institute is now carried on by a registered charity
, The Commonwealth
Education Trust , was established in 2007 as the successor trust to
the Commonwealth Institute . 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 Commonwealth Institute was designed by Robert Matthew
Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners
, architects, and
by AJ & JD
Harris, of Harris &
. Construction was started at the end of 1960 and
completed in 1962. The project was funded by the UK government,
with contributions of materials from Commonwealth countries.
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
The contractor was John
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.
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
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
. 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 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 submiited 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 streetscapoe and to the
skyline of Holland Park, and to the large scale of the internal
modeifications 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 will be considered by the Council in
- Imperial Institute, Survey of London:
volume 38: South Kensington Museums Area (1975), pp.
- Concrete: Building Pathology, Susan Macdonald, Blackwell
- Sutherland, RJM & Poulton VT, the Commonwealth Insititute.
The Consulting Engineer, May 1962, 600-03