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Aiming to redefine the cinema project

Aiming to redefine the cinema project

text: Mihaela PELTEACU

© Daniela Puia

In the first half century of cinematography, the only place where films could be seen was ”the cinema”; later on, the emergence of television, VHS tapes and DVD players gradually changed the relation of people with films, as the digital revolution continuously invented various ways of watching movies, through increasingly sophisticated technologies. Why should we go to the cinema today, as long as the films can be watched anywhere, being available by a simple click on the download button, and the première of a film production has already become an online service?

Fortunately, people have many good reasons worldwide to keep going to the cinema. A private film watch using technology, at home or elsewhere, despite highly impacting on the audience attendance in the cinema, cannot replace the experience of seeing the films on the big screen or the special emotion inspired by the unique architecture of an old cinema.   

Many debates and actions were however needed to identify sustainable solutions – private or public initiatives have been taking place for over two decades, radically changing the line of discussions on cinemas in towns. At the end of the 1990s, the alarming comments predicted their disappearance or, even more, the demise of the adequate conditions of existence for the seventh art. Today, however, the discussions focus on a sociological approach of the essential advantages of cinema – confirmed by experience – compared to other ways of film viewing.

The cinema is still the place of reference for the seventh art, despite having lost the exclusivity of films, being now one of the many viewing alternatives. Moreover, it is the only place where the cinema production can be appreciated in terms of its fundamental features: the show and the collective reception.

The ability to endow the film with a symbolic significance, to stimulate and generate debates and opinion exchanges are among the most important advantages that were noticed and fully used in many European countries, mainly in the restoration projects of historic cinemas. Thus, the traditional cinema has preserved its leading position compared to the multiplex cinemas in the malls. The film program and genre, as well as the proposal of joint actions are certainly decisive elements as part of a carefully elaborated general strategy.  

Unlike the Western countries, our achievements in this field are still incipient. Many of them are under negotiation with various interested parties or they are blocked in a legal and administrative impasse, which is apparently insurmountable. Unfortunately, there is neither sufficient visibility, nor public debate yet, which could turn singular efforts into a national unitary vision, in line with architecture and urban space, the work of past and contemporary filmmakers and, not in the least, the viewers it addresses.

A debate-discussion that has recently taken place[1] within the Festival Les Films de Cannes a Bucharest 2018:”We have some cinemas. What to do with them?” should have ideally enjoyed a larger audience, including policy makers. Thus, essential decisions could have been made, beyond the stage of punctual measures, allowing for a strategy to develop a cinema network. According to the Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, ”we actually want such places to become small cultural institutions, formed of more little cultural structures and able to create a ”vibe” in the heart of the city, which  had already been achieved through some private initiatives in Bucharest or other cities of the country”.

The file of the present magazine issue presents the debate which took place at the headquarters of the Filmmakers Union, along with a selection of cinemas considered to be representative for a certain development stage of this project type. It deals with five examples from Romania: Scala Cinema, Arta Cinema, Studio Cinema, Favorit Cultural Centre and Cinema Centre, Suceava, along with a Western project, Riff-Raff 3+4, a cinema from Zürich, built in 2002 in the traditional form of ”the block of flats incorporating a cinema”.  These associations are intended to be a reflection on the spatial, typological evolution, accompanied, in Romania, over the years, by an identity transformation of these spaces and their status at city level and, as far as the Swiss background is concerned, by consistency and permanent connection to the tradition of modernity.

In our country, but not only here, there are still cinemas that gradually turned into a kind of vague spaces which could be reinterpreted. Due to their extraordinary size, they seem to be an unused fallback of urban public space. The complexity of these high capacity halls, deriving from urban and architectural aspects, but also from an indissoluble connection with the film, requires an in-depth study prior to making any decision.

This is the case of Scala Cinema, part of the history of Magheru Boulevard and modern Bucharest, one of the most significant cinema projects in our country for the 1930s evolution stage. The gradual decay of the whole building which contains it relates to the present degradation of the cinema, caused by the conjectural transformations carried on successively without relying on a strategy to adjust to the digital society and the change of the audience behavior.  In a paper that restores Scala block of flats and, implicitly, the figure of architect Rudolf Fränkel to their rightful place in Romanian modern architecture, Dan Marin rediscovers the history and genuine image of the Block of Flats with Scala Cinema, hidden today behind waves of ignorance and advertisement banners.

Arta Cinema in Cluj is one of the most successful current projects aiming at safeguarding historic cinemas. This is an illustrative example of the importance to preserve the unique features of the hall and the site through reasonable interventions on the existing building. The project coordinated by Monica Sebestyén is currently under finalization. Since the beginning of the works, it stirred up the interest and enthusiasm of a large number of young film fans in Cluj and around the country.  In terms of its image, Arta Cinema is a discrete presence in the city centre, being located at the ground floor of a Haussmann style block of flats dating from 1913, a representative hall for the early history of cinemas in Romania. This is a typical case which also validates our theory that cinema, just as anywhere in the world, has always been a cultural institution closely connected to the city, looking for sites of major social and urban visibility, which has led to its typological evolution. Arta Cinema is most likely to become a brand again in the urban public space, a symbol of the city and the film festivals organized in Cluj every year.

