Commonwealth Institute 902

Kensington and Chelsea, Greater London, England

Brief Description

This is the landscaped setting for the Commonwealth Institute, cultural exhibition and conference centre. It shows a strong unity between architecture and a designed landscape. The site was previously on the Historic England Register, but has since been removed.

History

The site was designed and built from 1959 to 1962 by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM) and Dame Sylvia Crowe, who joined the team as consultant landscape architect in June 1960. The Institute was opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 6 November 1962.

Terrain

The former Commonwealth Institute occupies a rectangular site to the north of Kensington High Street in the densely built-up area of Kensington.

Detailed Description

The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. This site has since been removed from the Register, but this text has been retained as an archive copy.

Landscaped setting for the Commonwealth Institute, cultural exhibition and conference centre, designed and built 1959-62 by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners (RMJM) and Dame Sylvia Crowe who joined the team as consultant landscape architect in June 1960; it shows a strong unity between architecture and a designed landscape.

DESCRIPTION

LOCATION, AREA, BOUNDARIES, LANDFORM, SETTING

The former Commonwealth Institute occupies a rectangular site to the north of Kensington High Street (formerly Kensington Road) in the densely built-up area of Kensington in central London. It lies immediately to the west of the entrance gatepiers and screen at the Holland Walk entrance to Holland Park and opposite the Odeon Cinema at a point where Kensington High Street appears to expand into a greener landscape. Historically the site was part of Holland Park (qv), and the boundary to the north and east, along Holland Park and Holland Walk, is marked by a late C19 red-brick wall which formed part of a walled area (possibly a kitchen garden) within the park. Prior to the project, the site was overgrown with scrub and trees. The site is overlooked by a block of inter-war flats to the south-west.

The setting of the building, diagonally on the plot, and unusual shape of the Institute's hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof form the main focus of important views across the site, from Holland Park and from Kensington High Street, creating 'a tent in the park', the term devised by Johnson-Marshall to describe this celebratory site.

ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES

The main pedestrian approach to the Institute and its garden is from Kensington High Street, via steps leading to a raised flagpole area. A covered walkway and a bridge lead to the main entrance of the Institute (the Institute, ancillary building, the flagpole area, water channels and ponds, covered walkway and bridge are all included within the Grade II* listing of the building).

To the south-west of the Institute, a curving access road off Kensington High Street leads to the car-parking area laid out on the west and north sides of the building. A third entrance leads through a metal gate (late C20) cut in the late C19 brick wall marking the eastern boundary of the site, giving pedestrians access to and from Holland Park via Holland Walk and giving a framed view across the walkway and moat to the lawn and building. Views from Holland Walk over the boundary wall at the northern end of the site look towards the blue glazed apex of the building surrounded by trees, and at the southern, lower end, over the wall, through the break in level of the covered walk, to the flagpoles and flats to the west of the site. The approach to the building from the public street through covered way and dark entrance suddenly opening into the open exhibition area was carefully calculated to change levels of light and create an element of suspense followed by surprise. The planting played an important part in creating soft shadow. The moat-like channels and ponds echo Shepheard's Homes and Gardens pavilion at the Festival of Britain, in both cases designed to contain a building with minimal barriers and bring an element of fun to the site; the words 'vigorous' and 'young' were clearly stated in the Commonwealth Institute brief. At the Institute, the water counters the barrier created by the C19 garden wall on the eastern boundary which the team wanted to remove but were required to keep. It protects the grassed sward or lawn which anchors the building and was intended as a performance area. The lawn in turn links the building to the structural elements of the landscape by contrasting with them in texture and colour and in its simplicity.

PRINCIPAL BUILDING

Set back c100m from Kensington High Street the Commonwealth Institute (1960-62) was designed by the architects Sir Robert Matthew and Stirrat Johnson-Marshall with Roger Cunliffe as project architect. The engineers were AJ and JD Harris (later Harris and Sutherland), and the Chief Exhibition Designer was James Gardner. It is listed Grade II* for its more than special architectural and engineering significance as the first major 'swept' roof in Britain with its unique hyperbolic paraboloid structure and its more than special historic interest as Britain's first major public building since the Festival of Britain. A pragmatic building, the whole project confined by a tight budget, its diagonal position on the site and its form were determined by the restrictions of the site and the brief. The building has a low brick plinth carrying concealed walls of block-work originally clad on all four sides with opaque blue-grey Hills patent glazing but since replaced. The hyperbolic paraboloid roof was covered on the outside by sheet copper donated by the Zambian government, the sheeting also replaced in 2001. Attached to the west, and of subsidiary interest, is the administrative block.

