1996: The Roundhouse gets fabulous - Roundhouse - Celebrating 50 Years


1996 – 2006

The fortunes of the former repair shed were finally changing. Leanne Griffin reveals how the late Nineties bought Spice Girls and fabulous fashion to the Roundhouse…

Jade and Bianca Jagger at the Julien MacDonald fashion show at the Roundhouse during London Fashion Week, 1999.

Credit: Dave Benett/Getty Images

Let’s take our minds back to 1996.

Ready or Not by the Fugees was at the top of the charts and Labour were on the cusp of a landslide election victory, ending 17 years of Conservative rule.

The World Wide Web was in its infancy, most people’s only digital interaction was through an AOL CD-ROM landing on their doormat (homework was supported by Encarta, not Wikipedia!)  It was the year Spice Girls broke, that Take That split and Dolly The Sheep was born. Let’s not forget when football came home for Euro 96.

In 1996, Time magazine declared London as the coolest city in the world and Camden was its epicentre. Bands such as Blur, Elastica and Menswear frequented the legendary pub The Good Mixer. On the other side of the tracks in Primrose Hill stood Creation Record’s HQ.

Despite the optimism and confidence in Britain’s emerging ‘creative industries,’ the Roundhouse had stood derelict for over a decade after closing in 1983. But at last, in September 1996 the Roundhouse had a new owner in Torquil Norman who had big dreams for the building.

The Manic Street Preachers quickly hired the venue to film their video for Design for Life.

 “The place seemed haunted by the past, it was still special and you can feel it in the video, felt like history was being made” – Nicky Wire, Guitarist

So where previous official attempts to create a purpose for the building had floundered, Torquil could see that musicians, artists and creatives were still being drawn to the special character of the building. And other people were also sensing that this time things were different.

“This is the latest of a string of projects, but this time the person who owns the building is making the plans, instead of merely trying to make money out of the building. This time it should work. At last the dinosaur may be restored to life.” – Jack Whitehead, local historian

Torquil Norman’s vision for the Roundhouse was to create not just a cultural venue, but a centre where young people would get opportunities and access to creative materials. He established the Roundhouse Trust, the charitable arm that would deliver this vision, in May 1997, the same month that New Labour swept to power. Things could only get better, it seemed.

And this turning point in the fortunes of the Roundhouse was also against a backdrop of a wider a cultural renaissance. Two other former industrial buildings were also being transformed into cultural power-houses: in 1995, work began on Tate Modern and in Gateshead, a derelict flour mill would become the hugely popular Baltic. What’s more, the sector got a boost from the creation of The National Lottery in 1991 and an injection of arts funding in 1998.

However, despite the apparent new enthusiasm for flagship arts projects, the Roundhouse faced a huge fundraising task to bring Torquil’s dreams to fruition. And while Torquil Norman had the dreams and vision, it was his son Caspar who was kept awake at night, trying to make this vision into a reality.

Rather than buckle at the challenge, Caspar embraced the possibilities of the space. He hired out the building for various uses, including a £5 million pound wedding complete with an artificial amazon rainforest and a performance from Elton John.

In 1998, current Artistic Director and Chief Executive Marcus Davey had joined, bringing extraordinary artists and performers to the space and placing the Roundhouse firmly back on London’s cultural map. Michael Clark Company, ArtAngel, Stomp! And Ballet Boyz were just a few of the hightlights.

Then in 1999, Julian McDonald held his London Fashion Week show at the Roundhouse. Spice Girl Melanie Brown walked the catwalk alongside Kate Moss and De La Guarda performed much to the delight of the celebrity guests – it was fabulous, darling!

All in all, it took ten years from Torquil’s initial impulse buy of the building to the Roundhouse reopening as the venue we know and love today. It may have happened at a period where anything seemed possible, but the renaissance of the Roundhouse was no easy feat.