Artistic designs: Cinema architecture inspired by murals, martinis and Manhattan


“I like going to the cinema to spend a good time with some friends and keep visual inspirations from any kind of movies,” Federico Massa, the Milan, Italy-born and now Brooklyn, New York-based artist known as Cruz (, tells us via e-mail from Ibiza. Before jetting off to the Mediterranean island, where he is working on a mural for the international art happening Bloop Festival, Cruz had completed the third wall on his home turf—and the largest so far—at the seven-screen, 880-seat Williamsburg Cinemas. “I approached the cinema because I was interested in the large exterior wall as a place to express my art. I think we have to catch our own opportunities when we see them.”

Both the artist and cinema operator, Harvey Elgart, are emblematic of our 2013 examples of great ideas for designing unique cinema experiences. Following our past reports on cinema architecture that floats and fascinates, and theatres that twist and turn with pods and pedals, Film Journal International takes a look how art and artistry provide opportunity and inspiration.

The cinema operator made suggestions, Massa confirms about the collaborative effort in Brooklyn. “The most important was to use superheroes as protagonists. Usually, I realize works with more surreal personages and situations, but I think the result is a perfect combination between the requests made for the project and my personal vision of art and expression.”

From the beginning of June, it took him three weeks of spray-painting for many hours on a scissor lift. “I used 150 cans. I thought such a big wall required a lot more, I still can’t believe it!” Kids have the best reactions, he told After having added his own creative twist by changing around heroic gear and handing out super-sized popcorn and anaglyph glasses, “they would point and know all the superheroes and whose costumes they were wearing, like ‘Oh! No way!’”

While superheroes and street art mingle in Brooklyn, the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan mixes movies and martinis with what’s on display in their galleries. In a year-round series of “Cabaret Cinema” on Friday evenings, the programming of classic films from around the world and on-stage conversations are part of the museum’s “immersive environment” that “stimulates learning, promotes understanding, and inspires personal connections to the ideas, cultures and art of Himalayan Asia.”

Over the summer, Cabaret Cinema invited guests to “Say a Little Prayer” before and after or even during the movie. Films “illustrating the use and abuse of prayer” and presenters to match accompanied the exhibition “Count Your Blessings” in the theatre level gallery. Talk about art inspiring films: John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole were among the selections, as were Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician and Sergio Corbucci’s Django.

“Our theatre is not only a film venue,” Anne-Marie Nolin, the Museum’s head of communications confirms. “The seating is flexible and cabaret seating is also the set-up for some of our concerts and talks.” Best of all, the adjacent K2 Lounge offers beer, wine and cocktails to enjoy during the show. While the fall films had not been confirmed at press time—except for none other than Oscar winner Joel Grey “exploring willful cultural complicity in Germany” in his introduction to a screening of Cabaret—the unifying topic of “Ignorance” had been set. “To explore how the unknown permeates our lives and impacts our perceptions of the world around us,” museum programmers secured an illustrious lineup of speakers to include Alec Baldwin, Mira Nair, Neil LaBute, Neil Gaiman, Laurie Anderson and many more. “Almost all elements in the museum will highlight what we don’t know,” the media announcement promises further, providing one example that should prove particularly tasty to our readers. “For the duration of the series, the bar will serve popcorn with a mystery ingredient every week. Patrons at the late night Cabaret Cinema screenings will have an opportunity to guess the ingredient and win a prize.”

Moving from art that inspires films, we found an example of films inspiring art just a bit further downtown on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At Ludlow 38, the gallery space of the MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies of the same name ( presented “Celluloid Brushes: An Anthology of the Filmic Perception of the Artist” from 1942 to today. The project was originally curated by Brussels-based Etablissement d’en Face and subsequently shown in Rotterdam and Berlin. For the New York City edition, 68 posters designed by as many contemporary artists were selected. They were paired with some of the “rarely seen films, Hollywood productions, auteur cinema pieces, and artists’ videos on the life and work of famous or fictitious artists” that inspired the posters in the first place.