GARDEN

In June 1960, the landscape consultant Miss Sylvia Crowe (1901-97) joined the design team. She refined the existing design which was probably conceived by Maurice Lee, specifying surfaces and fine detail for the hard landscaping to the south, west, and east of the principal building, and the planting.

The main features are a) the flagpole area in front of the lawn to the south of the Institute; b) a large formal water feature with a channel, fountains, and jets crossed by the covered walkway and bridge; c) a secluded shaded garden of a lawn and shrubs planted against the east boundary wall, bounded by the lime avenue to the west; d) the open lawn enclosed by the water channels, the buildings and the access road to the west; e) remains of the sculpture garden in the north-east angle of the site.

The flagpole area, which is paved with a grid of concrete slabs and York stone paving and tarmac, is reached via steps from the pavement along Kensington High Street. The geometrical design of the paving, emphasised by the formal arrangement of the flagpoles, creates diagonal sight-lines across the site to the building. Since the opening of the Institute in 1962, additional flagpoles have been erected as more countries have joined the Commonwealth. East of the flagpoles stands a low rectangular sign on two concrete supports of 1960s date; this formerly read 'The Commonwealth Institute'.

Linking the building, the water features and entrance walkway, is a grass lawn which was intended as a performance area and is contained as an open space, without barriers, behind moat-like water channels. Anchored in it is the fork-like buttress of the building which acts as a visual pivot to views from different angles. A row of plane trees running east-west within the lawn and avenue of lime trees running north-south to the east of the water channel, planted in the 1960s and now reaching maturity, follow the outline of the geometrical water feature, which is used as a mirror pond to reflect the Institute, the trees, and the flagpoles and contrasts with the shaded walkway and planting to the east of it. The water runs south from a triangular pond with a fountain and jets, via a channel with small cascades faced in halved flint nodules set into ramps, to a rectangular pond which separates the flagpole area from the lawn. Retaining walls of ponds and channels are of rendered brick. The covered entrance bridge running over the pond emphasises the effect of the Institute being surrounded by a moat.

Steps rise to the secluded garden to the north of the entrance to Holland Walk which was designed to soften the hard boundary wall to the east and links the entrances to the former sculpture garden and frames the view to the park to the north and creates a long north-south vista past the eastern apex of the building, on the axis of the entrance from Kensington High Street. A grass lawn is flanked by a border of shrubs and small trees against the wall to the east and on the west side by the Lime Avenue, overlooking the pond. Beneath the trees are concrete benches with wooden slatted seats, standing on paved areas. A figure sculpture in polished stone on a concrete pedestal, a gift from one of the Commonwealth countries, is situated near the north-east corner of the Institute. Interspersed among the shrubs against the wall are four stone heraldic beasts brought from the Imperial Institute.

The west side of the registered site is tarmacked with the route marked with brick paviers and was intended as a parking area. A row of poplars specified for retention in the original brief remain. Two stone lions brought here from the Imperial Institute and in situ in 1998 have been moved. In the later C20 the car park was extended to the whole north side of the Institute and now covers the former wooded area intended by Sylvia Crowe as a woodland sculpture garden (The Builder, 1962). Trees and a few shrubs remain in the north-east and north-west angle of the former sculpture garden, framing the view of the building from the north and as specified in the brief, providing the 'maximum tree screen to the south of Holland Park'.

