Plans to redevelop the Roundhouse in 1992

There was no shortage of ideas for the renewal of the Round House, as an article in the Ham & High of 17 April 1992 showed. The Greater London Enterprise/ Camden Town Development Trust proposed to fuse local art, fashion, theatre and retail interests. The development drawing shows a new spiral walkway sweeping round the old turntable space, and a new spiral staircase linking three floors. A new piazza was to give a bright, festival entrance where it is now bleak. The multiplicity of uses is delightfully illustrated.


Greater London Enterprise and Camden Town Development Trust Scheme
Development drawing by Mc Farlane Phillips, 1992

Roundhouse Renewal Ltd suggested a ‘participative arts centre’, ‘a place to paint rather than to look at paintings, a place to sing or play an instrument, rather than to listen to a concert’. There was to be a bar, a cafe, a crèche, a small recording studio and a room for children's activities in the basement. Restoration costs were estimated at £3 to £3.5 million.

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, put in a bid, also to cost £3.5 million, but financed by a low-rent homes development which depended on council permission. Rehearsals and sets for the 750 seat theatre would be paid for in Manchester, so the theatre would have broken even on only 55% capacity. It is interesting that in 1997 a roughly similar project was being planned in Islington for the rebuilt Collins Music Hall.

The Environmental Awareness Trust, an educational charity, planned to build a permanent Earth Focus Exhibition on the Environment, including a 50 foot globe housing an 'explanatorium' with a 360° cinema at an estimated cost £4 million.

Other organizations put forward similar schemes, including a wide-screen cinema, and a hotel owner wanted to fill the building with restaurants and bars.

In the event, the property firm Placegate bought the building for £900,000 in 1993 and cleaned the brickwork, expecting to sell it on after it had been made more presentable. Only two years later they were asking £2 million, but never achieved anything like that sum.

Some developers, including Placegate, hoped to make the Roundhouse into a venue for discos and other noisy entertainment. This would have drawn in large crowds, caused parking problems and noise late into the night, disturbing the peace of the neighbours. When Camden sold the building in 1993 they imposed a restrictive covenant forbidding the use of the building after 11.30 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on Sundays. This, with all the other restrictions connected with a Grade II* listed building, made commercial development difficult. Many producers have spoken glibly of converting it into a large theatre but, as we have seen, this is impossible as the building is listed. A number of small stages are perfectly feasible, but not one large one.

The Royal Institute of British Architects and the Roundhouse1

In 1995 the Royal Institute of British Architects offered £1.25 million for the building to Placegate Properties, but at first the offer was rejected. RIBA wanted to rehouse its unrivalled collections of architectural drawings in this spacious and historic building which was itself a notable piece of architecture. The collections of drawings, models and photographs, include works by Palladio, Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, the finest of their kind in the world, are housed in four separate sites. They are seldom seen by the public and are kept in conditions which are a real threat to their long-term survival. One of the sites is a beautiful house in Portman Square where space is so limited that it is necessary to remove one drawing from the table in order to open out the next. It can be a nightmare when three people are working side by side, each trying to examine delicate drawings without harming them. Drawings are laid over other drawings in order to make room. The thought of the all that space at the Round House was tantalizing.


In the round: RIBA's proposals showing (1) main storage space;
(2) main exhibition space; (3) readers and staff areas.

The drawing by Michael and Patty Hopkins shows how the old steam engine bays would provide radiating storage and ample study room. Structural change would have been kept to a minimum, although external staircases added in the 1960s were to have been removed. In December 1995 Placegate accepted the RIBA offer.

The Save London Theatres Campaign protested vigorously at the prospect of losing ‘one of the most dazzling and extraordinary venues in Britain, if not in Europe’, and promised to protest to the Planning Committee.2,3 Peter Brook said that ‘It was not just the loss of space but the loss of that space’ and recalled his success with The Midsummer Night's Dream. The pop star Jean-Jaques Burnel of The Stranglers, remembered the building as unique. The only pop venue equal to it was in Amsterdam, but then went on to say that The Stranglers had not been spat on at the Roundhouse. Some might think this rather a negative triumph.

The Round House would have provided an ideal site for the RIBA collection. Close to train, tube and road, near to the new British Library at King's Cross and the RIBA Library in Portland Place, the choice could not be bettered. RIBA applied to the National Heritage Lottery Fund for money, and English Heritage supported the application. If purchase had gone ahead, work would have started on the Roundhouse in March 1998 and the collections moved during the summer, but the National Heritage Memorial Fund concluded that Roundhouse ‘was not ideal to house the collection’. The National Lottery refused money and the Roundhouse was blighted once again.

