From ancient scroll to modern cinema: 5G Studio collaborates on theatre design in China


“China has a remarkable appetite for progressive design,” says architect Mike Voegtle. “The demographic is young and sophisticated, and they are open to embracing new ideas and taking risks on offerings not seen before.”

During our recent quest for “Exotic Designs” in our October issue, Voegtle, who is one of five partners of multinational 5G Studio Collaborative, introduced Film Journal International to one of those progressive concepts. Yet, the Zendai Himalayas Cinema in Shanghai is very deeply rooted in ancient tradition.

“Central to the design concept of the cinema is the inspiration drawn from the bustling urbanity scene depicted in a Chinese Song Dynasty hand-scroll painting titled The Riverside Scene at Qing Ming Festival.” 5G Studio’s project description also notes that, in this work, artist Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145) is “exhibiting the celebration of secular activities and festivities across all levels of society, and across different urban, rural and natural settings.”

Located on the 7th and 8th floors of the mixed-use Zendai Himalayas Center, the 4,000-square-meter (43,000-sq.-ft.), 1,100-seat seven-plex aimed to capture the celebratory tone of the urban setting. “The design of the cinema sought to absorb, then abstract, and purport to amplify the ideals that shaped its host building,” which was designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and completed in 2010. The insertion of a mezzanine level between the two floors with corresponding stairs and catwalks allowed the site “to elevate the function of connecting spaces,” as the architects describe it. “By introducing zones of fast and slow movements, as well as zones of rest and observation [to cinema-goers], they can observe activities on other parts of the cinema and be watched as individual events themselves. The path is a continuous element, terminating in a glass-floored platform, completely identifiable from the arrival lobby, a contemporary, abstracted dragon in the cinema.”

Generally speaking, “a cinema can be conceptualized as a container,” 5G Studio concluded about Zenadai, and seen as “a melting pot of individuals coming from an infinite variety of histories seeking to be entertained through movies that attract particular interests.”
The very same could be said about the team behind this and the two other cinemas in Shanghai exclusively presented to our readers on the occasion of CineAsia. “Between our U.S. offices in Dallas and Atlanta and an office in Ho Chi Minh City serving projects under construction in Vietnam, 5G has over 30 design professionals,” Voegtle confirms. “Two of our partners are Vietnamese and Indonesian, and we have several designers from various regions across Southeast Asia.”

5G Studio was founded on 5/5/2005 with five partners, who “have known each other and have been friends for many years,” Voegtle explains about the name. “We all worked together earlier in our careers at the Beck Group based in Dallas.” While two of the original partners have since left the company, a fourth came on board anew in 2007, before Voegtle “joined the partnership earlier this year with the merger of DVA Architecture, again making 5G five partners strong.”

Having worked on both conventional theatres and cinema-eateries with DVA, including the likes of Studio Movie Grill, Voegtle now leads 5G’s Entertainment Studio specializing in cinema design. “With talented individuals from both the U.S. and abroad, we are able to break through cultural barriers and offer a balanced and diverse approach in our design philosophy,” he says. “Asia is very open to progressive design and Western ideas. Our design work, specifically in the hospitality markets in Vietnam, was a gateway to similar projects back in the U.S. Since our company began as a start-up during the recent economic recession, we were able to first showcase our abilities on large projects overseas.”

Since its inception, “5G’s primary focus has been on design quality,” Voegtle continues, “and the notion that efficient and unique design solutions can shape our client’s vision into economical and efficient real estate solutions that maximize their return on investment. We have a very talented and diverse group of architects and designers that focuses on project types ranging from high-end hospitality and multi-family to entertainment and commercial development.”

With hotels and restaurants, spas and churches, interiors, furniture, sustainability and strategic branding all part of the global 5G Studio package, we wondered about the division of labor at the firm. “All of our design work is produced at our offices in the U.S,” Voegtle confirms, noting that the partners spend a good portion of their time abroad as well. “Our relationships in China are set up as joint ventures on a project-by-project basis and include companies in Hong Kong and Shanghai,” where 5G is looking to open a design office in 2014.

