London's Design Museum.
Credit: Luke Hayes

London's Design Museum.

In a real-estate swap worthy of a Monopoly game, Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, has bought the Design Museum building at Shad Thames, London, in anticipation of the Design Museum’s planned move in 2015 to the former Commonwealth Institute building on Kensington High Street, west London. The purchase, reportedly for about $14.9 million, will contribute to the $119.5 million cost of the Design Museum’s move. According to Patrik Schumacher, a principal at Zaha Hadid Architects, Hadid's holding company offered the highest bid in an open public tender process for which it was interviewed, among other contenders. “Part of the deal was to keep a public component,” Schumacher says. “That’s what they wanted, which is what we wanted.”

All parties have reason to celebrate. The museum will gain three times more space for its exhibitions. The firm will move its headquarters into about 30,000 square feet of open loft space on several floors. The structure, whose ceilings are 15 feet high, was originally built as a banana-ripening warehouse. From the city’s point of view, the public is guaranteed access to part of the building, which anchors and animates the east end of the river promenade in a public function. As a condition of the sale, the architects have agreed to establish and maintain some kind of public program, therefore remaining a draw on the South Bank esplanade that it fronts. According to The Guardian, the leasehold on the building belongs to the Conran Foundation, which will transfer the sale proceeds to the Design Museum for the construction of its new home, with the foundation contributing an additional $11.2 million to the museum.

Commenting on her purchase, firm namesake Zaha Hadid preferred understatement. “This important acquisition of the Shad Thames site will preserve its significance and we look forward to the future use and occupation of the building,” she says. As she explained to The Guardian, the building will be used for architecture exhibitions where "the research and innovation of global collaborations in art, architecture and design could be put on display.”

Zaha Hadid
Giovanna Silva Zaha Hadid

For her firm, the move is transformative. Currently its 400 architects occupy a two-story maze of classrooms in a brick Victorian school on Bowling Green Lane in East London, along with a five-story annex in a nearby commercial building. Hadid has occupied the school in the Clerkenwell District for 24 years—long before it became a trendy quarter housing other architects, designers, and furniture showrooms. The spaces in the rather quaint school, which are organized around a courtyard, break up the practice into inconvenient cells; according to Schumacher, the move to the former warehouse will allow the architects to consolidate the practice on several open-plan floors. “That will allow leaders to have a quicker overview of the work,” he says. The office might have to take on additional space nearby, depending on the office size.

The move of the firm's headquarters to this location signals a transformation of the company’s profile from a firm perceived as a designer studio into an international firm capable of handling very large-scale urban-planning and architecture projects. Dame Zaha Hadid joins her colleagues, Sir Norman Foster and Lord Richard Rogers, whose companies both have impressive offices on the Thames, though much to the west (and not as central). The new location for Zaha Hadid Architects groups these three high-profile firms into a professional trinity of colleagues and competitors along the river. (Hadid also joined her colleagues in stature when she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire last year).

View London Three in a larger map The move, then, positions Hadid in a league with the big boys. It also raises Zaha Hadid Architects' public profile in the city. The company is trading its location, behind brick walls on a charming lane of brick buildings in east-central London, for a location at the terminus of the major public riverfront promenade on the South Bank, which starts at the National Theater and passes the mayor’s office, the Tate Modern, the Globe, and other prominent institutions and features of the cityscape, including Tower Bridge.

The public function of the building on the esplanade will act as a magnet at the eastern terminus of the promenade. While plans are still to be confirmed, Schumacher says the ground-level frontage will be public. There, the architects plan to open a Zaha Hadid design gallery museum, plus a lecture hall and restaurant. The firm will host public events, including exhibitions and lectures by architects, engineers, and computational-design researchers—along with theory seminars as well as pop-up galleries and shops for young fashion designers, all open to the public. “The Blue Print Café will be maintained,” he says. Schumacher compares their plans to the Rogers’s compound, with its office on the river and famous River Café. “But ours will be more public.”

Credit: Luke Hayes

The architects are evaluating several proposals for the old school building, including converting it into housing, or a house, or an outright sale.

“We are all enthusiastic about the move, which we find energizing and inspiring,” Schumacher says. “It’s good for the company to have the prospect of entering another stage in our development, as an office with large-scale projects and global reach.”

This post had been updated.