There are numerous buildings in London that have outlived their original purpose. There’s the magnificent Bankside Power Station, once the symbol of the capital city’s industry but now housing the cultural powerhouse that is the Tate Modern. Similarly, the arts slash contemporary performance venue imaginatively named The Roundhouse once performed an altogether different function too.
The Grade II listed former railway engine shed in Chalk Farm, just north of Camden Lock, was originally constructed in 1846. A circular building containing a railway turntable used to turn the trains around so that they could travel back from whence they came. It was used for this purpose for a decade before being converted to a very unglamorous warehouse facility. This loss of direction coupled with a serious under appreciation of its perfectly curvaceous brickwork had led The Roundhouse to a dead-end, and it fell into disuse just before World War II.
After spending 25 years in an existential crisis, The Roundhouse was rediscovered just in time for the 1960s and played host The Doors one and only Live UK appearance in 1968. Ten years later it became a venue that played a big part in the blossoming punk scene, featuring legendary bands such as The Clash and The Stranglers. Unsurprisingly, the combination of jarring anti-social music and sociopathic youths with an unhealthy-looking fetish for safety pins, The Roundhouse had its lights turned off in 1983.
Once again it was back in the dark. The old railway shed had been invigorated by the energy of the new wave but where to go next. Bequeathed of listed status its very roundness prevented the property developers from turning it into a Tesco supermarket, and so the building waited patiently for someone with the wit and imagination to recognize its value and give it a role to play.
A notable example of mid-19th century railway architecture, the building (48 metres in diameter) is constructed in yellow brick and is distinctive for its unusual circular shape and pointed roof. The conical slate roof has a central smoke louvre (now glazed) and is supported by 24 cast-iron doric columns (arranged around the original locomotive spaces) and a framework of curved ribs. The interior has original flooring and parts of the turntable and fragments of early railway lines. Just think Thomas the Tank Engine and his Friends in 3D the movie!
The planets shifted into a favourable alignment and the Sun once again shone its light on the old but immovable object reknowned for its 360 degree angle, in the mid-nineties. My only visit to The Roundhouse occurred at the turn of the century to see Argentinian interactive trapeze act, De La Guarda. A surrealist piece of performance art consisting of bungee assisted forays into the audience gathered below, reminiscent of swooping Jurassic-period Pterodactyls grabbing their prey and withdrawing back into the darkness. It worked fantastically well because of the sheer volume of space inside the old railway shed. The lack of corners not only means that there is nowhere to hide but also emphasises the vastness of the building.
After a multi-million pound refurbishment (2004-2006), the venue had finally found its niche and was made fit for the 21st Century. Whether hosting the BBC Electric Proms, the iTunes Festivals (last year the late great Amy Winehouse made her final public appearance at the 2011 event) or avant-garde cabaret acts such as Cirque du Soleil, The Roundhouse has relocated it groove and a penchant for a different kind of turntable. A place of boundary breaking theatre, a tour-de-force of music and a building that has become an iconic part of Camden scene, it seems to have the same sense of permanence as that of the London clay that holds its foundations.
An industrial version of The Royal Albert Hall in which you can almost smell the grease once used to lubricate the locomotive steam engines, The Roundhouse is situated within walking distance of Chalk Farm tube station on the Northern line while the 168 bus stops just outside its doors. A venue that possesses a sense of longevity and historical reference points but remains at the cutting edge of contemporary performance, this place proves the geometric saying… the line of a circle never ends.