The Design Museum in London occupied a converted warehouse on the South Bank of the Thames. A modernist landmark has been transformed by architects Allies and Morrison, John Pawson and OMA. A new building of public interest will now accommodate 600,000 people a year. “It is a museum of ideas rather than things,” as director Deyan Sudjic puts it.
At 100,000 square feet, the new building is three times the size of the old, with spaces for conversation, programs, and hands-on creation as well as exhibitions. Located on the southern edge of Holland Park, the original building, designed by RMJM, was built in 1962 for the Commonwealth Institute, to house a permanent exhibition about the nations of the former British Empire. Though protected, it had been empty since 2002.
To adapt the structure, OMA and collaborating architect Allies and Morrison retained its unique copper-clad hyperbolic paraboloid roof and replicated the glassy aquamarine exterior walls with blue-fritted high-performance glazing, but they reconstructed the interior’s floor slabs and structural cores above a new basement. Shorn of a chunky administration wing that adjoined its west corner, the rejuvenated building appears as an elegant, freestanding pavilion in the park, though closely flanked by three cubic housing blocks, by OMA, whose gridded facades contrast with the swooping, tentlike roof of the museum. Visitors approach from the south, off Kensington High Street, through a landscape created by West 8.
The entrance foyer leads directly into the new atrium that is the building’s organizational heart, providing sight lines to two large galleries that occupy the northern half at the ground and below-grade levels, and to most of the principal spaces above: offices, restaurants, and rooms for education and events. The museum’s interior architect, John Pawson, has created a grand processional route, beginning at a new central stair and spiraling upward around the atrium to a new mezzanine and the permanent-collection display on the top level.
The ground floor and basement have terrazzo floors and white painted walls, while the upper levels are lined with oak, in counterpoint to the gray concrete vaults above. Warm light from discreetly concealed fixtures washes wood walls and sparkles on glass balustrades. Memories of the original building are preserved in reclaimed materials used as accents: chipped-marble flooring now lines one wall, and a stainedglass window illuminates the museum shop. With the soaring roof more fully exposed and well lit, it is a dramatic interior, but the new additions have a warm and quiet material character that is almost domestic.
Broad steps that double as seating rise up to the mezzanine, where light spills from behind a long oak bench. The deep circulation routes are also meeting places and can be used for exhibitions, with picture rails integrated into the oak wall lining. This colonization is already evident in a scrolling advertising sign on the upper level that announces the permanent-collection display.