Local writer Florence Wilkinson sheds light on how the Roundhouse’s rebirth happened and shares her – and others’ – memories of living round the corner from the iconic building.
“There’s reggae in the jeggae, music everywhere
Every kind of song and dance, madness in the air
In Camden Town”
Suggs, Camden Town
So sings Madness frontman Suggs. While music critics may argue this is not one of his finest works no one can deny the deep affinity Suggs has with the borough. A former pupil of Quintin Kynaston Academy in St John’s Wood, Suggs has a very personal relationship with the Roundhouse, having played there many times over the years. Alongside actress Juliet Stevenson, film director Terry Gilliam and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, he championed the project to renovate the Roundhouse after years of disuse, donning a hard hat and giving the development work the official green light in 2004.
As a resident of just over five years my relationship with Camden isn’t quite as established, although my mother attended the North London Poly, as it was then known, in Kentish Town (during which time, coincidentally, she befriended Madness keyboard player Mike Barson’s father). Camden did however have a profound influence on me back in my formative teenage years. I vividly remember my first day trip from my home in Essex – aged 12 – when my mum took me shopping. By the age of 14 I was allowed to wander the markets without my parents. I’d take the tube to Chalk Farm, walk past the vast, spherical building whose doors had yet to reopen, until I reached the lock. This was in the early noughties during the “grunge” revival, and I felt like I’d discovered a brave new world of music, fashion and culture as I gazed up at the super-sized DMs, Converse and giant piercings that adorned the colourful shop-fronts.
During this time the Roundhouse was in the process of being renovated – reborn – so I wasn’t able to explore its wonders until I moved here as an adult. And yet I knew about it from my Dad’s stories.
“We used to travel up from Maidenhead in my friend’s Morris 1000… That would’ve been in the late 60s. We used to go to ‘Implosion’ on a Sunday. It started in the afternoon and there were multiple bands that played on into the evening. They were all unknown, and the whole thing was pretty chaotic and improvised – people sitting cross-legged on the floor, others shuffling around selling weed – it was a bit like a squat, but pretty exciting for a 17-year-old!” – My dad
Later on in the 1970s he remembers going with my Mum to see Patti Smith and the Stranglers, as well as theatrical performances including Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea starring Vanessa Redgrave, and a production of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, notable because they had live animals on stage.
I ask him about the building specifically:
“The outside looked the same, but there was nothing like the glass entrance you see today – you wouldn’t have really known what was going on inside from the outside! But the building was special. You could feel the presence of the trains from back when it was an engine shed.”
I asked a local resident of her Roundhouse memories
“The toilets were basic”, she tells me; “it was a bit of a barn. There were thin walls, old wooden flooring, a long bar, dodgy steps and rickety chairs. We were having a great time but it was totally unruly – the neighbours would complain all the time! Things are very different now. The building still retains its character, but it’s been transformed. – Marianne Nichols
To learn more about this process of transformation I took a trip to the Camden Archives, where I discovered an old box file housing annual reports, brochures and even a “Historic Building Recording of the Undercroft of the Roundhouse”, containing maps of the site which date from the 19th century onwards. I learnt that following its purchase by Torquil Norman – which one old clipping I found described as “Norman’s Conquest” – the work on the Roundhouse was substantial, costing over £30 million. The money was raised through donations, funding from the National Lottery and support from Camden Council.
“We had to have a proper beauty parade of architects to comply with EU regulations… as it happened, it was a very close-run thing between Norman Foster and John McAslan” – Torquil Norman, founder of The Roundhouse Trust
In the end McAslan & Partners got the gig, and the work began in 2004. The old exterior had to be stripped and renovated, the roof and iconic lantern (the little hat that sits at the top of the building) replaced and soundproofed. A new annexe was built to house the Roundhouse offices, allowing the main space in its entirety to be devoted to performances. The emphasis was on versatility – the space needed to be suitable for hosting anything and everything; from gigs to art installations; circus to live broadcasts.
The interior was fully refurbished and, perhaps most excitingly of all, the “undercroft” – a network of catacomb-like cellars beneath the building – was reshaped and repurposed, forming top-of the-range new studios where young artists could rehearse, record and collaborate. My teenage-self – I played guitar (badly) and keys (less badly) in a girl band called Pillow Queen – would’ve given anything to have access to a space like this!
Those who have particular affection for the Roundhouse often say that the building embodies a real sense of history, place and purpose.
“You can still feel the history of the place, particularly when you see a performance in the round.” – Marianne Nichols
During the renovation process a new discovery was found harking back to this original use. Two vast iron turntable wheels were uncovered, once used to manoeuvre engines visiting the coal yard next door, relics from the early railway age. Dated between 1850 and 1879 the turntables were visible on an Ordinance Survey map of 1952, so were probably still in use until close to this date.
When the Roundhouse reopened it was met with wide praise – English Heritage listed it as one of the country’s best redevelopment schemes, and the press were equally complimentary. One journalist at the Evening Standard dubbed it “a theatre of dreams”, The Telegraph similarly described the venue as “a legendary dream space” and The Times said that Torquil and the team were “making history”.
Of course there’s no pleasing everyone. Another clipping I found from the Evening Standard – which stated that the building sat “dangerously between the wealth and intellect of Hampstead and the grim estates of Gospel Oak and Kentish Town” – also warned: “this is one of the most radical experiments we have yet seen in cultural interaction, a venture that aims to set a model for a multicultural society – and could, it goes without saying, go horribly wrong”.
Thankfully, it didn’t. Ten years on and the Roundhouse provides a platform for some of the world’s greatest performances and performers, many of whom were home-grown here in Camden via the Roundhouse’s youth programmes. As Marianne observes during our conversation, “Camden is a very inclusive borough. Many young people don’t have an outlet – a way of expressing themselves – even within their own families. The Roundhouse gives them that. It’s a vital part of our community, and a great gift to Camden.” I’m inclined to agree. Camden simply wouldn’t be Camden without the Roundhouse.