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The new Design Museum on its first day of opening
As one of 500 children who passed through its doors daily when it first opened in 1962, I was interested to see how the old Commonwealth Institute would fare in 2016 as the new Design Museum.
The new museum is certainly a nice change from the old order, but its not exactly ideal, nor how I would have envisaged it. The Guardian describes the Design Museum as “the laudable result of a decade’s dogged effort.”
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The somewhat tacky approach from Kensington High Street to the new Design Museum
The approach from Kensington High Street is somewhat lacking, as if the Design Museum is something to be kept out of sight from the passing public.
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Google Street view showing the museum’s open aspect just before redevelopment in 2012.
It must be agreed the Commonwealth Institute itself had a lengthy open sided corridor leading off Kensington High Street. Yet the the new one seems worse somehow, it just doesn’t fit. They should have kept the approach an open avenue – which I note was mooted in some of the original plans.
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A nicer approach from Kensington High Street? Source: New Design Museum Tumblr
Once the corridor section is passed there is quite a nice view of the Design Museum, complete with water feature and a Eduardo Paolozzi sculpture. This is how it should have been, the whole approach adorned with trees, seats, fountains and exciting sculptures.
Let’s face it promenade approaches are a difficult concept. The idea is that people are led along a corridor or covered promenade in anticipation of something greater at the other end. In some places these work. The one at the Design Museum doesn’t. It feels like the entrance to a supermarket.
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The main entrance to the museum with it’s splendid gratitude to Sir Terrance Conran.
I liked the main entrance with its words above the doors, and how it leads into what is clearly an awesome atrium. It’s impressive, yet at the same time it seems a bit confused. What is it trying to tell us? That I cannot be certain of. Perhaps the one mistake here is that it’s almost like a canyon and doesn’t quite fit in with the hyperbolic paraboloid roof. John Pawson the building’s designer couldn’t have put it more aptly himself. Its like an “opencast mine.” Exactly!

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Looking up towards the hyperbolic paraboloid roof.
I think it should have opened out a bit more towards the top to enhance the roof itself. It does open out slightly but still it’s too vertical. As critics have pointed out the new museum’s right angles and sheer wood finish do not sit too well in partnership with the paraboloid roof.
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Not bad but could be better….
It’s nice to get away from the old Commonwealth Institute’s layout, even though that was innovative. Retaining that would have made the building look quite tired and dated. The roof should have remained the central feature, yet appears to have been added later and awkward in it’s new setting.
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I liked this particular aspect where both old & new designs complement each other very well.
I think the lighting appears at fault. It’s too austere. The photo above shows how exciting it could look. The lights, colours, the grand sweep of the roof itself and how the different lines complement each other. Its a shame this sense of excitement is limited to only a few areas of the new museum.
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The free exhibition area is colourful and quite eye catching, yet seems somewhat confused.
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The cafe area is in an awkward corner of the building.
The following pic I took is best described by the Guardian/Observer’s Rowan Moore: “At one point a square pit opens in the floor to expose a slanting strut of 1960s concrete, but it looks as disconsolate as a beast in a zoo.”
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“Looks as disconsolate as a beast in a zoo.”
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A large section of the famous roof disappears behind exhibition space on the third floor.
I think in time the free exhibition area on the top floor will have to be altered to display far more of the paraboloid roof’s line so its majestic sweep can be enjoyed more fully. As it currently stands the roof disappears behind hoardings belonging to the exhibition area.
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Another of my preferred vistas in the new Design Museum. Many squares within squares.
The main thing to remember is the Commonwealth Institute wasn’t much loved. The old sixties exhibition material was perhaps at fault. Its subject material was not as exciting as at other museums. Instead of demolition, the building was saved. The re-working is an achievement and one I like to a certain extent even though some parts are a bit disappointing.
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The Design Museum’s shop
Further reading:
The Guardian: The Design Museum review – a magnificent achievement, but…
The Spaces: Design Museum review: does its architecture match its ambitions?