The controversial case of the Commonwealth Institute

In the heart of busy, fashionable Kensington, West London, there’s a building that doesn’t quite fit in. Hidden behind a forest of flagpoles, a tent shaped shell separates the old Victorian houses from Holland Park.

While being a bizarre contribution to the bundles of blocks, its parabolic roof shooting up in the sky sets a statement saying ‘this is different’. Paid for, and built, by the UK Government in the early 60’s, London was introduced to the Commonwealth Institute building – an exhibition hall unique in every single way.

Inside, level after level of exhibition space separated each Commonwealth countries’ contributions. They revolved around a centre platform as round as the earth, with all different cultures surrounding it in a big continental hug.

Opened by the Queen in 1962, the building was home to the Commonwealth Institute (CI) for 40 years until the Institute decided to pack their bags and move out in 2002. Two years before, the CI had been restructured into a trust known as the Commonwealth Education Trust, signalling the beginning of the end. The Institute’s debt of £5,5 million, and the Governments decision to stop funding the Institute in 1999, meant they couldn’t afford to stay.

“The Kensington site has been a significant burden on an organisation with no other resources. Five years ago Commonwealth governments recognised that it was not symbolic of our modern Commonwealth and the funds locked up in it should be released,” Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon stated in a press release when the sale of the building was initiated in 2007.

Just as the building is iconic for Kensington, this quote is iconic for what was going to happen to it. What in 2002 initially looked like a departure caused by high maintenance costs, proved to be a scheme aimed at cashing in on the Holland Park site’s value of about £80 million.

The Institute put forward a preposition to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to de-list the building. The goal was to demolish and sell it. With the proposal, comments from the building’s trustees – James Sutherland and Lord Cunliffe, the architect of RMJM who designed it – was presented, arguing for the CI to be knocked down.

In the document, Lord Cunliffe stated: “The building is nearly half a century old; it was designed for one very specific purpose; it was built on the much lower standards of the day and – perforce – it was built on the cheap. Like a worthy old carthorse, it should now be ‘put down’ before it eats all the fodder in the barn.”

Sutherland, of RJM Sutherland architect firm, wrote in a letter to Judith Hanratty of the CI in 2004, saying; “Assuming no effective use for the building, if the exterior is disliked, if no one cares about the image and we ignore the fairly large sum of money which has been spent on it recently [repair works], the sensible thing must be to pull it down.

“However, I think there might be some quite vociferous objections to demolition.”

Indeed there were. Conservation lobbies such as English Heritage (EH) and the 20th Century Society (C20 Society) were backed by the Kensington and Chelsea council, all pointing at the Grade II*-listing as enough grounds to let the building be.

The Secretary of State and Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell agreed and dismissed the proposal in July 2005.

The decision was explained in a letter addressed to Judy P Curry (Secretary of the Trustees of the Commonwealth Institute) from Harry Reeves (Head of Architecture and Historic Environment Division). “As you are aware, the CI was listed in 1988 at the high grade of II*, which means that it was deemed a particularly important building of more than special interest. It was listed as a result of the combination of its special architectural and historic interest.

“English Heritage have advised that ‘this extraordinary building retains the special interest and considerable engineering and historical significance for which it was listed Grade II* in 1988’… The Secretary of State has accepted English Heritage’s advice that the Commonwealth Institute building does possess special historic interest.”

Jowell herself said: “The advice from English Heritage could not have been clearer. Our experts believe that this is one of the two most important post-war buildings of that period in London.”

The Institute’s plan backfired. Leaving the building empty had only resulted in a group of squatters taking over the grounds with hostile guard dogs keeping authorities away. Not quite the £80 million cash out they had hoped for.

But then the story took an unexpected twist. A Bill proposal, signed by the Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett and Tessa Jowell – who 11 months earlier had dismissed the plans for de-listing the building – leaked to the C20 Society.

The Bill would include a clause meaning that listed buildings could be de-listed and demolished in order to bring funds to taxpayers and education. A U-turn of magnitude by Culture Secretary Jowell that could change the meaning of listings altogether.

Catherine Croft, director of the 20th Century Society, told the Daily Telegraph: “If a Bill is allowed to de-list the CI then no listed building will be safe.

“If the CI trustees are allowed to demolish a listed building because their potential good works are perceived as being more important … then what is to stop other charitable owners of buildings asking to be given special treatment too?”

Chief executive of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, was on the same track and stated that the bill could harm the future of other iconic buildings such as the the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre and the British Museum. He said: “This is a proposal for a demolishers’ charter. It undermines the fundamental principle that the country’s best and most culturally valuable architecture is worth keeping.

“To engage in a fundamental change to the law undermines the whole system of protection in England.”

A precedent was, however, never set in this case. 10 months after the Bill preposition was made, Jowell and Beckett dropped their plans. Jowell said, without much comment on the criticism, “we have no plans to introduce a bill that will give powers to demolish all or part of the buildings on the Commonwealth Institute site.

“We have encouraged the Commonwealth Insitute to work with English Heritage on a listed-building-consent application, which we understand they hope to submit later this year.”

It was 2007 and the Institute had lost all their hopes. The money they wanted to “contribute to education within the Commonwealth” remained just a number on a piece of paper, and the building was put up to sale.

And today, six years after “the Parabola” hosted its last events in 2004, it still remains an empty shell – neglected and abandoned.

