Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A Tale of Two Cinemas

I reckon a lot of us walk around with our eyes shut most of the time oblivious to the rich architecture that surrounds us. I am as guilty as anyone so today, to make amends,  I am rehashing an essay I wrote for an Art History paper at university.  The paper was called Ways of Seeing and I took as my topic a comparison of two iconic cinemas on Auckland's main street, Queen Street.  The two cinemas are in the same block and less than 100 metres apart but, while both aptly reflect the cinema experience of their era they could not be more different.

The Civic Theatre was built in 1929 and is a superb example of an atmospheric cinema.  This style of architecture was developed by the Austrian/American architect, Eberson, during the period known as the "golden age of hollywood", a time when cinema, while still a novel experience, was reaching out to a mass audience.  The idea behind an atmospheric cinema was to transport the audience to a world of exoticism and romance and to give them a more complete sensory experience at a time when most films were still silent.

The Civic Theatre, Auckland. In the lower left hand corner you can see The Force Cinema Complex
The exterior of The Civic gives clues to the opulence of the interior.  In order to create interest on a facade which has no need of windows, ornate panels, reminiscent of the screens used in eastern palaces, have been used.  Friezes of cherubs and garlands of fruit and flowers run around the top of the exterior walls adding an air of luxury and romance to the design.  The entrance on the corner of the building, squared off in a typically Art Deco style, commands attention with a towering clock tower and a canopy arch which echos the proscenium arch over the stage and screen inside. There is an immediate sense of grandeur in the foyer with its opulent sweeping staircase and elaborate decorations including seated buddahs, elephants and panthers with glowing red eyes, which leads to the upper level of the cinema proper. The interior of the theatre is a romantic recreation of the dream landscape of an Indian temple courtyard.  The whole auditorium is a rich and elaborate spectacle and over all is the ceiling with its sparkling night sky stars complete with drifting clouds and the occasional shooting star.  During the silent movie era an orchestra would accompany the film and it is not very many years ago that audiences enjoyed the music of a wurlitzer as they waited for the film to start.

The Civic is still a busy working cinema and theatre and as it is a home to the New Zealand  International Film Festival I still go there regularly.  I never fail to delight in it and tilt my head back before the film starts to make sure I see at least one shooting star cross the sky.

Is it a castle?
Less than 100 metres up the road is the Force Imax Cinema complex built in the 1990's.  While the Civic was designed with the idea of transporting the audience to an exotic location the architects for the Force complex used the theme of the block buster movie for their design. The building exterior, therefore, is complex and interesting and like the plot of a block buster movie has many twists, turns and unexpected developments.  From every angle of the building there is a different picture.  Is it a space ship? It is if viewed from Aotea Square. Is it a bricked castle turret?  It is if viewed from Queen Street. From another angle it is a ship and the Imax Theatre itself rises phoenix like from the facade of an old building as a highly symbolic image of a new culture rising from the old. Where the exterior of the Civic is clad in uniformly coloured stone and plaster the Force Centre makes use of a wide variety of materials including stone, glass, aluminium and steel.  Perhaps this is a reflection of the complexity of modern life.  The interior clearly reflects major changes in popular culture.  Whilst in the 1930's cinema was a new and exciting activity, today it is only part of a wide variety of leisure pursuits available and this is reflected in the diversity of activities found within the complex.  Apart from the several cinemas there are many different food outlets, a games parlour, an internet cafe, a florist and a large bookstore.

Or a ship?
Visually the interior of the building gives the impression of the giant set of a space adventure movie.  It is an exciting mix of light, colour and movement with a great attention to detail.  The interior of the Imax cinema itself, however, is austere, prosaic and functional.  The massive screen dominates the theatre and there is no ornamentation to distract the audience from the main purpose of the theatre which is to watch film.

Much has changed in the movie industry in the more than 80 years since the Civic Theatre was built.  The improvement in sound technology, in cinematography, in acting and the use of music have all led to film itself becoming a more sensory experience.  There is, therefore, no need to distract the audience and/or enhance the film with elaborate surroundings.  The philosophies behind the designs of the CivicTheatre and the Force Imax Centre are quite different and provide us with an apt commentary on the history of cinema.  On the one hand we have the Civic which seeks to transport its audience to a magical and exotic world through the architecture of the building and on the other hand we have the Imax Theatre which is at pains not to distract the audience from the magical and exotic world portrayed in the films themselves.  Both buildings are, in  my opinion, architectural treasures.

footnote:  the Force cinema complex has changed hands and is now known as Event Cinemas and, sadly, the large book shop is now a bowling alley.