The cinemas too are the product of a Sino-U.S. partnership. In addition to the Zendai Himalayas (, the Yonghua Cinema City and Metro Plaza Cinema that 5G has worked on were jointly developed by Kansas City, Kansas-based Entertainment Properties Trust (FJI, December 2010) and Shanghai Film Group (CineAsia 2005 Exhibitor of the Year).

While they contracted 5G Studio to redesign the lobby of Yonghua Cinema City, an existing flagship location, the firm provided full architecture and interior design services for the Metro Plaza Cinema, a 3,286-square-meter (35,370-sq.-ft.) four-plex located on the fifth floor of the shopping mall of the same name ( With capacities ranging from 175 to 220 for a total of just over 900 seats, the Metro Plaza was designed and constructed in 2011. Today, the cinema offers “a retreat for busy shoppers in the form of a voluminous, light-filled space,” 5G noted in the project description. “The design began with exploring the appeal of the Chinese lantern, attempting to capture its diaphanous essence.” In actuality, the designers linked the two public entries and lined the resulting “generous” corridor with “intermittent curtains made of stainless-steel mesh fabric” and custom panels of translucent resin “in gently angled undulations.”

Backlit by “color-kinetic” LED lighting whose “candy-colored” mix is programmed “in a fluid way, causing unpredictable gradient in the color transition zones,” special emphasis was placed on the entrances to the auditoriums. “The entries to each cinema occur where the resin panels are interrupted, to reveal a glowing volume that appears to have no edges. Balancing the soft, glowing devices, linear and vibrant planes of light are introduced at strategic points.” That theme was expanded to ticketing and concessions as well. To the designers at 5G Studio, “the Metro Plaza Cinema elegantly carves spaces by manipulating the materials that make movies possible, artificial light.”

While these concepts are indeed enlightening, our readers may nonetheless have some very practical concerns. After all, the three cinemas in question are constructed on the upper floors of shopping centers. “More than a trend,” Voegtle thinks their location more likely was the result of the “cinema development culture” in China. “Unlike in the States where development is driven by the movie theatre as an anchor, the cinema industry traditionally in China has not been at the forefront of development. Being that ‘the shopping mall’ is very popular in China and developer-driven, the upper floors became a natural place for the cinema to reside.”

What about ceiling heights and columns? “Any theatre that has to be designed into an existing structure is going to have its challenges working around structural elements and limitations,” Voegtle concurs. “Our design process takes into account all of these factors and our design solution is both aesthetic and technical. Every aspect of the theatre is thoroughly studied in three-dimensional models to ensure that the space functions adequately.”

“The lobby look and feel is someone’s first impression of the theatre,” he continues. “We feel that this first impression, accompanied by clean and clear circulation and branding, will set the tone for the type of moviegoing experience someone will have. This is our first goal as cinema designers. Auditoriums are more technical in nature and solve problems such as good sightlines, comfortable seating, and quality sound and projection.”

As the Chinese exhibition industry “continues to expand in both the large and second-tier cities across the country,” he says, “new cinemas are upgrading to large-format screens and are experimenting with VIP amenities such as lounge and bar spaces… 3D films, and newer technologies such as 4D effects and 5D motion seats, are gaining in popularity. And U.S. trends [like] the cinema-eatery or dine-in concept will soon arrive,” Voegtle predicts. The building boom will “absolutely” go on. “With film restrictions relaxing and Chinese domestic films now competing with Hollywood standards, the future of cinema and the demand for new theatre technologies and contemporary venues will continue to evolve and grow.”

As architects and designers,” Mike Voegtle concludes, “we are continuing to push theatre design in a direction to help bring the cinema to the forefront and have it become the catalyst of new development. People have such strong emotions when it comes to cinema and every generation can relate to films that define them. Our job as designers is to make their moviegoing experience memorable and to create a space that sets the scene for those memories to take place.”