REFERENCES

A Commonwealth handbook issued on the occasion of the opening of the new Institute on Tuesday 6 November (1962) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth, 1962

Architects Journal, 14 November 1962, pp1119-1126

Architectural Review 133, April 1963, pp261-6

The Builder 103, 9 November 1962, pp919-22

Concrete & Constructional Engineering 58, no. 2, February 1963, pp69-79

Jane Brown, The Modern Garden, Thames and Hudson (2000)

B Cherry and N Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 3 North West (1991), p482

Geoffrey Collens and Wendy Powell (ed), Sylvia Crowe, Landscape Design Trust Monograph no. 2 (1999)

S Harvey (ed), Reflections on Landscape. The Lives and Work of Six British Landscape Architects (1994), pp31-53

Landscape Institute, A Visitor's Guide to 20th Century British Landscape Design (1994), p39

Unpublished reports

Elain Harwood, Commonwealth Institute, Kensington High Street, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, English Heritage Oct 2008

A Saint, Historical Report on the Commonwealth Institute, English Heritage 1988, revised 2004

Conversation with Lord Cunliffe

Maps and plans

OS 25" to 1 mile: 2nd edition published 1913

RMJM, job 510, plans at National Monuments Record

GLC/AR/BR/19/4884, London Metropolitan Archives

REASONS FOR DESIGNATION

The post-war landscape at the Commonwealth Institute is designated at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* It is of exceptional importance for its design by the noted post-war team at RMJM, refined by distinguished landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe;

* It was created as an integrated setting for the Grade II* Commonwealth Institute, forming a 'tent in the park' connected to the street and park landscape;

* The Commonwealth Institute was the first public building to be built since the Festival Hall and the landscape reflects that tradition, celebrating the new outreaching post-war vision of the Commonwealth.

* It has special interest overall for its design as well as being one of a small number of registered post-war landscapes associated with a contemporary listed building, qv The Barbican, London (5185); St Catherine's College, Oxford (4046); Civic Square, Plymouth (4180), the only site in this category associated with Sylvia Crowe

Description written: May 1998

Edited: January 2002

Amended: September 2009

Features
  • Institute (featured building)
  • Description: The building has the first major 'swept' roof in Britain with its unique hyperbolic paraboloid structure. A pragmatic building, the whole project confined by a tight budget, its diagonal position on the site and its form were determined by the restrictions of the site and the brief. The building has a low brick plinth carrying concealed walls of block-work originally clad on all four sides with opaque blue-grey Hills patent glazing but since replaced. The hyperbolic paraboloid roof was covered on the outside by sheet copper donated by the Zambian government, the sheeting also replaced in 2001. Attached to the west, and of subsidiary interest, is the administrative block.
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  • Boundary Wall
  • Description: There is a late-19th century red-brick wall which formed part of a walled area (possibly a kitchen garden) within Holland Park.
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  • Walk
  • Description: A covered walkway and a bridge lead to the main entrance of the Institute.
  • Gate
  • Description: A metal gate cut in the late-19th century brick wall.
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  • Lawn
  • Description: The grassed sward or lawn which anchors the building and was intended as a performance area.
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  • Water Feature
  • Description: A large formal water feature with a channel, fountains, and jets crossed by the covered walkway and bridge.
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  • Planting
  • Description: A secluded shaded garden of a lawn and shrubs planted against the east boundary wall, bounded by the lime avenue to the west.
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  • Sculpture
  • Description: The remains of the sculpture garden in the north-east angle of the site.
  • Garden Feature
  • Description: The flagpole area, which is paved with a grid of concrete slabs and York stone paving and tarmac. The geometrical design of the paving, emphasised by the formal arrangement of the flagpoles, creates diagonal sight-lines across the site to the building.
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  • Tree Feature
  • Description: A row of plane trees running east-west within the lawn.
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  • Avenue
  • Description: An avenue of lime trees running north-south to the east of the water channel.
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  • Moat
  • Description: Geometrical water feature, giving the effect of the Institute being surrounded by a moat.
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  • Garden Seat
  • Description: Beneath the trees are concrete benches with wooden slatted seats, standing on paved areas.
  • Sculpture
  • Description: There are four stone heraldic beasts brought from the Imperial Institute.
  • Tree Feature
  • Description: A row of poplars specified for retention in the original brief remain.
  • Sculpture
  • Description: A figure sculpture in polished stone on a concrete pedestal, a gift from one of the Commonwealth countries, is situated near the north-east corner of the Institute.
Ornamental Bridge
Access & Directions

Directions

off Kensington High Street
History

Detailed History

The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. This site has since been removed from the Register, but this text has been retained as an archive copy.

HISTORIC DEVELOPMENT

The Commonwealth Institute was the first public building to be built since the Festival Hall and it celebrated the cultural importance of the Commonwealth in the post-war world. The project was established in 1958 and work started on site in 1960. The Institute was opened by HM the Queen on 6 November 1962.

