Popular culture

Legendary London music venue Koko is enjoying a remarkable renaissance

The Camden Theatre. Camden Racecourse Theatre. Camden Racecourse Cinema. A BBC recording studio. The music machine. Camden Palace. Coco. The changing names of this former theater and concert hall in Camden High Street, North London tell of the changing culture of entertainment. And now, after a £70million restoration, a new name – The House of Koko, owned by a private members’ club inside – reflects London’s accelerated move towards membership and exclusivity.

It’s a place with a deep history, a place opened in 1900 by Victorian actor Ellen Terry, where Charlie Chaplin, the Goons and the young Rolling Stones performed. This is where punk exploded in the 1970s, with the Clash somehow co-existing with Camden’s first disco ball club. This is where the New Romantics arrived in clouds of hairspray and blush for Steve Strange’s club night.

It hosted the big furry heavy metal revival gigs of the 1980s interspersed with huge gay parties, vying for the amount of leather and studs. This is where Madonna played her first gig in London; the last place AC/DC’s raucous Bon Scott was seen drinking before he died of alcohol poisoning; a rave venue; and where everyone from Monty Python to Prince to The Prodigy has played or recorded. He had quite a story. And now it’s back.

Architects Archer Humphryes, who are used to turning unlikely buildings into hyper-desirable places, such as the Chiltern fire station, did the heavy lifting, merging the Hope & Anchor pub into the complex, giving back to the theater a dark red and gold plush. , with just the right amount of end of century garish glamor and piling up intricate layers of additional structure to create a maze of club rooms, cafes and cabins. Interior designers Pirajean Lees did the rest, making the rear look intimate, cool and inviting.

The venue has hosted countless acts over its 122-year history, from Ellen Terry and Charlie Chaplin to Prince and Madonna © Sam Neil

It’s a bit difficult to reconcile the tacky-carpeted squalid pub and faded venue (to put it mildly) with the kind of money being spent on the project, but developer and owner Olly Bengough clearly felt it was worth it. sadness.

It is a remarkable revival. Koko looked a little cursed. Ruined and sticky, it was a mess and even during construction a fire tore through the site, destroying the dome that crowns it and delaying the project. But that dome is reborn as a remarkable, wood-lined party room with a cocktail bar at its center and seating around the edge. Not an inch of space here has been wasted.

The restored theatre, a 2,500 capacity hall that can accommodate anything from a club night to a full orchestra with full equipment, is better than it was. Previously a shabby interior painted in magnolia, it has been smeared, its rich tacky-Edwardiana plaster details picked out in gold. A balcony bar spills over the front, offering surprising views north towards Hampstead Heath, but most surprising is the repurposed rear of the house.

Two-story brick building attached to a four-story glass and steel structure
The rebuilt building has a second, smaller room at the back and houses a recording studio and radio station © [email protected]

The old wings and flight tower have been transformed into another smaller room, with a wraparound balcony and a grid ceiling of old theatrical flight equipment. It’s an intimate, cramped and intriguing new space, with a hint of behind-the-scenes voyeurism, unlike anything else in the city. It is completed with surviving details such as the wooden cleats for the strings and the rusted but preserved theatrical machinery.

The architects have created a series of corridors and small spaces that connect the venue and the private rooms, the club and the cabins in the back so that you are constantly moving through surprising spaces, making unexpected connections. Walking through the building is in itself a theatrical act, penetrating an architecture that constantly reveals new pieces.

What had been the pub became Cafe Koko, a casual restaurant and bar and an overflow for theatre. Outside, the green tiles and facade of the old pub have been retained and restored; inside, its walls are newly plastered with rock posters and garish artwork, much of it “inspired” by Camden culture.

Exterior view of a brown dome above a white painted building with ornate columns and arches above the windows
The interior of the dome is reborn as a wood-lined party room with a cocktail bar at its center and seating around the edge © [email protected]

The rest of the building has been rebuilt and extended, to the scale of the old quarter and the history of the site’s workshops, so that it looks (a bit) like a row of disparate historic premises. These house this intricate network of private rooms, bars and cabins, a nest of spaces culminating in a rooftop bar and a kind of eerily attractive 1970s conservatory. It’s the House of Koko, the private section of the development that presumably pays to keep the rest going.

It’s an alluring set of spaces that range from a jazz bar (with the best new carpet I’ve seen in ages, based on a smoking cigarette) to a restaurant to a hallway of booths to listen to vinyl records and have cocktails prepared in intimate groups. Reminiscent of an old Pullman railroad car with that sense of space-saving luxury, the whole thing is beautifully made, meticulously plated and crafted cigar box. There’s also a recording and radio station and a series of spots for impromptu performances, assuming the artists could come in and play a bit after the sweaty efforts of the big gig.

A nervousness that this represents the gentrification of the city’s music scene, a massive departure from the dirty, scuzzy and drugged essence of Camden, is understandable but perhaps misplaced. If this infrastructure of privatized fun for members is a sustaining mechanism to a concert hall in a time when they are rapidly disappearing, then so be it.

The revival of this ancient great hall by the prolific WGR Sprague, who also designed many West End theaters (including the Gielgud and the Aldwych), is a wonderful thing. It sits in all its pretentious, domed Italian glory on this seedy crossroads, a music hall relic and a record of performance and popular culture, ever-changing, ever-adapting, scarred, luxurious, a little tacky and a bit sleazy. Which sounds about right.


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