Dugald Gonsal was the Chief Engineer of Camden Council during the period that the Black Arts Centre was developed. He shares an insider view of the challenges the project faced.
I was working as Chief Engineer at the London Borough of Camden when the Greater London Council (GLC) approached the Authority about their aspiration to fund a Black Arts Centre, providing music, theatre and creative projects for audiences from black and minority ethnic groups. At the time I was the only Chief Officer at the Council from an ethnic background and so thought that I might become involved with the project. But I was concerned that it might be rather political and, as a consequence, present problems outside my experience as a Local Government Officer and a Chartered Engineer.
However, when it came to it the choice was made for me, and following a meeting with the Deputy Chief Executive, I became Camden’s lead on the Black Arts Centre project.
The project coordinator was Remi Kapo, and he showed me a list of potential properties he was considering. I agreed to visit the various sites that he had in mind, with him, in order to advise on the buildings shortlisted, from an engineering point of view.
When I saw that the Roundhouse was on the list, I thought ‘That’s it, that’s the one’.
I knew about the building’s place in engineering history and I found myself getting a lot more excited about the project. I was excited at the opportunity to preserve this unique structure which was associated with the Great British Engineer Robert Stevenson and his Resident Engineer Robert Dockray. It was also fun to work with artists and theatre people; I’d not worked with anyone like that before. The Project Committee had people from a range of backgrounds, Committee Chair Paul Boateng (now Lord Boateng), GLC Leader Ken Livingstone and Lord Birkett come to mind as some of the interesting people I encountered: meetings were often quite lively, but we had a Chair who used to manage things well.
The works on renovating the building were extensive. The roof was in a terrible state (with bits falling off and asbestos used extensively) and I had to spend a good deal of the budget on fixing it. In addition to securing the roof, extensive demolition of brickwork in the space below the main floor level was undertaken to form large workspaces and rooms for theatre uses. As building works were just coming to an end, things changed politically, with Prime Minister Mrs. Thatcher clearly making moves to disband the GLC, and the project came under threat. We rushed ahead to get things finished and put on an event to formally open the centre – ‘Twelve Days at the Roundhouse’. It was a wonderful festival.
However, as predicted, the GLC was closed down, funding disappeared and the building was sold off.
Looking back now, I know that I was initially a somewhat reluctant participant in the Black Arts Centre project, but with hindsight, the influence I could bring to bear in the initial selection of the Roundhouse building and the technical engineering aspects of the renovation scheme more than adequately compensated for this!