(This blog post is a work in progress!)
Cinemas were exciting new public assembly spaces built as part of the new phenomenon of democratic leisure. In Ireland, as elsewhere, cinemas were sites for escapism and fantasy. Cinema interiors served to transport the audience to exotic destinations through the illusionary devices of modern lighting and ersatz materials which imitated gold, silver, velvet and exotic timbers. The air was sprayed with perfume and seating was plush. Cinemas like the Metropole and Savoy in Dublin city incorporated restaurants and dance floors and in this way they served as multi-functional contemporary leisure venues. When I was researching cinema-going in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s I found a lot of references to the church’s condemnation of the leisure activity. This post will explore some examples of cinemas built in regional towns in Ireland in the midst of a 1930s cinema craze and will examine their designs in relation to contemporary ideas about morality and modernity.
Like other buildings described in this blog, cinema design seemed to be at the height of its evolution in the mid-1930s. The best of the type were technologically innovative and were designed as a team effort between architects, engineers and skilled artisans (larger examples were described as ‘super cinemas’). As commercial, privately operated ventures they used visual spectacle and associations with Hollywood glamour and modernity to attract customers, as well as references to historical architectural styles. Their interiors were inspired by film sets and they in turn inspired interior design in other venues and even in the home. Leisure was no longer the preserve of the leisure classes and most people could now afford to participate in the glamorous and democratic luxury offered by the cinema. It wasn’t just about the film on the screen; the audience could enjoy watching glamorous scenes featuring art deco style stage sets in similarly decorated surroundings!
There were two typological approaches to cinema design observed by contemporary architectural commentators. These were described as the ‘atmospherics‘ and the moderne varieties. The atmospherics incorporated fantastical interior scenography – such as the Venetian Doge’s Palace recreated in the 1929 Savoy in Dublin – and the more ‘functional’ moderne types with a more streamlined and minimalist design aesthetic, creating a unified appearance between interior and exterior. Both approaches (with overlaps) were evident in Ireland. This post will look at Michael Scott’s Ritz cinemas as examples of the moderne functionalist approach (Athlone Co. Westmeath, 1938-39, and Clonmel, 1939-40; also a Carlow Savoy not discussed here) and Robinson and Keefe’s more atmospheric Savoy Cinemas in Galway and Waterford (which were in reality dualistic in terms of design approach).
Cinemas such as the Athlone Ritz by Michael Scott were like objects of industrial design, evocative of 1930s streamlined wireless sets. They communicated their function as though they were a casing for a modern mechanical device – in this instance for the display of moving pictures. Streamlined and inevitably white-rendered as though cast from a mould, their interiors were similarly lacking in elaborate ornament. This ‘cleanliness’ and simplicity was associated with ideas about social levelling and advanced culture in modernist discourse. As discussed in previous posts, a symbolically hygienic environment was also considered to be morally as well as physically improving. On the other hand, the atmospherics, with their opulent decor and references to historical styles as well as luxurious French art deco, appear to have been associated with decadence by moralists (and the catholic church in Ireland) and with social stagnation according to intellectuals and modernists. In the Savoy cinemas of Robinson and Keefe there was a clever blend of functionalism, which seemed to reference the wholesomeness of their educational buildings, with the escapist luxury which people wanted to experience in a cinema interior.
Ritz Athlone, Michael Scott (Irish Builder and Engineer)
Ritz Clonmel, Michael Scott (Irish Builder and Engineer)
All three of the the Ritz group of provincial cinemas contained similar interior decoration but various external forms dependent upon the constraints of the particular site. Interesting influences are evident in these buildings. An American approach to the typology is noticeable in the architectural handling of the ‘publicity tower’ in the Clonmel (1939-’40) example – also reminiscent of Dreamland at Margate, United Kingdom (designed by Julian Rudolph Leathart & W.F. Granger, opened in 1935). An expressionist influence is evident in the design of the Athlone cinema with its curving glazed element, as well as the influence of Erich Mendelsohn’s celebrated Universum Kino in Berlin (1925-’31). Most of all, the International Style had clearly influenced the architect who enjoyed a friendship with Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus. Gropius gave a lecture on the subject of The New Architecture and the Bauhaus in 1936, at the request of Scott who was head of the Architectural Association of Ireland at the time (Rothery, 1991). In the pilotis which supported the ground floor of the Ritz in Athlone, the clear influence of Le Corbusier is a notable feature. This space was intended to be glazed for a riverside cafe or ‘buffet’ but remained empty.
