Inventory Site Record

The Design Museum (Kensington & Chelsea)

Brief Description

Now renamed The Parabola, the Commonwealth Institute was conceived in the late 1950s to house a static permanent exhibition, surrounded by landscaped gardens. Completed in 1962 to a low budget, its main feature was a hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof, and gardens designed by Maurice Lee of RMJM, with contributions from Sylvia Crowe. The building and gardens were opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1962. The landscaped gardens featured large London plane trees, an avenue of lime trees, grassed area, shrubberies, flagpoles, and a water feature with pools and fountains. From the late 1980s the building was used for commercial exhibitions to try to bolster funds, with limited success and in 2002 the building and gardens were closed. In 2007 Chelsfield Partners acquired the site and in 2009 submitted a planning application for a new home for the Design Museum in The Parabola and a residential development, whilst retaining the main elements of the gardens. Planning permission was given and the Design Museum opened in 2016. However, Sylvia Crowe's modernist landscape has been lost and the site was subsequently removed from the NHLE,Register of Parks & Gardens.

Practical Information
Previous / Other name:
Holland Estate; The Parabola (formerly Commonwealth Institute Garden)
Site location:
224-238 Kensington High Street
W8 6NQ
What 3 Words:
Type of site:
Institutional Grounds
Kensington & Chelsea
Open to public?
Opening times:
check Design Museum website for opening times
Special conditions:
Public transport:
Tube: High Street Kensington (District, Circle) then bus. Bus: 9, 10, 27, 28, 31, 49, C1
Research updated:
Last minor changes:

Please check with the site owner or manager for latest news. www.designmuseum.com

Full Site Description

The Imperial Institute was founded in 1887 was housed from 1893 in the Colcutt Building in South Kensington; in 1953 the Government decided to establish an independent board of governors which included all the Commonwealth High Commissioners and led to the appointment of a new Director for the Institute. The Commonwealth Institute Act of 1958 formally changed the name of the Imperial Institute to the Commonwealth Institute and in the same year it was decided that a new building should be provided. The Government financed the project and contributions including sculptures were given, some of the latter incorporated into the Commonwealth Institute Garden. The architecture and designed landscape were designed from 1958-60 and work began on site in 1960, completed in 1962 when the Institute was opened by Queen Elizabeth II. The site was formerly part of Holland Park (q.v.).

In 1960 Sylvia Crowe, landscape consultant, became part of the design team and her garden and landscaping were to the south west and east of the main building. The main features for which she was responsible was the flagpole area in front of the lawn to the south front of the institute, a large formal water feature with a channel, foundations and jets, and a secluded garden area within a lime avenue and benches. The flagpole area was paved with concrete slabs in a geometrical design with a formal arrangement of flagpoles, which were added to as more countries joined the Commonwealth. From the south corner of the Institute a large fork-shaped buttress projected onto lawn; a row of lime trees following the outline of the geometrical water feature which reflected the Institute, trees and flagpoles, the water running south from a triangular pond with fountain and jets via a channel with small cascades leading to a rectangular pond north of the flagpoles. The covered entrance bridge running over the pond emphasised the effect of the Institute surrounded by a moat. On the eastern boundary of the site was a lawn flanked on the eastern side by a border of shrubs and small trees, and on the west by the Lime Avenue which created a long vista. In the north-east corner of the Institute was a sculpture donated by one of the Commonwealth countries. Two stone lions were situated in the car park, formerly at the Imperial Institute. The car park was extended in the late C20th to the north, covering former woodland once part of Crowe's design.

The Commonwealth Institute garden was listed on the NHLE Register of Parks and Gardens, Grade II as an important example of a post-war garden design by a leading landscape architect. The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England was established in 1984 and was commonly called English Heritage. In April 2015 it split into 2 separate entities, Historic England (HE), which continues to champion and protect the historic environment, and the English Heritage Trust, whose role is to look after the 400+ historic sites and monuments owned by the state. HE manages the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) that includes over 400,000 items ranging from prehistoric monuments to office blocks, battlefields and parks, which benefit from legal protection. The Commonwealth Institute's garden was listed Grade II.

From the late 1980s to 2000 the building had been used for commercial exhibitions to try to bolster funding, but with limited commercial success. In 1988/89 an office redevelopment scheme promoted by the Commonwealth Institute failed as it was not viable; between 1989 and 2003 four separate consultant studies failed to identify a viable future; and between 1993 and 2001 six applications were submitted for public funding grants, including lottery bids, all of which failed. In 2000 the country exhibitions were removed and ownership transferred to a newly founded Trust. During 2000-2001 due to the state of disrepair, the building was closed for refurbishment, including replacement of the copper roof and re-cladding the exterior curtain wall. In 2002-2004 further attempts as a commercial exhibition venture failed due to viability. In 2002 the site was closed definitively, and the gardens closed to the public. The gardens by then were in a very poor state, having not been maintained for some 10 years: overgrown in some areas, the fountains, pond and cascades no longer in operating condition, with cracks in the concrete, and weeds and garden debris throughout. In 2005 a scheme for a hotel and residences failed, once again due to viability. Having been unused for many years, both the building and the gardens deteriorated severely. In 2007 Chelsfield Partners acquired the freehold of the site, and for the next two years interest was shown by private sector users for uses such as offices, hotel, casino, musical activities, etc., but had little response from civic users due to the building’s limitations, the lack of a planning consent and public funding constraints.

