Monday, 28 November 2016

London's new Design Museum

London's new Design Museum, newly open to the public, is a bit of a curate's egg, to say the least. The Grade II* listed former Commonwealth Institute building, converted by John Pawson to house the new museum, now sits behind two new blocks of flats designed by OMA, which have helped fund the project.

The good bits first.  As so often, one shouldn't overlook, before moving on to the detail, what an excellent thing it is that the project has happened at all; that the Commonwealth Institute building has been rescued from redundancy (and possible demolition - remember Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell's dodgy scheme ten years ago to get a special law passed to allow this?); that the project was put in the hands of two first rate architects, OMA and John Pawson (not necessarily the right architects for the task at hand, but never mind), and has been executed to a high standard; and that the importance of design to a country trying to reinvigorate manufacturing industry gets some welcome promotion.

The project's main flaw is a fundamental one - the approach sequence for visitors, from the street to the front door, is muddled and compromised, through space carved out from under one of the blocks of flats; and the more obvious route to the retained building, between the two new blocks, is occupied by a service road leading to a loading bay - with unattractive sliding vehicle gates interrupting what is otherwise a lavish landscape scheme.  Lots of lovely materials and fine detailing - but the basic moves are a mess.  'Where to put the front door' and 'how to get to the front door' have been fundamental aspects of designing a building for ever; 'how to get the lorries in and out' is a problem that arrived more recently, but increasingly it is one that has the potential to mess things up badly if you fail to sort it out.  This project is hardly alone in getting the route to the front door wrong - where the precepts of modernism replace the language of the traditional city, this is one of the babies that often seem to go out with the bathwater.  But then Palladio etc. didn't have to design for lorries - nor did they have to put up with being told what to do by highways engineers.

Once inside, one is presented with a clear contrast between (1) the dramatic sweeping form of the original hyperbolic paraboloid roof, together with its raking support structures, with slightly rough and ready details and (2) the new museum created inside this space by Pawson, arranged as galleries around a central space which rises to the roof - all blond wood, right angles and minimal, sophisticated detailing.

To my eyes, the clarity of the underlying idea, which reinforces the contrast between old (curves, funny shapes and angles) and new (straight lines and right angles) , is undermined by diagonal lines of the strongly expressed staircases, part of the new architecture, which rise - each different and each at a different angle - through the central void.  They are clunky when compared with everything else, old and new - but very prominent.

However, at least you can see very easily how to get from one floor to another - unlike say the V+A, where you can spend a long time trying to find a staircase.  Perhaps it is unfair to criticize Pawson for prioritising function over high concept, since he is just the sort of architect who gets castigated for doing the opposite.

The Twentieth Century Society were very cross when this project came forward, claiming that it was harmful to this important mid century building.  But in a case like this, if no one is offering to sort the site out to the satisfaction of those with a purist conservation vision, surely it is better that the site should be secured in this compromised form, as they would see it, rather than running the risk of continuing decay.  When the project was at the planning stage, I had the pleasure of going round the site on a visit attended by the original architect Roger Cunliffe, and my memory is that he was far more pleased than not about the prospects for the site's future - putting the objectors, not for the first time, in a 'purer' position, with regards to conservation of a modern building, than the project's architect.

The highlight of my visit, though, was not an architectural one - it was discovering The Maker's Bill of Rights - which should be passed into law.

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