Gloriously kitsch picture palaces engulfed the masses in darkness, while opening virtual space through the screen
From disreputable side-show origins, the cinema soon attained the grandiosity of the picture palace, the pseudo-sophistication of Deco, and the banal gigantism of the suburban multiplex, before a death-bed scene after the screen was duffed-up by the box. But cinema survived its brush with the VHS, albeit rather maimed, to enjoy a pop-up resurrection – and now the moving image is being dragged into the street.
The cinema is perfectly ephemeral architecture, the always-immediately-going-out-of-fashion dernier cri in fabulous kitsch. Yet for all its demands on the passer-by’s attention, it’s the one building that becomes completely invisible once you’re in it. You spend two hours in a darkened room and leave, your head full of the spaces you’ve inhabited on screen rather than your physical surroundings. The functional specifications are basic: ticket office, bar, screen and seats. And yet in just over one hundred years, the cinema has undergone some drastic changes.
As a type, the cinema didn’t begin with the Lumières. Rather it descends, not from the bourgeois tradition of theatre, though it has sometimes had such pretensions, but from popular entertainments. The new medium was an itinerant, truly global phenomenon, housed in circus ‘black tops’ and modified store-front Nickelodeons where you’d be lucky to escape the attentions of vermin or the projector setting fire to the building.
drive in cinema
However, as its profitability became apparent, cinema was given a permanent home. The first purpose-built examples were cheap historicist shacks. One of the earliest, Singapore’s 1907 Alhambra, quickly swelled to 3,500 seats – and this before air-con. Owners battling for audiences made lavish use of motifs uprooted from all historical periods or invented by two-bit provincial architects in modish materials, spawning Aztec temples of Bakelite, Babylon recast in chrome.
The cinema facade may have been kitsch by day, but at night the terracotta twirls faded to be replaced by a thrillingly dematerialised architecture of light. The illegitimate nature of the enterprise meant that taboo experiments could be attempted here, and although cinemas were decried for their cacophonous commercialism, they became a Petri dish for ideas that would later be filched by the avant-gardes.
In the States, where the movies were big business, studios and impresarios funded impressive buildings with huge screens. Sid Grauman had Egyptian (1922) and Chinese (1927) theatres, the latter a true opium den of the people with its star-studded forecourt. Responding to demand, designers specialised; John Eberson was famed for his ‘atmospheric’ interiors in which the audience was encircled by an artificial skyline, silhouetted by an artificial sky. (Le Grand Rex in Paris is a surviving example of the style, and with 2,800 seats, the largest cinema in Europe.)
Grauman Chinese Theatre
Perhaps the biggest name in cinema history was Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel. Rothafel had pioneered NYC’s picture palaces in 1914, and turned screenings into extravaganzas complete with chorus girls and full orchestras. He hit the pinnacle of luxury with his $12m Roxy Theatre on Times Square (1927), which fit 6,000 seats into an awkward site and boasted the world’s largest oval rug. The crash of ’29 put an end to such extravagance, as audiences and investors dwindled, but there was one last hurrah: after the financially embarrassed Metropolitan Opera was forced to bow out of a site in Rockefeller Center, its place was taken by Roxy and his Radio City (1932), which started off as a 6,000-seater music hall but was converted into a cinema when it was found too big to hear or see performers on the distant stage. The famous Deco sun-burst interior was a change of gear for Roxy, possibly inspired to abandon historical ornament by a trip he had been taken on to inspect advanced architecture in Europe – or perhaps (as he claimed) by a sunset he saw from the liner on the way back.
In Germany, meanwhile, Mendelsohn had pronounced: ‘no Rococo palace for Buster Keaton, no plaster wedding cake for Potemkin’. Berlin had had its share of historicist flamboyance, in response to which architects like Mendelsohn, Poelzig and Taut pioneered a new, sober cinema, which didn’t try to compete with the spectacle on screen. In some instances, these facilities were incorporated into housing or commercial developments. Mendelsohn’s 1928 Universum was the centrepiece of a speculative housing development, with shops huddled around its streamlined prow, itself an expression of the horseshoe auditorium. The building would have a huge influence on global architecture, resulting in a wave of Deco cinemas. These were the first, and for a long while the only, modern-ish buildings in provincial British towns.
Radio City Music Hall Donald Deskey
After the war, mass motoring transformed urbanism and the cinema with it; most obviously in the case of drive-ins, which flourished in warm countries like USA and Australia, but the out-of-town multiplex also relies on the car. Canadian cinema-owner Nat Taylor first had the idea of playing two different films at the same time in 1957; his career peaked with an 18-screen venue in 1979 (he was also the first to put a cinema in a mall). Today, 25 screens are not unheard of, usually housed in vast suburban sheds that create serious circulation challenges and drain the lifeblood from cities – although the ’80s did offer some consolation in that it brought a second golden age of monstrous kitsch in the hands of designers like Jon Jerde and Singapore’s Geoff Malone.
Cinemas returned to town with the 1990s urban revival, often cultivated as anchors of redevelopment. I’m fond of one example built to revivify East London’s Stratford in 1997, a cheap and cheerful neo-Modern building building that expresses its four screens on its plan, and has a vaguely Googie sign advertising its screenings to the ring-road. The more recent pop-up cinema phenomenon takes this strategy to extremes, acknowledging the disposability of amenities once the local real-estate market has been sufficiently boosted.
Despite the urban renaissance, cinema faces its biggest challenge yet from other media. It has survived previous usurpers: video had a serious impact, challenging owners to enrich the cinematic experience so that it could trump the living room – attempts that continue in the infantilism of ‘Secret Cinema’, or in luxury boutique cinemas, where you can order a meal to a sofa or even a bed, which seems to be asking for trouble. Nothing could be done to improve on the privacy of the domestic sphere, however, and so VHS conquered the porn cinema, which went the same way as the newsreel cinema, trounced in its day by TV. Gaming is proving more of a generalised threat – indeed, in terms of takings it has already trumped film as the preeminent visual medium of the day – and streaming video has made films available anywhere, anytime. Although smartphones have not yet become big enough to watch a feature enjoyably, cheap VR headsets like Oculus Rift could change that and one day the cinema may be entirely in our heads, with the social dimension firmly excluded – unless of course we enter it through the screen.
Picture Palace Depaor Architects02
Picture Palace in Galway, Ireland by Depaor Architects, 2016
Ciniteca Matadero Churtichaga Quadra Salcedo
Cineteca Matadero in Madrid by Churtichaga + Quadra-Salcedo, 2011
Curzon bloomsbury refurb Takero Shimazaki
Curzon Bloomsbury Refurbishment in London by Takero Shimazaki, 2015
Busan cinema centre coop himmelblau
Busan Cinema Centre in South Korea by Coop Himmelb(l)au, 2012