Exotic designs: Cinema architecture that floats and fascinates


Two years ago, Film Journal International presented a selection of decidedly cool movie theatres that deployed pods and pedals and presented tantalizing twists and turns on movie-watching environments. For this month’s focus on Design and Construction, we invited feedback from the creative minds in our industry and once again searched the world for other innovative ideas. The designs range from a home in Nashville, Tennessee, and a skyscraper in an unnamed Metropolis, to the lagoons of the Andaman Sea, Thailand, and to the Canals of Venice, Italy. In an encore performance from 2010, there will be more to eye from Amsterdam, possibly making the Dutch city the center of cinematic design artistry.

We begin, however, with the actual starting point of our journey in Thailand, where German-born and Beijing, China-based star architect Ole Scheeren (assisted by Leonard Wong, www.buro-os.com) dreamed up the Archipelago Cinema, and we offer thanks to bornrich.com for introducing the floating auditorium.

“There was a beach, and a backdrop of a huge wall of rocks,” Scheeren sets the scene in his travelogue. “The thought of watching films here seemed surprising: a screen, nestled somewhere between the rocks. And the audience…floating. Hovering above the sea, somewhere in the middle of this incredible space of the lagoon, focused on the moving images across the water. A landscape of pieces playfully joined together. A sense of temporality, randomness. Almost like driftwood.”

The construction process was, in fact, inspired by the rafts of local fishermen, Scheeren explains further. “A local technique, adopted to build the floating cinema.” Rubber straps attached recycled wood frames to foam blocks wrapped in mosquito nets. After the final-night screening of the inaugural Film on the Rocks Yao Noi Festival (March 9-12, 2012, curated by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton), Archipelago Cinema was disassembled and went back to the community, Scheeren assures. “As a stage, a playground. As an event platform, an assembly space. As something that belongs to them, that was merely borrowed. As something that is flexible, that can be towed anywhere.”
While Film on the Rocks promises to become an annual event, the Archipelago Cinema has already moved to the Arsenale, the historic shipyard of Venice. Admitting that many requests have come in from around the world and not having “decided the final trajectory yet,” Scheeren told L’Uomo Vogue, “it’s a raft that could drift all over the planet, that could appear in multiple locations… We got contacted from the most unlikely places from all over the world where people said, ‘We would really like to bring that over here and do something with it.’ And I think there is something beautiful in this idea of how it manages to somehow just engage an incredibly broad variety of cultures and of environments.”

Though not in time for the International Film Festival (see “European Update” in this issue), the redesigned rafts in the Darsena Grande presented the floating stage for events during another Biennale di Venezia. From August 29 to Nov. 25, Scheeren’s Archipelago Cinema was invited into the official selection of collateral projects during the 13th International Architecture Exhibition. Bringing the raft “from the most picturesque ocean landscape to the most picturesque city on the water in the world was an interesting transition,” he concluded in the Italian men’s magazine. That Archipelago Cinema hosted the August 26 world premiere of Against All Rules, a documentary essay by Horst Brandenburg about the work and philosophy of Scheeren, including his six-year adventure in building the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, was an added attraction.

In addition to a very promising-sounding Kinetic Experience Theater on the drawing boards (“Unfortunately, we are not ready to publish…at this stage yet”), Büro Scheeren also developed a concept study for the Marfa Drive-In in the Texas desert town of the same name. “The design evokes impressions beyond the confines of architecture,” the description goes, “by imagining the drive-in as a moment of inexplicable density within the open landscape, a traffic junction in the emptiness of the terrain… Two circles, nested in plan and offset in section, reconfigure the traditional cinema to carefully embed it in the existing topography and create smooth, dynamic entry and exit paths.”

Since opening its decidedly dynamic doors on April 5 (see our May “European Update”), the Amsterdam film museum EYE has drawn quite a lot of traffic too (www.eyefilm.nl). On July 11, in fact, director Sandra den Hamer welcomed the EYE’s 100,000th visitor. Clad in white aluminum and located on an island in the Amsterdam harbor across from the old city, het nieuwe filmmuseum was selected by this author for its exhibition of floating screens. Installed indoors, yes, but just as temporary as the one for Archipelago Cinema. The connections between the two projects are striking and that’s not even counting that Amsterdam is referred to as “Venice of the North.” In another coincidence, NL Architects, the designers behind “Multi Mill,” one of our October 2010 featured cool designs (aka windmill cinema), placed second in the 2005 architectural competition for EYE.