The cinema at Athlone was built on the filled-in bank of the River Shannon and, due to site conditions, both a sturdy and lightweight structure was required. It was built of ‘vibrated’ reinforced concrete. An Irish Press reporter noted that ‘the elevations of the building reveal this method of construction’ (17th February 1940: 10). A perspective drawing of the cinema shows a boat hitched to the side of the building which fed into the 1930s love of the outdoors and played with connotations of the international style ocean liner aesthetic. The ticket-box was located below the canopy on the exterior – the local paper reported that this was an American solution. International-style tubular steel railings marked the boundary of the site – in which the nautical influence seems appropriate. Oculi, or port-hole-style windows, were also a feature of the exterior. Abundant glazing conformed with the modernist requirement for healthful natural light to the interior. By night the building must have become a spectacle of artificial light, with tubes of coloured neon lighting the front and the glazing emitting its own diffused light onto the landscape (architectural critic PM Shand described this as a new ‘night architecture’).
The entrance hall was a double-height space, which was a result of omitting the typical balcony level foyer. Most cinemas had an entrance hall on the ground floor level and a separate foyer approached by a grand staircase (Attwell, 1980). Scott substituted the romance of the grand staircase for the opportunity to fully glaze the entire space. A flat roof to the rear was finished in tarmacadam for potential use as a terrace – a flat roof was de rigueur. A contempporary advertisement for ‘Ruberoid’ (the built-up flat-roofing system) stated that ‘modern architecture demands for its functional fulfilment a flat roof’, making a clever association with the importance that Walter Gropius (amongst other influential commentators) placed on this element (IB, 21/3/1936: 255). Similarly, an advertisement for the rival ‘Vulcanite’ proclaimed that: ‘Flat roofs are an integral part of modern architecture’ (31/10/1936: 1001). The advertisements appeared in the same year that Gropius spoke to the Architectural Association of Ireland, in 1936. His speech was identical to the text of the English translation of his book, The New Architecture and The Bauhaus – according to a report in the Irish Builder (Wisbech: 1936). In the book he had described his hope that ‘flat roofs as “grounds”’ would result in ‘leafy house-tops of the cities of the future…like endless chains of hanging gardens’ (1935:30).
The foyer colour scheme included duck-egg blue on the ceiling. This must have been a nod to the atmospheric tendency to imitate a blue sky, which appears to have been a cinema interior convention, which was often enhanced by a system of coloured lights which could be ‘played’ in sequence to mimic various natural effects ranging from ‘a glorious sunrise to a storm setting…each lasting five minutes’ (Anon (n)1930: 526). Lighting was in three colour tints and projected from a concealed trough in the ceiling. The walls were beige and pale grey in the lobby and, elsewhere, ‘rose colour fading to buff’. The public, which was generally not credited with the capacity to appreciate simplicity, was apparently very appreciative of it.
The interiors of these buildings were not historicist but consciously ‘modern’. Scott’s three examples were economically decorated, an attribute that PM Shand would have welcomed (Modern Theatres and Cinemas, 1930). Although the sense of magic and occasion may have been more understated than in the ‘atmospherics’, one former patron of the Athlone Ritz recalled that its interior was ‘glittering’ (Mc. Bride & Flynn, 1996). An understated luxury was achieved through the use of modern proprietary materials (their modernity giving them a sheen of glamour) in conjunction with a colour scheme of buff and neutral hues and the use of lighting as a decorative effect. However, the drawings of Scott’s Carlow Ritz and the Bill of Quantities for the Athlone Ritz do reveal a conflict between the desire on the part of the architect to produce a more expensively finished building and the budgetary constraints. Expensive items such as terrazzo were omitted and replaced with modern synthetic materials such as ‘Korkoid’. The decorative schemes of the finished buildings were economical but ingeniously effective. The Irish Builder’s commentary on the buildings shows an appreciation of their unified design while local press commentary reveals an appreciation of the promise of modernity that the buildings seemed to offer their regional locations: ‘the town of Athlone, rich in history, has yet not neglected its modern side’ (Irish Press, 17/2/1940). The Carlow cinema was opened to aplomb by film star Diana Wynyard in 1938 (irishnewsarchive.com).