Eventually, in 2009 the site owners submitted a planning application for a new home for the Design Museum in the Parabola building, and a residential development in the grounds, whilst retaining the main elements of the landscaped gardens. The developers worked closely with English Heritage and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea on the redevelopment of the site. Major revisions were made to the landscape designs in the original planning application, described as providing 'a park setting' and incorporating 'a water feature and access route similar to the original concept'. Planning permission was given in July 2011. The landscape plans were to retain as much as possible the existing landscape components and to respect the original landscape concepts; to create a unity of landscape and architecture, particularly with respect to the Parabola building; and to retain as many of the existing trees on the site as possible. The proposed design was to replace the brick boundary wall on the east side and on the eastern half of the north side of site with visually permeable light railings to reconnect the site with Holland Park, allowing the Parabola building to fulfil the original concept of a 'Tent in the Park'. "To maximise the soft landscape on site, more than doubling the existing, from 17.5% to 38%; a park-like design to bring Holland Park into the site; a water feature with a bridge, located in the exact same place as the existing, to respect the original design and allow an approach to the building similar to the existing; 26 of the existing 57 trees to be retained and additional 113 to be planted. Three new public spaces are to be created, firstly a new public piazza on the High Street that will signal the presence of the Design Museum and create a new focus on Kensington High Street. The piazza’s designs will echo the existing patterns and the symbolic use of the flagpole area. Secondly a new public space in front of the Parabola building that will connect the site with the park and the street; and thirdly a terrace garden that will transform the existing tarmac parking on the north-eastern corner of the site to an open accessible public area, which will follow the designs of the Sylvia Crowe sculpture garden that was never realised. The result will be a dramatic increase in the provision of open public space on site from 20% currently to 51%."

During the planning process, a Tree Transplanting Report was carried out in 2009 regarding moving three of the London plane trees subject to Tree Preservation Orders on the southern boundary. The General Landscape Plan provided details of where these will be replanted, as well as details of other tree plantings and soft landscaping. The new Design Museum opened in 2016.

However, in the process of development Sylvia Crowe's modernist post-war garden was destroyed, subject to much criticism, and the site has now been deleted from the NHLE Register of Parks and Garden.

Sources consulted:

'The Commonwealth Institute' commemorative handbook for the opening on 6 November 1962; The Builder, v.CCIII, no 6234 (9 November 1962) pp919-922; Architectural Review, v.CXXXIII, no. 794 (1962), pp261-64; Concrete & Constructional Engineering, v.LVIII, no. 2 (February 1963), pp69-79; A Saint, Historical Report on the Commonwealth Institute, 1988 (unpublished); S Harvey (ed.), 'Reflections on Landscape. The Lives and Work of Six British Landscape Architects', 1994, pp31-53; N Pevsner, 'Buildings of England: London: 3', 199?, p482; The Landscape Institute, 'A Visitors' Guide to 20th Century British Landscape Design', 1994, p39.

LPGT Volunteer Research by Paula Hart, 2012: British Heritage London Advisory Committee, 15 September 2009 Information Pack; RB Kensington & Chelsea Planning Application P2008008; Chelsfield Partners website (www.chelsfield,com/project/the-parabola/); Ilchester Estates/Chelsfield Partners/Barrell Tree Consultancy, The Parabola: Tree Transplanting Report, 9/4/2009; 'The Parabola - Modern History', Ilchester Estates and Chelsfield Partners, 2009; www.theparabola-kensington.co.uk December 2011. See also https://www.londongardenstrust.org/features/Commonwealth.htm :Dominic Cole, 'Sylvia Crowe's Lost Garden. Removal of significant post-war landscape from the English Heritage register' London Landscapes, no.39, Spring 2015; Joanna Roll, 'Searching for Sylvia in London: Sylvia Crowe DBE, garden designer and landscape architect', The London Gardener, vol 25, 2021

Further Information (Planning and Conservation)
Grid ref:
TQ250794 (525030,179390)
Size in hectares:
Site ownership:
224 KHS Developments Ltd (Chelsfield Partners and Ilchester Estates)
Site management:
to check
Maurice Lee/RMJM 1958-62; Sylvia Crowe 1960-62; West8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture 2009-
Listed structures:
LBII*: Commonwealth Institute
On National Heritage List for England (NHLE), Parks & Gardens:

Registered common or village green on Commons Registration Act 1965:

Protected under London Squares Preservation Act 1931:


Local Authority Data

The information below is taken from the relevant Local Authority's planning legislation, which was correct at the time of research but may have been amended in the interim. Please check with the Local Authority for latest planning information.

On Local List:
In Conservation Area:
Conservation Area name:
Holland Park
Tree Preservation Order:
Yes - 5 London planes
Nature Conservation Area:
Green Belt:
Metropolitan Open Land:
Special Policy Area:
Other LA designation:

The Design Museum

View towards the entrance to The Design Museum/Parabola, October 2021. Photograph Sally Williams

The Parabola: gardens, October 2021. Photograph Sally Williams
The Parabola: forecourt to The Design Musem, October 2021. Photograph Sally Williams
The Parabola: gardens, October 2021. Photograph Sally Williams
Entrance to Commonwealth Institute site from Kensington High Street with Sylvia Crowe flagpoles, August 2002. Photograph Sally Williams

Click a photo to enlarge.

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