Kentish Town former Polytech building

Timeline of Kentish Town’s Polytechnic: protests, promises and posters

Why does this building get people so passionate?

This weekend, Camdenist is proud to be helping to write the next chapter in the long and turbulent history of one of Kentish Town’s most iconic landmarks. 

By hosting Poster Sale! inside the former assembly hall of the North Western Polytechnic, we’re fulfilling a dream – albeit temporarily, for now – that has been held for over a decade, and part of a wider story of the site that’s been ongoing for nearly 100 years. 

Need to brush up on what’s been going on in Kentish Town and why it’s important? Here’s a handy timeline….


Genesis: North Western Polytechnic

The grand opening of the building by the Prince of Wales in October 1929 was a big local event, with coverage screened in cinemas across the country via Pathe News. 

It survived a WWII bomb hitting the main entrance on Prince of Wales Rd in 1940, and expanded after the War with additional courses and sites.

You can see lovely old photos and read more about the amazing range of courses once offer here on the One Prince of Wales website.


Demonstrations and occupations

By ’67 the North Western was London’s largest Polytechnic, and became renowned for making national headlines for protests.

In the 70s students demonstrated against a merger, in the 1980s there weas uproar against prominent National Front member Patrick Harrington being permitted to study a philosophy degree (play the archive Thames TV footage), and in 1994, the building was occupied by students protesting against fees and cuts to courses.


Merger, listing, conversion...but not safety

By 1996 the building lay empty, the Poly having been merged into what is now London Metropolitan University.

Conversion of the main classrooms and workshops into luxury flats followed, with the UK’s largest (and least profitable) outlet of Pizza Express in the front section, a process that was complete by 1998.

But earning a Grade II listing didn’t stop a protracted battle to stop the restaurant in the old assembly hall and gym being completely demolished. It was only saved in late 2010.


Redevelopment shocker

Safe from the wrecking ball, battle recommenced over plans for a what the redevelopment might entail. 

Residents we’re rightly up in arms about the originally proposal – a metal clad monstrosity that served only to unite everyone in opposition, and caused some casual visionary in the Kentistowner website comments section to suggest that the space – for so long a bastion of the humanities and the arts – might make for quite a good cinema…


Future still uncertain

As Pizza Express move out and squatters move in – quickly becoming official guardians of the space and throwing a series of fondly remembered cultural events and parties – a new proposal by architects Allies & Morrison was unveiled. 

It contained provision for a ‘congregational space’ in the former hall/restaurant, and was approved for planning by the Council.

Meanwhile, rumours of interest from indie operators including Shortwave and Picturehouse kept the passion for a cinema in Kentish Town growing.


Stalled development, broken promises

The contract for the project is repeatedly sold to new developers, all of whom promise to honour the cinema space.

But after two years of scaffolding and a big hole in the roof, developer Uplift went bust, leaving the future of the site very much up in the air once more. 

It was eventually taken on by locally-based developer Vabel, who restart the work and complete the building including the provision for a cinema as per the original plans. 


Covid, Curzon and Cost of Living

The next twist is one we all know only too well – the arrival of a global pandemic, complete with lockdown restrictions that have a terrible impact on hospitality industry businesses.

Vabel continue to search for an operator, but with Curzon opening up five screens in railway arches just down the road, and confidence in ‘going out’ now reeling from the cost of living crisis, it doesn’t prove an easy task


Reimagining the dream

Camdenist teams up with the Kentish Town Neighbourhood Forum, charity Choose Love and site owner Vabel for a pop-up market to celebrate movie, music, games and protest art, all of which we hope does service to the timeline of trails and tribulations. 

It might not quite the the boutique screen once imagined for this space, but after so many twists and turns, do drop by this weekend to see what we’ve done.

To be continued….!

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