Commonwealth Institute


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Commonwealth Institute, KENSINGTON HIGH STREET


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Statutory Address:
Commonwealth Institute, KENSINGTON HIGH STREET

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Greater London Authority
Kensington and Chelsea (London Borough)
National Grid Reference:
TQ 24992 79424


TQ 2579 & TQ 2479 KENSINGTON HIGH STREET, W8 36/24 35/24 Commonwealth Institute


Cultural exhibition and conference centre, disused in 2005. Built 1960-2. Small addition of early 1970s in NW corner of site. Exhibition layouts much changed from original. Designed by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners (main job architects Peter Newnham and Roger Cunliffe), with major engineering contribution from A J and J D Harris (partner in charge James Sutherland). Exhibition designer was James Gardner.

EXTERIOR: Main exhibition building holds the primary interest of the site. This has low brickwork plinth carrying concealed walls of blockwork clad on all four sides with opaque turquoise heat-soaked toughened glass panels (this replaced the original blue-grey Hills patent glazing in 2001). Exhibition building roof of complex section, consisting of central hyperbolic paraboloid flanked by four warps of 'bastard' hyperbolic shape, constructed of shell concrete in the centre warp and of pre-cast radiating concrete ribs in the outer warps, covered by woodwool slabs, the whole originally clad on the outside by sheet copper donated by the Northern Rhodesian (now Zambian) Government, this replaced in 2001 with long strip copper sheets laid to follow the rooflines. In situ concrete 'legs' buttressing centre warps project at front and back of exhibition building.

Of lesser interest and attached to west of main exhibition building is the linear administration and conference building (aligned north to south) of three storeys with frame of reinforced concrete, brickwork cladding, and flat roofs.

Covered approach walkway from Kensington High Street is part of the site, together with the grass sward, water channel and flagpole area in front, all landscaped by Sylvia Crowe (the site is included on the Register of Parks and Gardens at Grade II).

INTERIOR: Main entrance to exhibition building from Kensington High Street leads into dark vestibule with wall of coloured glass mosaic panels and hence by ramp to a circular platform central to the building in both plan and section. Hence stairs lead up and down to three main levels of exhibition space, the whole designed so as to emphasize the effect of the 'roof' and to make exhibition spaces allotted to the different Commonwealth countries equal in value and clearly visible; the exhibits were removed in 1996.

Interconnections are made on west side with rooms in the administrative block, notably the art gallery at upper level which has deep 'egg-crate' ceiling and north-facing window calculated for natural lighting. Beneath the art gallery is a cinema/auditorium with raked seating. Administrative entrance is on west side of building, where 'prow' of exhibition area cuts into and through administration block, the axis of exhibition building being at 45° to administration block.

HISTORY: Built 1960-62 as successor to the Imperial Institute (founded 1887 and housed in the South Kensington building designed by Collcutt) when the expansion of the Imperial Institute's neighbour, Imperial College, and dramatic changes in Imperial circumstances led the Government to reconsider its role. The Commonwealth Institute Act of 1958 formally changed the name of the building and brought modern education and exhibition to the fore of the Institute's aims. The building was funded by the Government and had to be built economically, subsidized by gifts in kind from Commonwealth countries.

Robert Matthew, Johnson-Matthew and Partners were appointed architects without competition. The engineers were A.J. and J.D. Harris and the exhibition designer was James Gardner, who had worked on the Dome of Discovery at the Royal Festival Hall. The brief for a 'tent in the park' formed within an innovative hyperbolic parabaloid concrete shell roof was drawn up 1958-60. Work began on site in 1960, after which the original plan to prefabricate the roof off-site proved too problematic, so it was constructed in situ by John Laing Construction Limited. The building was opened by HM the Queen on 6 November 1962.

In 2000, ownership of the building and site was transferred from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to a newly formed Trust managed on behalf of the High Commissioners to London of the Commonwealth nations. Significant works were undertaken in 2000-1 by Avery Associates, including repair of the roof, which suffered from significant leakage, and re-cladding of the exterior curtain wall. In 2002, the Commonwealth Institute took the decision to dispose of the building and site and to create a Centre for Commonwealth Education in partnership with Cambridge University's Faculty of Education. It was out of use at the time of re-inspection (2005).

SIGNIFICANCE: The Commonwealth Institute has architectural and engineering significance as the first major British 'swept' roof contributing to the international traditions of dramatic roof profiles set by Nowicki, Saarinen and Stubbins in the USA, Frei Otto in Germany and Felix Candela in Mexico. The structural system used for the Commonwealth Institute roof is internationally unique, while its shape represents the first major British use of the hyperbolic paraboloid favoured by Candela, and probably is the largest span covered by such a roof at that date.

The Commonwealth Institute also has major cultural and historical significance as a new concept in educational and exhibition techniques, carrying on the Festival of Britain traditions of relating architectural form and display, and Britain¿s first major public building since then. Special attention was paid to lighting, ease of access and environmental services, and the building was fitted out with gifted materials such as timber, copper and hide from Commonwealth countries. It continued the traditions and aims of the Imperial Institute, to which it was the successor, while radically revising the way in which they are presented in accordance with the changing concept of the Commonwealth in the early 1960s.

SOURCES: A Commemorative 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, pp 1119 - 1126. The Architectural Review, vol. 133, April 1963, pp 261 - 6. Architect's Journal, 23 May 2002, pp 36-39.

Listing NGR: TQ2499279424


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
'Architects Journal' in 14 November, (1962), 1119-1126
'Architectural Review' in April, (1963)


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 13 Apr 2002
Reference: IOE01/06747/04
Rights: Copyright IoE Mr Adam Watson. Source Historic England Archive
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