1983 was the year that the first ever compact disc went on sale, Blackadder was broadcast for the first time and Margaret Thatcher secured her second term in a landslide election.
It was also the year that Roundhouse closed its doors for good. It would stand empty for over a decade, despite a reported 30 attempts to find a use for the building.
Despite the 1980s casting a long shadow over the Roundhouse, Camden, the area surrounding the building, was seeing some signs of an economic and cultural revival.
Local historian Jack Whitehead described how the opening of Camden Lock in 1973 had attracted artists and trades people to the area. In 1983, he noted that five week Festival of Entertainment took place in Camden Lock, featuring music dance, workshops with the Royal Opera House. It was one of many public events to publicise the area.
The broadcast industry was also providing green shoots of creative recovery. In the same year, Breakfast Television launched and TV AM located their headquarters down the road from the Roundhouse in Hawley Crescent. The bright, postmodern building nicknamed the ‘eggcup’ was a striking contrast to the decaying industrial buildings that now stood empty and abandoned. In 1988 MTV studios arrived, sparking a steady stream of new media agencies into the area. Nicholas Grimshaw’s futuristic Sainsbury’s superstore opened on Camden Road in 1988, replacing the Aerated Bread Company factory building which closed in 1983. And while on the surface, Camden was polishing its appearance, it remained a magnet for punks, goths and other alternative tribes.
Following its closure, the Roundhouse was bought by Camden Council and the Greater London Council, at the time led by Ken Livingstone. Plans for a Black Arts Centre were approved, but the project collapsed just two years later. However, significant work was completed on the building’s structure and an interest in the building was kept alive.
By 1991 Camden Council invited invitations to tender for the sale of the Roundhouse with mixed results. As a Grade II Listed building, first listed in 1954, there very tight restrictions on what could be done to the building. Many commercial developers found they came up against various planning challenges and resistance from Camden Council.
Writing in the Guardian in 1992, Claire Armsitead reported on the different bids that had been submitted to Camden Council. The most popular it seemed was from The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester who planned to make the Roundhouse its London base. As a theatre used to working in a building rich in industrial heritage and producing work in the round, it may have seemed an ideal match. However, Armistead noted that Camden Council had concerns about the project and it didn’t progress.
Another proposal came from the Environmental Awareness Trust which proposed to build Earth Focus, a permanent two-floor exhibition whose centrepiece was to be a massive sixty-foot globe. This bid faced a challenge due to planning permission, which required the building to be used as public entertainment (but not a dance hall or cinema.)
Other bids included a complex of bars, restaurants and conference facilities, and a participative arts centre. There were even plans for an IMAX cinema, several years before the BFI opened its own on the South Bank, but this was dismissed at the time as “a novelty likely to date quickly and hardly likely to fill the Roundhouse all year round.”
Then, in 1995, it was the turn of the Royal Institute of British Architects to submit their plans and came close to storing their vast archives of architectural drawings within the Roundhouse.
At the time, Armistead was sceptical of any creative focused proposals coming to anything:
“If the history of the building had proved one thing over the years, it is the state subsidy of the arts in Britain has never been geared to supporting an inspirational folly on the scale of the Roundhouse. The great white elephant of Chalk Farm Road could yet become the latest showpiece for a nation of shopkeepers.”
True to her analysis, despite over 30 organisations putting forward plans for the Roundhouse between 1983 and the mid-1990s, still, the building stood empty.
Then, in 1993 Camden sold the building to private developers. Following further refurbishment, it was back on the market…