Front elevation (western half) of the Imperial Institute, contract drawing, 1888
Artist: Thomas Edward Collcutt
Copyright: RIBA Library Drawings & Archives Collections
Photograph of the exterior of the Imperial Institute, 1900
Architect: Thomas Edward Collcutt
Copyright: RIBA Library Photographs Collection
The Imperial Institute was built between 1887 and 1893. It was intended to encourage emigration, expand trade, and to promote the commercial and industrial prosperity of the empire. The location in South Kensington had been received with some criticism – many preferred Westminster as a more apt location, however finances dictated a less central location.
Competition to design the institute
A limited competition for the institute was held in February 1887, with Alfred Waterhouse, architect of the Natural History Museum, as architectural judge. In July 1887 T.E. Collcutt was declared the winner over the six other invited competitors, including A. Blomfield and Aston Webb.
Collcutt's winning design consisted of a simple symmetrical plan, a strong building profile with a 700 foot long front with a large central tower (the Queen's Tower) and smaller towers at the ends. The façade used what became a Collcutt trademark, horizontal stripes of brick through stone.
Although the building design is in the French Early Renaissance style, even taking some motifs from Chambord, the building was intended as a symbol of the British Empire. As such the smaller turrets are capped by onion domes, possibly in tribute to India. Above the entrance door Collcutt also placed the patriotic inscription: 'Strength and honour are her clothing'.
Collcutt, who had trained in G.E. Street's office, developed his own large and successful practice. Other well known buildings include the Savoy Hotel, 1889 and 1903-04; and the Palace Theatre (originally the Royal English Opera House), 1890. In 1902 Collcutt won the RIBA Gold Medal and between 1906 and 1908 he served as President of the RIBA.