This author couldn’t help but enjoy the historic significance of returning films—albeit on a large-screen panel and via discs, but with rows of unfastened chairs intact—to a storefront setting, as was customary in the very early days of the exhibition business. And, indeed, just down the street on Canal ( and over on Delancey Streets (, there still stand—at least in spirit—two large Loew’s theatres from 1927 and 1911, respectively.

In another twist to the conventions of those times, patrons do not know in advance what’s actually playing at Ludlow 38, but are similarly enticed by the artful display on the walls. As the showings are free and come from non-theatrical distribution sources, titles such as Goya (Carlos Saura), Vincent and Theo (Robert Altman), Frida (Julie Taymor), Camille Claudel (Bruno Nuytten), Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway), High Art (Lisa Cholodenko), Il Decameron (Pier Paolo Pasolini), A Quiet Place in the Country (Elio Petri) and Lust for Life (Vincente Minnelli) cannot be advertised. (This list is based on posters on display, not necessarily movies shown.) The gallerist at Ludlow 38 may have replaced the nickelodeon manager, but his function as curator of stories and images remains the same.

Of the many classic picture houses that once graced the Lower East Side of Manhattan, only one remains. In better-than-ever form, Landmark’s Sunshine Theatre shows the best in specialized programming. This past spring, the state-of-the-art house was joined by our last—and most exciting—example of artistic design. For a few weeks, the nearby neighborhood community garden known as Petit Versailles played host to the Blue Balcony, an amazing homage to the movie palaces of the 1920s.

The group of artists and cinema fans behind *et al., who conceived of and built this “cinema-sculpture,” called the exterior “a nondescript plywood shack propped up on stilts, with a narrow staircase allowing access to the interior.” Once inside, however, the Blue Balcony entertained its visitors on many more levels: with sound, color, texture and light, plenty of atmosphere, detail and design; with 14 seats on three rows of stadium seating, but without actual filmic images. In lieu of the customary screen, *et al. took the idea of movies as a window to the world quite literally. They installed two plate glass windows so that, facing the garden pathway and brick wall of the neighboring building, they reflected nightly traffic lights and shadows coming from the busy metropolitan street.

During these so-called “sans screenings,” many different types of (public domain) movies were played with their soundtracks intact, but sans image. “The visual component of the film is nonetheless present as an abstraction of light is realized via dynamic lighting effects.” Nicholas Vargelis, one of the project’s international artists who toured classic movie houses of the Midwest in preparation for Blue Balcony, explains the technology behind the experience. “To create these effects, a computer algorithm analyzes the moving image and translates the information thereby gathered into values of light intensity. Each film frame is divided into a grid with nine different sections where the algorithm determines the overall luminosity level that they contain. These values are then matched with as many individually controlled sources of light that we embedded in the walls and ceiling of the Blue Balcony.” Vargelis says this is very much like the light bouncing off the movie screen and in line with picture palaces keeping cove lighting and other spots on, “making it possible for patrons to see while entering and leaving mid-program.”

In addition to “the usual elements one would expect in a cinema” (*et al. listed and installed theatre chairs, projection booth, exit sign, floor tiles, carpet and aisle lights), the Blue Balcony really upped the creative ante with its décor. “The Blue Balcony recreates a grand cinema of the 1920s and offers an abstraction of the expected cinematic experience,” Vargelis explains. While architectural greats like Eberson, Lamb, Lee, Pflueger and Rapp & Rapp created their magic mostly with plaster, paint and glass, the Blue Balcony came alive with colored paper, fabric and textured wallpaper. “The walls of the auditorium resemble a permanent Hollywood stage set,” Vargelis concludes, “with fake building façades under an artificial starry night sky. Thematically, the space is dripping with allusions to Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist fairytale The Blue Bird,” and reflecting its host location, “to the long-gone labyrinth of Louis XIV’s Gardens of Versailles, and the 1924 silent cubist film L’Inhumaine.”

How’s that for inspired cinema design?