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Fuerzabruta © Cai Ying Ho/ Flickr
Fuerzabruta © Cai Ying Ho/ Flickr
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London's Roundhouse Had A Landmark Year, But What About Its History?

Picture of Jessie Lim
Updated: 15 November 2016
Walk past the busy Camden Market along Chalk Farm Road and you will come to a circular building that is distinctive of mid 19th-century railway architecture. It is here that you will find the Roundhouse–one of London’s most iconic performing arts venues. Declared a National Heritage Site in 2010, this Grade II listed building is a state-of-the-art creative centre for young people. However, not many know of its tumultuous path.

Built in 1846 as a railway engine shed, it was celebrated as the first of its kind with a massive turntable wheel in the centre. This allowed engines to be rolled onto the wheel before being spun around and rolled to a bay for servicing or storage. However, its success was not for long. Less than two decades after it was built, the so-called round house was rendered obsolete.

This was then revived as a liquor warehouse. For a century, it changed hands numerous times and even survived World War II, but with no real purpose. It was not until the 1960s was it converted into a performance arts venue, thanks to the vision of the playwright Arnold Wesker. The arts were then still very much elitist, and Wesker wanted to change that. The ‘round house’ was rebranded as ‘Centre 42’ and opened once again as a radical-arts venue in 1966.

It was a cutting-edge arts venue that staged some of the most experimental, controversial and memorable performances of the ’60s. It has featured artists like Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Steven Berkoff’s Metamorphosis, Tony Richardson’s Hamlet, Sex Pistols, The Living Theatre, Fleetwood Mac and The Doors. The 1970s were no less daring, and the venue hosted songs and sketches by Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepherd and John Lennon all thrown together with a great deal of nudity. They bared all they had to brand the venue as a cultural institution, but in line with the stereotype of poor, starving artists, the Roundhouse struggled to make ends meet. By the early 1980s, non-existent funding forced the building to close its doors to the public once more.

Everything changed in September 1996. Local businessman Sir Torquil Norman bought the building, set the Roundhouse Trust up, and brought the performance arts hub back to life. In June 2006 the Roundhouse finally reopened with an explosive new show, Fuerzabruta, propelling it on a meteoric rise since then.

The year 2016 marks the 10th anniversary since it was refurbished, the 40th year of punk, and its 50th year as a groundbreaking performance arts venue. Not only is the Roundhouse an iconic arts venue, it is also the home of contemporary circus in London and a centre for creative excellence dedicated to training 11- to 25-year-olds in performing arts, music and media. Throughout the year, the team behind the Roundhouse are going one step further by building a brand new campus for this very purpose of creative education.

So far, they held Akram Khan’s critically acclaimed world premiere production of Until the Lions, a brand new intimate music series In the Round and the international contemporary circus festival, CircusFest just to name a few.

The month of October will mark the centre’s 50th anniversary, which will be celebrated with a grand event; and we can be sure that the celebration will be fitting of its historic and iconic status.

Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London, NW1 8EH