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The Commonwealth Institute is the direct successor to the Imperial Institute, and its dramatic purpose- built premises on Kensington High Street were expressly designed to mark a shift away from the imperial past, reflecting Britain’s changing relationship with it’s former colonies and providing a lasting symbol of it’s commitment to the Commonwealth.

Constructed with gifts from throughout the Commonwealth, including Nigerian timber for the floors and Zambian copper for the roof, it was opened by the Queen in 1962 and has been described by English Heritage as “the most important public building of architectural ambition raised in London between the Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery complex.”

Sir Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, architects of the Grade 1 Royal Festival Hall, were entrusted with it’s design and developed the concept of a tent-like building which would both convey the unity of the Commonwealth through a central exhibition area, and complement it’s leafy surroundings in Holland Park. Guided by the architectural philosophy of the time, it was to be simple in concept, flexible and user-friendly.

It’s extraordinary hyperbolic paraboloid roof, a tradition of roof design immortalised in the Sydney Opera House, is one of it’s most striking features and an innovative engineering feat. It’s green copper sheathed roof above a central concrete shell spanning 183 feet, the largest of its kind in the country, has only four principal supports, one at each corner, and the sky blue glass wall is suspended from above. Set well back from the road with the intention of bringing the park to the High Street, pools of water connected by a stream have been used instead of conventional railings and add to the impression of space. At night, floodlit, the building presents a brilliant spectacle, it’s blue-panelled exterior reflected with the trees in the waters of the ornamental garden.

The interior of the building is also of considerable architectural importance, comprising a single central exhibition space designed by James Gardner, the outstanding British designer of the period. Mounting a ramp leading to a circular platform, in the middle of the galleries, visitors command a unique view of the entire Commonwealth, set out on three floors of individual exhibitions and united symbolically under the soaring roof. It is an experience which English Heritage recommend as “one of the most pleasurable available in a modern building in London, whatever one’s age.” The uniqueness of the design has been recognised by the award of a Grade 11* listing in 1988, one of only a very few 1960s buildings to receive such recognition.
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