The Commonwealth Institute building in Holland Park, off Kensington High Street, is considered by English Heritage to be the second most important modern building in London after the Royal Festival Hall. it is being refurbished to house the Design Museum so that the creation in 1962 by architects Johnson-Marshall and Partners is saved. In contrast, the modernist landscape designed by the renowned landscape architect, Sylvia Crowe (one of the founding members of the Landscape Institute) has completely disappeared.
It is shocking that one of only a handful of post-war designed landscapes that have been recently added to the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens has gone.
Modernist landscape design did not take off in Britain and exponents such as Christopher Tunnard would leave England to work in America, where his designs were valued. This makes examples such as Sylvia Crowe's design for the entrance to the Commonwealth Institute so special and rare. She used some of the language found at the Festival of Britain:
This was a destination that enchanted children, perhaps with the kind of pull that now draws children to Disney. Like Battersea Park and its tree walkway, it was a 'must-see' site in London. The approach directly off the High Street was delineated by slight stepped changes in level so that it was clearly part of the Institute site, but was open and welcoming and thrilling to walk across water to reach the entrance.
Architects Allies and Morrison, who oversaw the refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall and its outdoor terraces, are overseeing the refurbishment of the building; and Dutch landscape architects West 8 will design the new landscape.
The Garden History Society was not consulted about the removal of the Registered Landscape by local planning authority, Kensington and Chelsea, and we must assume that English Heritage failed to flag up just how important this design was.
Could it be put back? Technically, yes: by analysing the surviving pictures, plans, etc., it would be possible to 're- create' the Crowe design... but to what end? It has lost its context and the open front to the High Street has been given over to a new block of flats as part of the refurbishment. Even if put back, it would not be with the original materials and we are likely to impose some values from today's perspective that would mean it would not be Sylvia Crowe's garden. I feel similarly towards the Frederick Gibberd garden at Harlow New Town: the developer of the prime site in central Harlow paid to move the garden out of the way and it survives as an embarrassed truncated remnant, dislocated from its intended, designed place. It, too, has been removed from the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens. Thankfully, so far, one of the other stars from this period, Geoffrey Jellicoe's Water Garden at Hemel Hempstead survives intact and is the subject of a very sensitive refurbishment, part funded by the HLF – however a watchful eye is needed here to protect the setting of the Water Garden from encroachment by proposed new buildings that threaten to leave the garden in a canyon.
At the Commonwealth Institute site the refurbished building, Design Museum, new flats and design by West 8 will result in a very vibrant and enjoyable place which I am sure I will visit and admire, but I cannot forgive the loss of a unique and bold piece of twentieth-century landscape design and regret the lack of respect and understanding demonstrated by the limp local planning authority and English Heritage.
English Heritage have recently consulted the Garden History Society on the likely deletion of Sylvia Crowe's Commonwealth Institute Garden from the EH Register of (important) designed landscapes in England and Wales – what a pity they waited until it has gone!
Having read the article by Dominic Cole CMLI FIOH regarding the consultation about the proposed de-registration of the Modernist landscape designed by Sylvia Crowe for the Commonwealth Institute I am compelled to request a public right to reply to the assertions about Historic England (formerly English Heritage) in the final paragraphs.
Whilst I understand the concern expressed about the impact of the proposals on the designed landscape which were permitted in 2010/11, it is simply not the case that it was the result of a lack of respect or understanding as claimed by Dominic Cole. Had Mr Cole made the effort to look at our formal advice he would have seen that the position taken by the then English Heritage was the result of extensive involvement with this site over a number of years. That involvement included commissioning work on the significance of both building and landscape to inform decision making. It also involved workshops with our London Advisory Committee (LAC) the applicant and local authority to try and find the best way forward for what was acknowledged to be an extremely difficult situation.
The site was on the Heritage at Risk Register, with a series of failed attempts at finding a new use and a large conservation deficit. Our consideration of the proposals involved the Parks and Gardens Panel, the Economics Director and the Commission of English Heritage in addition to the LAC. It was expressly stated in our formal advice that this case was one of the most challenging ever faced by the organisation, which was why it received such exhaustive consideration at the highest level.
Whilst I share and understand the disappointment and regret of Mr Cole at the loss of the designed landscape, the judgement was reached only after thorough examination and challenge. To suggest otherwise is an unwarranted attack on the integrity of those involved.
Planning and Conservation Director London