After a three-year hiatus, the London cultural institution is back and ready to nurture the next generation of artists. From the ins and outs of its restoration to the newly-opened House of KOKO, here’s everything you should know
Few venues have witnessed as many changes in entertainment culture as KOKO. Whether or not you are familiar with the history of the legendary Camden concert venue, it is enough to walk through its door to feel the weight of the legacy permeating every element, be it in plain sight or imperceptible, of this former theatre. As you approach the red-velvet-floored and golden-detailed reception, you are instantly immersed in a subtle game of references — recurring textures and materials, plays of light, and researched sound effects — winking at KOKO’s rich, multilayered past. A game that, sewing the gap between the origins of the venue and its reputation as one of today’s premier London concert halls, was at the core of the £70m revamp that brought KOKO back to its people on April 29, three years after its closure.
Since 1900, KOKO has always belonged to London. Formerly known as the Camden Theatre, the building was opened by Ellen Terry, then England’s most celebrated actress, on Boxing Day of the same year. Described by her contemporaries as the icon of aestheticism, Terry was more than an actress; as KOKO CEO, founder, and creative director Olly Bengough explains to Re-Edition before showing us around the venue, “she was a fashion rebel, a figurehead of London in the Victorian Era.” Designed by renowned architect W.G.R. Sprague, her Camden Theatre was a cultural gem thriving away from the spotlights of the West End. Yet, this was just the first of the names and functions that, in rapid succession, marked the chamaleonic evolution of the building in its 122-year history.
Already in 1909, the theatre reopened as the Camden Hippodrome Theatre — a vaudeville theatre that, among the others, hosted frequent performances by the likes of Charlie Chaplin. Shortly after, it became a cinema, the Camden Hippodrome Picture Theatre. Shut down towards the end of WWII, this left space for the BBC Camden Theatre (1945–1977); the content studio that produced and broadcasted the culture-defining, breakthrough radio comedy programme The Goon Show. It is here that the Rolling Stones recorded their first four-track in 1964, right before reaching international success. Drawing on over seven decades of live performance, music, and culture, the venue finally welcomed back an audience starting from 1977: first as new wave and first wave punk temple The Music Machine and then, in 1982, as concert hall Camden Palace.
Ever since Bengough acquired it with his company, Mint Entertainment, in 2004, the grade 2 listed building is known simply as KOKO. However, it is the very changing face of the venue that, coupled with its talent-pioneer, community-driven essence, continues to inspire the diverse events taking place within its walls even today. “KOKO is a place where music lovers and culture addicts can gather to form a new community,” says Bengough, adding that, since its relaunch, the venue has become a broader cultural institution with music as one of its key components. By the end of May, the opening month, KOKO will have already hosted 45,000 spectators for a total of 27 consecutive shows by artists coming from all across the globe; an unthinkable achievement, especially considering that a large portion of KOKO’s roof was destroyed by a fire in January 2020. “There were countless unknowns in this journey but I couldn’t be happier to see KOKO and its people come back to life after such a long break,” adds Bengough reflecting on the restoration, which he describes as a very challenging and internal process.
Developed in collaboration with design studio Pirajean Lees (interior designers), the project was entirely overseen by Archer Humphryes Architects (lead architects) who — for seven years — worked in constant dialogue with the English Heritage, The Victorian Society and Camden Council Conservation Department to ensure that the building’s history was being preserved. Inaugurated last month by Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire, the new KOKO comprises several new performance spaces alongside The House of KOKO, an exclusive member club extending over four different floors. Combining three historic buildings — the 19th century theatre, a piano factory (1800), and the Hope & Anchor pub (1860), a Charles Dickens’ favourite — into one, the venue aims to be at the forefront of arts and culture by engaging visitors in unrivalled music experiences, luxury design, pop-up exhibitions, a hand-picked selection of artworks on display across all levels of the complex, and much more. “We wanted to create the experience of the future,” says Bengough, stressing how some of the highlights of the renovation journey — for example, the restoration of the theatre’s fly towerinto an immersive performance space with mezzanine areas for a 360-degree-view — contributed to the “endless discovery” that is today’s KOKO.
On the ground floor, Cafe KOKO, a new tap bar, restaurant, gallery space, and live music venue, has replaced the old Hope & Anchor pub. Your first entry point to the world of KOKO, this space is open to everyone, members and non-members alike. As Pirajean Lees explain to us during our tour of the venue, when it came to designing Cafe KOKO, there was only one principle: versatility. “The design stemmed from the necessity of readapting the space to different functions,” they say. “It’s simple and elegant, yet truly multifunctional; all you need to do is remove some of the elements that compose the furniture of the Cafe to enjoy a whole different experience.” For Bengough, Cafe KOKO is a hub for creativity born of the urge to satisfy the needs of an ever-evolving creative industry. “Everyone wants to be cross-disciplinary nowadays,” he says. “I’m a musician, but I’m going to write poetry. I’m a fashion designer, but I want to direct film; people love to see how you’re extending your inventiveness beyond the limits of your main practice.”
Upstairs, a four-floor, music-inspired maze immerses The House of KOKO members in a magical experience. Here, every detail was meticulously thought to recreate the atmosphere and comfort of a home, from the choice of materials all the way to the colour palette — mostly soft, earthy tones — and music selection of each room. Designed to mimic the sensations one would feel while wandering around the spaces of the original Camden Theatre — be it sitting in the backstage, eating in the canteen, or getting ready for the show in hair and makeup — The House of KOKO draws on the vibe, tonality, and furniture of the 19th building reinventing it for a contemporary taste thanks to bespoke elements by Pirajean Lees. “The stories that happen in the back corridors of a theatre are sometimes more thought-provoking than what happens on stage,” they say. “It’s exactly those stories that, combined with the element of surprise permeating every floor of the club, make The House of KOKO so fascinating.”
Among the must-see rooms are The Goon Show-inspired secret vinyl rooms for a private music (and drinks!) degustation, an hyper sophisticated jazz bar, a penthouse and recording studio, and a dome cocktail bar with a mystical touch. The cherry on top of the cake? The exclusive roofterrace sitting in between the newly revealed fly tower and the reconstructed centrepiece of the original dome: designed in its construction by Archer Humphryes Architects, who also restored the dome, this is the first roofterrace to have ever been built on top of a 19th century theatre roof in the UK. Ultimately, KOKO is on a mission to empower the next generation of music artists. In fact, 5% of all membership, retail, and corporate fees will go back into the KOKO Foundation which, launching later this year as a registered charity, will protect the environment and help young creatives get the most out of their craft. Especially designed to launch the musicians of tomorrow, KOKO’s new radio station will serve as a pioneering platform for emerging talent — connecting the past, present, and future of a cultural institution in constant evolution.