This week, OMA has unveiled their latest project in London, Holland Green. Working alongside Allies & Morrison, the firm has created three new luxury residential buildings on a site of significant cultural importance: the former home of the Commonwealth Institute, designed by Sir Robert Matthew, one of the founding partners of RMJM. As a result, OMA and Allies & Morrison’s Holland Green project involved much more than just adding fuel to the fire of London’s booming luxury residential market—it also involved an extensive conversion to the original 1962 Commonwealth Institute exhibition hall, funded through the scheme’s profitable residential offering, to prepare the heritage building for its new tenants the Design Museum.
ArchDaily spoke with Reinier de Graaf, the partner in charge of the project at OMA, to discuss the development’s social aspirations, the challenges of the London context, and the story behind the project.
Rory Stott: How did the financing model—with luxury residential housing subsidizing needed renovations on a heritage building—come about? Who originally proposed it?
Reinier de Graaf: The building had been empty since 2002. There was a proposal to de-list the whole thing—of course the nature of the government attempt to de-list was to get rid of it so that the whole site could be redeveloped—that didn't make it. However, it was also clear that in its current state the building would remain a ruin, so that wasn't in anybody's advantage.
When we came along it was interesting. The whole site was listed. The main exhibition hall was a Grade II* listed building, the service wing which intersected it was a Grade II* building as well, and the landscape around the building was a registered landscape designed by Sylvia Crowe. In the state in which we found it, it was a rather derelict car park, but nevertheless it had a heritage status as well. The whole site, and all buildings on it had a heritage status, and you couldn't do anything.
The gamble the developer took was to say that we will keep part of the listed complex, namely the main exhibition hall with its particular roof, and we would demolish the service wing and the registered landscape. From the get go the whole idea was a combination of new buildings and the restoration of the old buildings, and that was always the financing model.
The details of that financing model changed during the course of the process. When we started there was no prospective user for the building, so to imagine new types of use was part of our commission. We made a number of scenarios for the building, imagined it as the headquarters of London's Google operations, we imagined a Prada store in it, or a Prada exhibition at one point—a number of our existing clients as potential users. That was a lot of phantasmagoria, but while we were doing that, the word got out that we were working on it and the Design Museum came into play.
Now once a user was on board, it became a rather different ballgame. One can't really call a building a refurbishment beyond a certain point, it really turned into a conversion. We had to do that because Avery Associates had done something earlier in the decade, a mild refurbishment but it was clear that a mild refurbishment simply wouldn't bring the building back to life. Of course, interestingly, the best way to preserve a building is to give it a new use, an authentic new use—rather than simply maintaining it as a ruin.
Anyway, we went to work with the Design Museum and in the course of the process what started as a refurbishment became a conversion. It practically became designing a replica. Because with the exception of the roof and its supporting structure, practically every other element of the building has been made new: the building has new floors to accommodate a new layout with a bigger load-bearing capacity; the building has new facades to comply with contemporary technical and environmental standards; the facade has been opened, it used to be all block work and the only light in was from the top, now two of the facades allow light in as well. It's essentially a completely different building that looks exactly like the old. And of course it became a replica with all these associated costs. The nature of the deal, whereby the cost for the preservation of a historic building—the whole financial picture changed in the course of the process. The London housing market did as well.
The principle was maintained and the way it was conceived from the start, although I think the associated sums changed in the course of the years.
RS: You wrote two texts about the project, one in 2009 and one in 2016, just recently. How was the local context of Kensington, and the context of London and even wider changed in the last 7 years?
RdG: Asking me about the London context is soliciting a very long answer. But I'll try to be brief. My first ever job was in London, I lived in London in the 80s and the early 90s. I have a history with London, within OMA, that goes back as early as 2004 or 2003 I believe. And in my more recent experience as well, it’s a different London than I remember, the London I first went to. But even in the course of this project, the context has changed quite a lot.
Clearly this is a difficult project. A vast amount of people in Kensington and Chelsea would have liked to see nothing happen. They were quite happy to keep the park, they were quite happy to keep the ruin in the park—a lot of people in that borough had a lot of time to mingle and pay a lot of attention to the project, so it was by no means an easy project. I think it won by the narrowest possible majority of votes in the council to get planning permission. But strangely, 8 years on, the whole mood around the project has changed immensely. People now see that we've been quite respectful towards the old building, that the old building is coming to life, everybody is very excited about the Design Museum opening and a lot of its fierce opponents from years ago have now developed into staunch advocates of the project.
In a way, that is indicative for me of the planning context in London. As a European, you are used to working in a context where the rules are set from the outset. But in England the whole planning system is a form of negotiation. It's based on negotiation with the private sector, where there are public authorities who have largely relinquished the initiative of development to private parties, such as was the case here, since it was a developer that brings a monument back to life. But in doing that, you get a very different process. The rules aren't as clear from the outset. You go in and you design your way out of a problem; you negotiate the boundaries that you can cross. You build a bit more development but then you have to give something back for the council. You do residential blocks but then you have to restore a monument. Designing a project in England is as much a form of campaigning as it is a form of architecture.
If I personally think anything is great about this project, I think that that whole process has been conducted masterfully, like a game of chess that went on for 8 years with a good result.
RS: The new residential buildings fit, certainly in terms of their orientation and scale—they very much mesh with the existing building. But in terms of design language they are very different. Would you mind telling us about the idea behind that design language?
RdG: The buildings were meant to be neutral, orthogonal, rectangular, 90-degree corners only. And they were like that deliberately so that they would offer a contrast to the curvature of the roof. I always say they are the "graph paper" against which the amplitude of the curve registers. They're deliberately designed as a setting for the old building. This is an ensemble of four buildings, one of which is old, is the largest and is the main piece. And the other three are setting and set pieces at the same time. That is the game we play. The language was designed to highlight the curvature of the roof. But the orientation of the cubes conformed to the orientation of the old building, so the old building would become part of the ensemble.
The scale of each new building varies because they are three cubes, all of a different size and it actually varies according to its position in the city so that, in terms of scale, it responds to the immediate surroundings—like the higher 60s Park Close buildings, the middle one is the mansion blocks in the front and the smallest building is clearly the building on the park.
RS: In the text you wrote most recently, at the beginning of it you allude to the rising price of living in London and the housing crisis that is happening there. While this is not a criticism of what you've done with the cultural building that is there, the residential buildings that you've included don't focus on affordable housing.
RdG: Well, they are affordable to people with a lot of money (laughs). I can be blatantly clear about that. There was an affordable component in the beginning, but the complexity of the restoration of the monument was such that that quickly became the trade-off. That became the deal, and the amount of money that has gone into that in a way is larger than any profit concession would have been had we been forced to do affordable buildings. That was negotiated again with the council; the buildings had to be luxury development in order to pay for the restoration. That was simply part of the financial picture.
But having said that, I do think it's interesting that for once, a luxury residential project serves a purpose beyond profit alone. And in a very directly visible way, on the site itself—not on some remote side of the borough—on the site itself there is evidence of what these profits have been spent on, and it's something for everybody. I must say that I've written quite a lot in articles about London's property market—not necessarily always favorable. But the fact that we managed to do the two things here, and for me the project is really residential and what the residential enabled in terms of cultural building and preservation. As a whole it makes the project, and also makes it interesting to me as a project. Without that cultural component, my conscience would probably trouble me a little bit more.