City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

I was recently asked by a journalist to comment on both the new design centre proposed for London by the ‘Cox Review on Creativity in Business’ and the future of the Design Museum, which has been much in the news recently since Alice Rawsthorn’s sudden departure. Asked as to what both should be about, and the direction that the Design Museum should go in, I hastily scribbled down the following …

There are rumours that the Design Museum and the London design centre the Cox Review suggests were to be aligned – that this was why Alice Rawsthorn left. Let’s forget rumours. They should be combined.

With a bit of imagination, a 21st Design Museum shouldn’t be far removed at all from the London design centre Cox suggests, and the opportunity to overlap the two is too great to ignore. It could provide a real focal point, or series of focal points, for design in London and the UK. Let’s fold the two together, combining the museum, with its archive and exhibition space, as a showcase for design, alongside the aspects of the design centre that the Cox Review suggests. (To part-validate those rumours, looking at the latter review, it’s hard to believe that the Cox team didn’t imagine their proposal for a London centre would overlap with the Design Museum. They obliquely suggest that it "might also wish to play a prominent role.")

Looking at the proposed set of features for the London centre (quoted from the Cox Review):

  • Exhibition space (for static and travelling displays)
  • Seminar facilities
  • A hub for creative industry gatherings
  • Educational facilities
  • Space for professional and trade bodies
  • Retail environment/dining facilities
  • Incubator space for early-stage creative businesses
  • Serviced office/shared studio facilities for creative companies.

… all but the last two would be present in the Design Museum’s forward plan for sure. Adding in these networking facilities, drop-in business facilities, public access spaces, reference library (in the widest sense of the word) and so on would only add to the proposition.

I’d be further inclined to ensure a focus on the digital networks that design now thrives upon. These physical nodes are nothing without a supportive and flexible digital network for design, providing online social and business spaces for designers. (The Design Museum’s current website generally provides an example of what not to do, often ending up inadvertently ghettoising its content and function.) Using social software to create and support design networks – to provide for and support UK-based networks for design, situated within and blurred with the wider internet – could reinforce any such physical architecture projects. This in turn enables knowledge management, incubation, innovation, promotion, discussion and reflection.

Another serious overlap is with the V&A. That may be a merger too far; but the collections could be merged digitally at least. Imagine the combined collection of the Design Museum and V&A as an accessible archive for working designers (possibly with further collections worldwide? Cooper-Hewitt, MoMa etc. Imagine museums with APIs.) This collection could have some physical presence in the building and full digital presence online. The local London showcase could present both the cream of the crop of design firms working temporarily in the building as well as holding internationally-renowned exhibitions. The focal point provided by a combined Design Museum/London design centre would generate enough clout to create shows to rival any worldwide. Worked carefully, all the aspects above support and play off each other …

What would Cedric do? If we even look briefly at the inspirational work of Cedric Price, particularly as applied to educational establishments or industrial nodes or mixed-use workspaces, there are relevant un-realised ideas aplenty, for example in the the Potteries Thinkbelt or Fun Palace projects.

Potteries Thinkbelt

Thus in terms of the idea of a building itself, I’d reject the idea of the "-opolis" as seen in Singapore and picked up in the report. We can create presence without lazily reverting to edifice complex. Following on from the supportive digital fabric suggested above, reacting to the ever-changing demands of the subject matter, and again drawing from Cedric Price and Archigram, we should look to a thoroughly adaptive building, comprising modular components which could be assembled, reconfigured or regrouped as the situation demands. Perhaps even a connected network of buildings scattered throughout the city, just as design itself is. There are numerous sites ripe for redevelopment where such centres could exist. Again, the unrealised "anti-monument" of the Potteries Thinkbelt should be hugely relevant here.

London thinkbelt

(If an actual building is required, imagine, say, the brilliant Australian architect Andrew Maynard developing these earlier modular/prefab ideas, lacing his treehouses across to the chimneys of the Battersea Power Station, a building referred to as a potential location for the new Design Museum.)

Battersea modified

(Oh, and of course the fabric of the buildings should also ripple, flex, broadcast and recede – figuratively speaking or literally; whatever works – in response to the activity of the digital networks proposed earlier. Other aspects of Price and Archigram thinking could be embraced too, in terms of their often wildly imaginative proposals for temporary exhibitions, impromptu lectures and discussions (‘happenings’!). Spectacle, focus and presence can be achieved by numerous tactics.)

Even if the modular buildings could look as if they’ve just landed from space, where they land in the city is crucial. My experience of these things – from working in the Northern Quarter in Manchester in particular – suggest that binding such centres into existing cultures is fundamentally important. You then have the opportunity to extend these local cultures into the wider city, then the nation, then internationally. Again, a rooted yet scalable design network is key, which subsequently enables nodes to emerge.