© Daniela Puia

Studio Cinema is a tenement building which includes a cinema, a typology developed on a large scale by the real estate companies in the 1930s. Studio Hall (former Magheru Hall), designed by the Romanian architect Jean Monda, is representative for this last stage in the typological evolution of cinema, which is no longer a freestanding unit, but a part of a complex structure with multiple functions (flats, offices etc.)

Paradoxically, the architectʹ s structural achievement to combine the cinema and the flats above has led to the cinemaʹ s closure until the flat owners would have agreed to rehabilitate the building. An essay signed by Irina Margareta Nistor pleads for the reopening of this cinema situated on one of the busiest boulevards in the city centre. Through the stories about people and films which she generously shares with us, Irina Margareta Nistor livens up the architectural image by a sentimental perspective which is so necessary to fully understand this important urban landmark of Bucharest.

A cinema was once considered as a common urban institution – hackneyed by its large number and frequent presence all over the city. Yet, it was always one of the main interests of people as it was a meeting, socializing and entertainment place all together. An important trend in our country today is the movement toward a more pregnant commercial purpose, the launch of a wider cultural and recreational offer which aims at reaching the status and image of a landmark value. Favorit Cultural Centre, a recent project currently under execution, signed and coordinated by architect Radu Teacă, could illustrate the same perspective. Built on the site of the former Favorit Cinema in Drumul Taberei district of Bucharest, the architectural program-theme required the radical change of the initial urban conditions (Favorit Commercial Complex, composed of stores and a cinema) by inserting an autonomous object. The unit, with a complex architectural program, includes multifunctional halls, community spaces, and allows for the creation of a quality public space, a cinema/summer theatre ”able to increase the cultural value of the investment”.

The same preoccupation to adapt cinemas to a contemporary vibe and to extend the cultural offer is also emphasized by the intervention on the existing building. This is the case of the project designed by architect Constantin Gorcea for the transformation of the former Modern Cinema in Suceava into a Cultural Centre (or the projects which converted former cinemas, situated in central areas or in neighbourhoods, into Cultural Centres in Blaj and Târgu Mureș). These are just a few examples, yet, although insufficient for now, they prove that the decline of cinemas in Romania can be stopped through standardization. 

The close examination of these few projects which, somehow, recover the past heritage, are in line with a recent global trend to rely on cinemasʹ initial and primordial quality of sociability spaces.

The animation provided by a cinema to the urban space has always had a certain rhythm, due to the flow of spectators which inevitably appears at regular time lapses.

The concentration of several cinemas in the same street (as it happens in Elisabeta Boulevard from Bucharest!) increases the intensity of this rhythm and, thus, animates the urban space.

This is also the reason that the Riff-Raff 3+4 project, a work signed by the Meili & Peter and Staufer-Hasler associated studios, is an investment that reconsiders a street with a cinema tradition dating back to the 1920s and extends an existing cinema with two additional halls.

The architects, jointly with the Neugass AG Distribution Company, conceived the projects such as to resume the modernist typology of the mixed block of flats which includes dwellings, a bar and a cinema. In Switzerland, cinemas are considered to be image vectors, as the street animation and the entertainment they offer inevitably reflect on the urban space of the city/neighborhood, providing it with additional qualities and more attractiveness for film lovers, youngsters, elderly and people as a whole.  Being associated, along the years, with the city centre, the cinema conveys a centrality symbol itself, turning into an important element of urban strategy, mainly the newly built residential complexes (see the Kalkbreite residential complex integrating the Houdini cinema, built in Zürich, in 2014, by the Müller Sigrist Architekten Studio).

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The cinema architecture is probably one of the mostly affected fields by the economic changes of the last decades. The decline and degradation of cinemas or, on the contrary, their revival, are certainly symptomatic for the vitality of a city. The outlined projects emphasize this idea through the importance attached to the urban dimension. Architects are fully aware that, irrespective of the cultural space under consideration, the film and its privileged manifestation space, the cinema, need to hold a prominent place within the city and to be easily identifiable, revealing monumentality or a sign of modernism.

Finally, the valorization of cinemas is important for their function of entertainment, recreation and sociability places, as well as for their role in stimulating the development of a community identity.

[1] The event took place at the Galleries of the Filmmakers Union (UCIN) on 25th October 2018, being organized in partnership with the 2018 National Architecture Biennial and the Order of Architects in Romania.

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