Theatre groups were, of course, delighted. ‘Get Back Productions’ planned to make their own appeal to the Lottery in order to turn the turn the Roundhouse into a multi-media centre and ‘give the Roundhouse back to the people’.

The New Plan in 1997

In the event it was bought for exactly this purpose and with a bias towards the encouragement and involvement of young people. In September 1996, the Roundhouse was bought by Torquil Norman, a millionaire who had made his money from selling toys to children. His trust aimed to extend and enrich their creativity. Educated at Eton, he read Economics and Law at Trinity College, Cambridge. After National Service, when he flew as a Fleet Air Arm pilot, he read more Economics at Harvard from 1953-57. From there he moved to J. P. Morgan & Co. in New York. In 1980 he formed Bluebird Toys, and was Chairman until retirement in 1996.

In the same year he bought the Roundhouse, with the aim of turning it into a place “where young people could be creative in art, music and drama, and have access to the expensive modern equipment used in the entertainment industry, normally far beyond their reach and in an encouraging environment.” Torquil Norman pledged £6 million to the project, a sum which included the price of the Roundhouse. Its ownership was secure.

The Roundhouse Trust

In May 1997 a new charitable company, The Roundhouse Trust, was formed to take over a long-term license on the building and to undertake its restoration. Major names from the arts were involved. Norman Foster was named as the architect and a feasibility study prepared. The National Lottery would  be approached and it was hoped that an £18 million scheme would emerge. The main building was to become a large performance area and two smaller theatres, together with rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, offices, a restaurant, book shop and art gallery created. Sound in the main building would be a problem, as it has done before. The reverberation from the thin metal roof and the wrought iron pillars would create problems for large orchestral works. However, the hall would be ideal for chamber music.

A large glass window panel which circles the building had been boarded up for years. This would be uncovered to create a stunning art gallery. The 25,000 square feet of basements would form naturally sound-proofed studios and rehearsal rooms. Here there would be training in TV production, music and fashion design for young people, with weekend and holiday workshops for school children.

The first production of the new regime was a spectacular theatre show from Belgium. The Roundhouse was transformed into a vast dodgems track to stage ‘Bernadete’, the story of eleven young people. The director/choreographer, Alain Platel, was a remedial educationalist by training. At the same time the play was the start of a link being forged between the young people of Camden and those of Ghent, in Belgium, where Alain Platel worked. The stage was set. There would be developments in many directions and only time would reveal them, but the auguries were good.

The Future

We have been here before. 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.

(This was the position when I wrote the book in 1999. Sometime perhaps, someone will tell the story from then on. I should be delighted to add it to the web site.)

The Redevelopment of the Camden Goods Yard – Public Housing Wins

++Is this in the right place.

images used on pages 133-136

In June 1993 (Daily Telegraph 15 June 1993) Heron Homes received planning permission for a completely different scheme. This involved a large Safeways store and low-cost housing. built in unison. There would be 197 affordable homes, a petrol filling station and a food store with 30,000 sq. feet. of selling space on a 13,5 acre site. It would be developed by Safeway's and the Community Housing Association, building in unison. There would be 28 four-bedroom, 49 three-bed, 70 two-bed and 50 one bed units. The proposed homes would house an estimated 850 people from Camden's housing list on two sites, saving the Council an estimated £2 million a year which they were wasting paying for uncomfortable bed and breakfast accommodation.

A new access road was built by the Ministry of Transport under the North London Railway line. This leads to Safeways and Juniper Crescent, while skirting Safeways is a pathway leading to the second housing estate called Gilbey's Yard, on the site of the old Camden Goods Shed site. There is access to Safeways from Ferdinand Street and across the Pirates’ Bridge from Oval Road.

Auditorium designed by Richard Negri in 1977, similar to his Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. The stage is set for Family Reunion, by T. S. Eliot.

With the decay of London industry in the nineteen sixties and the transfer of goods from rail to road, the Railway Goods Yard became deserted. Rails were removed and the land stood empty. There followed several years of motorway blight when planners sealed off far more land than they would actually need for any final road, in case they might decide to use it later. Finally, when the motorway plan was scrapped, the land stood ready for development and a mighty conflict arose. The railway company and their private developers saw the opportunity to build property for sale, while Camden Council wanted to build low-cost housing to rent.

The 1837 engraving of the Roundhouse repeated to illustrate
the problem of the inner ring of pillars. None of these men
would have been able to see a stage at the other side


Footnote

  1. Ham & High 26 May 1995

  2. Ham & High 7 December, 1995.

  3. The Guardian 12 Dec. 1995
Redeveloping the Parkway/
Inverness Street Block

Revitalizing the
Roundhouse in 1998