It would be nice to think that all such possibilities are still open, yet it seems odd that the Cox Review mentions that the minimum size of the London centre should be 80,000 sq. feet and the new Design Museum plans are priced at £50 million. Oddly specific, given the lack of detail elsewhere. In general, I’m not convinced that the proposals for the design centre are that thought-through yet, but the adaptability inherent in Price’s – and Maynard’s – ideas is one way of responding to this … And another way is to fold them in with the potential of the Design Museum.

In terms of curation, the tension in the last regime – and the first, under Bayley – will never be resolved and never should be. Design as subject matter is too broad to be pinned down; another pointer towards adaptability being key. So the argument between industrial design and graphic/fashion design, say, is ultimately meaningless. They can’t be compared, and yet they’re essentially the same. It’s a slippery subject, and that is its attraction. It should veer excitedly from Brunel to Bass to Blahnik to Barcelona to Buckminster Fuller. The Design Museum should stand for this breadth of experience and influence. So the principle change of direction is not one of ‘editorial direction’, but of function – to merge completely with the London design centre the Cox Review proposes.


10 responses to “Design Thinkbelt”

  1. Rob Avatar

    Damn it, you can draw as well. Brilliant proposal. I’m betting I have some early imagery and articles on thinkbelt stuff at the office somewhere. Will try and dig it out.


  2. Dan Avatar

    Rob, ’tis but a scribble. But thanks. Any Thinkbelt stuff would be more than welcome; there’s not enough of it online at the mo. Cheers!


  3. Fiona Sibley Avatar

    Very interesting! I think there’s a great oportunity for the Thinkbelt sort of idea you mention and lots of supporters for such an idea. The way the Architecture Foundation has run a brilliant programme while it awaits its new building – holding lecture series and events in host venues across the city – is the perfect model for the way practitioners and educationalists can be brought into contact with the public and the rest of their industry. I hope the arrival of Zaha’s new venue will do nothing to stifle that approach but to augment it. And of course for design, what more successful framework is there than Milan, where as everyone knows the truly cutting edge action is found precisely outside the main showground, in the makeshift exhibition spaces, ateliers and small outlets across the city. It’s a networking scene, not just a showcasing one.
    My money is on the fact the Design Museum will move within Southwark to nearer the Tate, posible inside its new Herzog & de Meuron extension. But the museum needs to revision the way it presents itself and formats its experiences, using and involving the city. The two are so interlinked, in both practice and theory, that simply to join the cultural (and, significantly, tourist) quarter at Bankside overlooks a raft of opportunity to connect up the industry. And not for the drier aims mentioned in the Cox report – to work with ailing manufacturers and convince Britain’s boardrooms to invest in design: these should be done by a separate business centre that would be part of a network – but to make the practice of design in London a vibrant dialogue that physically covers the ground it inhabits.


  4. Phil Avatar

    Not that I don’t like the Northern Quarter, but “binding … into existing cultures”? Hardly. (To make only the most obvious point, there wasn’t any such place as the N. Q. before the area north of Piccadilly was done up.) The best you could say is that the regeneration has triggered a slow and locally inconspicuous replacement of local cultures (and populations) rather than an abrupt erasure of old by new – which isn’t nothing, but isn’t quite what you’re claiming. I’ll blog on this anon.


  5. Dan Avatar

    Fair point Phil, but what I was really driving at was the amount of work required to engage – and sometimes create – local cultures, based on our experience in the NQ. Sure there was no such place as NQ, but there was a place, and a series of local histories and cultures to work with. The existing organisations of street traders and local retailers were key, and much of the regeneration work was slow, careful, situated ‘reform from within’, rather than the Bilbao model, say.
    And there was a distinct attempt made to identify, articulate and develop the local sense of place … See this (now rather embarrassing) piece I wrote in the mid-90s, now online as a PDF. You can see a somewhat self-conscious attempt to do just that, and tho full of mid-90s language and thinking, might be interesting. There was much more than this – those of us working in regeneration were very aware of where and who we were. So, I’m not suggesting it was a landmark piece of work or anything, but I do think that kind of engagement is important.


  6. jpb Avatar

    … which make your words, ‘We can create presence without lazily reverting to edifice complex’ eerily prescient.


  7. Dan Avatar

    Heh. Can’t even pretend that was a lucky guess 🙂 Still, it’ll be interesting to see how the architectural ambitions of the Museum unfold, given his book …


  8. Phil Avatar

    Not to pick a fight with the 1996 Dan, but it’s quite telling that the latest of the historical passages in that document dates from 1920; it’s history as evocation of heritage, rather than as the lived texture of the place. But obviously that’s just one document, & I’m in no position to tell you what you did & didn’t do!


  9. Archiblog Avatar

    Hi Dan!
    Here’s some Thinkbelt stuff I am working on:


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