Under the Commonwealth Act of 1958, the Commonwealth Institute as a body replaced the Imperial Institute, and a new building was commissioned to replace TE Colcutt's Imperial Institute which had been built in 1893. The site of the Imperial Institute had been promised to Imperial College for expansion, so in 1956-57 the new site in Holland Park was procured from the Ilchester Estate, on a 999 year lease. Holland Park had passed to the LCC in 1952 and the Commonwealth Institute site was intended very much as a public space, described as a 'tent in the park', celebrating the new outreaching post-war vision of the Commonwealth. It was a government-funded project but with a very tight budget, and it received many wide-ranging gifts from Commonwealth countries such as the copper for the roof (which arrived in its raw state) and sculpture which was incorporated in the landscape.

The Commonwealth Institute and its landscape was built in 1960-62 by the architectural team of Stirrat Johnson-Marshall, Peter Newnham and Roger Cunliffe, and engineers AJ and JD Harris, led by James Sutherland. The team included Maurice Lee, team member with most interest in landscape, who had worked with Johnson-Marshall at the Ministry of Education and moved with him when Johnson-Marshall joined Robert Matthew on the design of New Zealand House. Time did not apparently allow for a competition for the design, but of the three firms formally selected for interview, RMJM was appointed in January 1958.

Dame Sylvia Crowe (1901-97) was one of the leading landscape architects of her generation. 'Dame Sylvia Crowe is a pioneer in the field of landscape design. She is one of Britain's most distinguished landscape architects and is well-known for the variety of her work, from the landscaping of forests, power stations and roads to the courtyards of New College, Oxford' (Vance, 1982). Encouraged by Brenda Colvin and Geoffrey Jellicoe she had set up in private practice just after the Second World War. She was President of the Landscape Institute from 1957 to 1959, helping to give recognition to the relatively new profession of landscape architect in the field of planning, and from its inception had been involved in the International Federation of Landscape Architects which Jellicoe had founded in 1948. By 1960 she was already recognised in the sphere of public building for her work at Harlow and Basildon with Sir Frederick Gibberd, and as a writer. Tomorrow's Landscape (1956), Garden Design (1958), The Landscape of Power (1958) and The Landscape of Roads (1960) had been published by this date. The practice was varied. She produced the master plan for the New Towns of Warrington and Washington and designed small, more intimate gardens such as the roof-top garden for Scottish Widows Fund and Life Assurance Society Offices, Edinburgh and the Penicillin Memorial Rose Garden, Oxford. She is best known for large-scale projects for the Forestry Commission, the Central Electricity Generating Board, and for reservoirs and road planning where her landscapes limit the impact of otherwise hard-edged processes. In 1967 she was awarded the CBE and in 1973 was made Dame Commander of the British Empire.

References to a model in late 1958 show an integrated scheme from its inception. Developing from this, plans dated February 1959, show the layout, complete with covered way and bridge, flanking water channels, and platform on the street frontage with the flagpoles set in a circle on diagonally-set paving. The north-east corner is shown planted with a scatter of non-specified trees, and the existing eastern and western boundary trees are in place. The triangular terrace between the main building and the administrative block is shown. A sketch from 1959 shows the southern retaining wall configured to match the diagonal setting of the paving slabs on the paved terrace. By the time the scheme was made public on 17 June 1960, drawings and the model show a similar design but with the rectangular platform with flagpoles set diagonally in a rectangular block on the western side, which allowed flagpoles to be added as membership increased.

Drawings dated 3 June 1960 by Sylvia Crowe specify the planting and details of the hard landscape, and confirm the current configuration of the flagpole area with flagpoles set diagonally. Dame Sylvia Crowe submitted a landscape report, dated 21 June 1960, accompanied by two drawings, both of which are lost. The report sets out 'to break down the restriction of boundaries and to get a feeling of space and integration'. It includes details of trees to be retained and felled in the old lime avenue and proposals for a woodland garden at the north end of the site 'which could form the setting for Commonwealth sculpture' and which would provide 'the maximum tree screen to the south of Holland Park playing fields'. It endorses the proposals which RMJM were already developing.

Associated People

Just one person associated to Commonwealth Institute

Contact

Official Website

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References

References