Thanks to the winning design from Vienna, Austria-based Delugan Meissl Associated Architects, this fall and early winter (Sept. 28 to Dec. 2), EYE “provides cinema with all the space it needs,” museum curators promised. With ‘Expanded Cinema,” the participating artists Isaac Julien, Fiona Tan and Yang Fudong “break out of the confines of the silver screen and show films on several screens, which can be walked around and viewed from various angles.”

In their works, the three artists use “tried and tested cinematic methods,” the curatorial description continues, mentioning professional actors, for example, “beautifully lit sets, stylish camerawork and a sophisticated montage.” For his contribution, Julien selected the nine-part, multi-screen film-essay installation Ten Thousand Waves. By contrast, Fiona Tan has two single-screen works in the show “that explore the museological space in a different way.” For The Fifth Night, Yang Fudong placed a row of seven screens side to side that show a single scene from seven different viewpoints, resulting in “an unsettling view of the new China.”

According to the exhibition notes, with multiple screens and views on offer, “watching a film becomes an active experience. The visitors decide their own position and are encouraged to interpret the various facets of the film for themselves.” Reminding museum-goers that “since its inception, film has come in many forms, from fun-fair amusement to art film,” EYE curators say the exhibition “demonstrates that film has long since ceased to be something that can only be viewed in the cinema.”

Nonetheless, and for all our readers who might (rightfully) find this very concept a bit too “exotic,” EYE still has four auditoriums for cinematic and related presentations. With 315 seats upholstered in three different shades of gray, Cinema 1 holds the 1929 organ from the Passage Theatre in The Hague, and Cinema 2 is the most versatile with 130 electrically retractable stadium rakes. Our favorite is the 67-orange-seated fourth auditorium, whose oriental Art Deco elements recall the historic 1910 Cinema Parisien, which was one of the first movie theatres in Amsterdam. The “tribute to this special place in Dutch film history” is enhanced by multi-colored LED lighting that transforms the decorated wall panels.

Changing a 24- by 36-foot (7.3 x 11 m) room in Nashville into a private screening room covered in exotic woods “in the Chinese style” did not initially pique the interest of Theo Kalomirakis (www.tktheaters.com). “Originally, I resisted [his client’s] proposal,” the renowned New York City-headquartered home-theatre expert recalls. “When I said, ‘I do not want to do something that will look like a Chinese restaurant or something out of Las Vegas,’ his response was: ‘Chinese architecture has nothing to do with restaurants or Vegas. It is a lot richer and authentic. You are lazy and you find excuses because you do not want to do the work.’”

Kalomirakis had never been called “lazy” before, he admits. “I took his challenge, bought and studied all the books I could find about Chinese architecture, and spent quite a few days at the Chinese wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. After all that,” he laughs. “I felt energized and ready to plunge in.”

Taking us on a tour, he mentions passing “the original Buddha sculpture on a pedestal as you enter through a narrow corridor to a second entry way that leads to the main auditorium. Designed to reflect an open-air courtyard topped by a fiber-optic star-lit sky, we created a wraparound mural depicting the Great Wall of China. Part of the mural is used in place of a curtain to conceal the stage area and the screen behind it.”

For the “ultimate outdoor movie experience,” our friends at Kansas City, Missouri-based TK Architects place the screen high above for all to see in one of their new prototypes. “Imagine being in a major city and viewing the latest Hollywood movie release under the stars,” they enthuse about their high-end, high-rise cinema design. “Incorporate the latest projection, sound and seating technology and you have created a formula for cinema success. This 150-seat concept venue takes advantage of the best of both worlds—seeing a movie in a premium setting and being part of a larger social experience.”

The firm’s principal, Jack Muffoletto, provides the reasoning behind this bold and balmy concept. “In densely populated areas, auditoriums are stacked for efficiency. Taking advantage of the roof is another level of efficiency and specialty.” In more general terms, TK Architects “conducts research and development to provide its clients with cutting-edge design that both envisions the future while making the moviegoing experience exciting and attainable. The excitement generated by this kind of discovery is important to our clients and to our very creative design team,” Muffoletto concludes.

Click here for a slideshow of designs mentioned in this article.