Open House London 2011: Former Commonwealth Institute

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Last weekend’s Open House London was a rare chance to get inside some of the city’s architectural highlights, many of which are usually closed to the public. This year, the two day event showcased more than 700 buildings across the capital.

I took the opportunity to tour the Former Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park, regarded by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London after The Royal Festival Hall.

Displaying artefacts and information from across the Commonwealth, I remember the building primarily for its lifelike Inuit and skidoo, as seen aged eight. A few decades on, and now lacking its many exhibits, the building’s entire structure is visible, and it is a revelation.

Skylight at Commonwealth InstituteOpened in 1962, the structure is made up of a large central hall topped by a concrete “hyperbolic paraboloid” roof – think of a piece of paper suspended from two diagonal corners, and you get the rough idea. Two galleried floors wrap around a central marble platform, all atmospherically lit by modest skylights and the finest in 1960s pendants.

The building has stood empty since its closure in 2002, but is set to be revitalised thanks to the ambitious relocation plans of The Design Museum, currently based in Shad Thames.

Architect Rem Koolhaas will transform the space, with exhibition and educational areas, a 200-seater auditorium, restaurant and shop. Sadly the building will be closed to the public until then – so paraboloid fans will just have to wait!

Full Design Museum plans for the Commonwealth Institute are being finalised and submitted for planning approval in the next few months, and the new museum will open in 2014. Open House London 2012 is scheduled for 22 and 23 September.

What did you see at this year’s Open House London? Why not add your pictures to the Visit London flickr pool.


  1. Lettice says:

    Went on a spectacularly boring school trip to see the old exhibition there about 20 years ago.

    Fortunately The Design Museum exhibitions are never boring, so looking forward to being reaquainted with this beautiful building for much more interesting exhibitions!

  2. Jenny says:

    I went to the Dutch Church for Open House Weekend. I thought the stained glass windows were beautiful.