The landscaped garden, laid out by Morris Lee and Sylvia Crow, is buried under the brown leaves of autumn after autumn. The uncared for trees creates a fence of branches, blocking the view of the still spectacular building. The flagpoles has lost their pride, infested by rust and moss, showing no sign of what once was iconic for the Commonwealth Institute: community.

In 2008, the sale of the Commonwealth Institute was sealed. For £4,32 million, Ilchester Estates, a Dorset real estate firm bought the land. The purchase meant that the site went back to its roots; ending up in the possession of the company that owned the land it sits on before it was built.

Ilchester bought the site through Addison Developments – a ghost company owned by the real estate firm, with no official interest in the building and no records for the world to see. After advice from Ilchester, letters to a Mr M.K Scarce of Addison has given no result in contact.

Through the years, a number of schemes have been put forward suggesting solutions for the buildings future use. And in September 2009, the Kensington and Chelsea council approved a scheme created by London based development firm Chelsfield Partners LLP in association with Dutch architect agency OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture).

The scheme meant demolishing the ancillary block in connection to the Parabola exhibition hall, and instead accompanying it with three residential blocks. The Parabola itself would become the new home of the Design Museum.

Yair Ginor, of Chelsfield, declined to leave any further information about the scheme or Addison Developments. “I can’t really go into details on that. Each project has got a different structure, but Addison are not involved in this scheme. But it’s a fantastic site and we believe only good things will come out of it. It’s in our best interest to develop it,” he said.

But the life of the Commonwealth Institute building wasn’t going to be brought back that easily.

On the council’s vote in June 2009, it all came down to the last decisive vote of Terence Buxton, chair of the Kensington and Chelsea committee. Buxton voted for the scheme, setting of an argument unsettled to this day.

The CI building is one of very few of such young age that are Grade II* listed. And this is what makes things complicated. The council’s decision to allow planning permission for Chelsfield’s scheme was made before English Heritage had made their stands clear. And following the previous matters with the Institute wanting to de-list the building EH was expected to disallow the scheme.

Then September came, and Paddy Pugh, of EH, wrote a letter published in Architects Journal. “This scheme enjoys support from English Heritage and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea,” he wrote. “It does so because it would secure the future of the most important part of the historic asset in a public cultural use, as was always intended.

“The Design Museum anticipates 400,000 visitors a year. We believe this major public benefit outweighs the loss of historic fabric and landscape.

“Some suggest that it would be unreasonable – even unlawful – to grant listed building consent. In my view it would be unreasonable, irresponsible and short-sighted to let this opportunity slip away.”

It was a bold move, and a move met with fury from opposing lobbyists involved in the matter. Since Chelsfield and OMA submitted their scheme, the C20 Society together with the Kensington Society and local residential group ESSA has been fighting a tough battle against them and EH.

Jon Wright, senior caseworker of the C20 Society said: “We just can’t believe that English Heritage has allowed this. Grade II* flags international significance for the building, and modern buildings getting Grade II* listings are very rare. This has been listed for a long time; it’s obviously important. But the interesting thing about this case is that you cannot isolate all that II* quality to the parabolic roof. It’s obviously not the only thing that’s important.”

EH on the other hand claims the opposite. In previous mentioned letter, signed by Harry Reeves, he writes: “she [Tessa Jowell] has also decided, on English Heritage’s recommendation, that the list entry should be amended, including a statement making it clear that the special interest relates primarily to the exhibition hall building, and that the administrative wing is of lesser interest.”

“We’re very, very disappointed in EH. They haven’t stood up for the building, and we can’t believe that they have let it go,” Wright said about the letter. “English Heritage has motivated their decision on the basis weighing up the conservation arguments and wider public benefits. This argument has swayed the local council. But to tare it apart like this scheme is going to isn’t conservation. And you expect to see conservation for a Grade II* listed building.”

Helen Bowman of EH claims that their role in the developments is strictly unbiased. “EH has never stated that a form of development would not be acceptable to us and in fact, have long endorsed an appropriate re-use of the building that will provide it with a secure future – it has been vacant for some years now, allowing for small periods of occupancy … but nothing that guarantees its future,” she said.

“Our role is to advise the local planning authority and relevant parties on the impact of any development … of the listed building and landscape.  This has been a challenging case and has required the balancing of various issues, including the securing of a long term viable future for the listed building against the harm new development and changes to the listed building may cause,” she continued.

The scheme hasn’t only got the support of EH, but from the Mayor of London as well. When asked for a statement, Boris Johnson declared through the London Assembly that there was nothing more to add to his initial comment that said: “I am content to allow Kensington and Chelsea Council to determine the case itself, subject to any action that the Secretary of State may take, and do not therefore wish to direct refusal or to take over the application for my own determination.”

Despite the arguments, all sides seem to agree that the former Commonwealth Institute can no longer remain unused.

“There’s no disagreement that the building needs to be reworked, its use was over. But it’s very unique in function; do you have to lose everything for it to work? For just keeping the roof it could be anything,” said Jon Wright, and continued.

“This scheme [of Chelsfield and OMA] is dangerous because it comes at a time when people think that it’s the building’s last chance: ‘If we don’t allow this then it’s going to slide into ruin.’ But the listing says that can’t happen, and there’s no proof that will happen.”

The battle, however, seem to be over for the C20 Society. The only organ still struggling is the Kensington residential group ESSA lead by Anthony Walker. Walker has declined to comment on the case but according to Jon Wright, they’re looking at a judicial review. “But it’s a very expensive procedure if they lose,” he said. “And as wealthy as those people are in that area, I don’t think they’re going through with it.”

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