The interiors made a virtue of simplicity – in the manner that Shand and The Architectural Review (which he contributed to), as well as the Irish Builder, recommended. The architect’s adherence to a functionalist set of ‘ethics’ is revealed in minor details in the Bill of Quantities in which architraves initially specified as ‘moulded’ were substituted with the more specific and plainly modernist ‘rounded’ on numerous occasions (IAA PKS 0299). Doors are described as ‘sheeted’ and ‘flush panelled’ in ‘Masonite Presdwood’ – a proprietary material typically used in modern vehicles such as the American Pullman coaches from 1935: ‘a new hard-wood manufactured solely of wood fibre…it is grainless, knotless and flawless’ (IB, 1931: 283). On flush doors, a contributor to the Irish Builder remarked that ‘one cannot doubt that the flush door has come to stay. Never again will the bolection mouldings and the beads and quirks of the Victorian four–or–six panel door act as dust traps, to be cleansed’ (Anon (i)1936: 688).
In The Ritz cinemas, various veneered plywoods – teak, birch, ‘figured oak’ – were used as facings to flush doors and wall panels (IAA, op cit.). The new types of plywood obtainable were discussed at length in the Irish Builder in an article in 1930.
Functionalism and Ethics
Much modernist discourse (also evident in the Irish Builder’s commentary) was concerned with issues of public improvement, which highlighted the difference between the lower economic classes and their professional class, and there is a sense that the overly-elaborate brand of cinema interior was considered patronising to an audience which consisted of all the levels of society. The cinema – like the train platform – represented a democratic space and ideally captured ‘the spirit of the age’ (Gropius, 1935). Le Corbusier had criticised the use of ersatz materials in this context and had noted that the cinema had helped produce an ‘unvarnished’ society in which the poor and wealthy alike could experience how the other half lived (1931). Shand had described the ‘present age (as) singularly intolerant of all forms of sham and snobbishness’ (1930:14).
This removal of the ‘veneer’ from society extended to a desire to revealing the ‘truth’ of materials which was noted, for example, as almost an ethical problem in the use of materials like ‘Colorcrete’ by a commentator for the Irish Builder (Anon (j) 1927: 127). However, in Shand’s critique of cinema interiors he had praised a Berlin cinema design by Kauffmann for the ingenious use of what he described as ersatz materials – deal boards and zinc plating. He remarked that ‘it is often a bad thing to have too much money at one’s disposal where building is concerned’ and favoured this economical approach (1930: 15).
A local reporter remarked upon the ‘exceptional type of decorative floor, designed by the architect’. This material was synthetic ‘Korkoid’ – one of the numerous new materials available to builders, a rubberised composite of compressed cork (Steele, 1995). It was available in various colours , was hygienic and hard-wearing and could be waxed and polished. This material was also used on the Queen Mary (1936) luxury ocean liner in ‘tourist class’ and in the shopping areas (Ibid).
Another economical but effective element in the decoration of this cinema was the use of corrugated asbestos (‘Big Six’) which was attached to the splayed sides of the proscenium arch and then spray-painted silver (Irish Independent, 16/2/1940: 99). This finish, when lit, would have achieved a modernistic serrated / fluted effect. As was Scott’s custom, he commissioned an artist to create artwork for the interior. The Irish Builder reported that two carved wooden figures were commissioned from Lawrence Campbell RHA, depicting Dance and Music, and were placed either side of the proscenium arch. However, Scott recounted to Dorothy Walker his memory of commissioning Louis le Brocquy to create two painted free-standing figures representing Tragedy and Comedy (Walker, 1995). ‘With these exceptions’ the Irish Builder remarked, ‘the decorative scheme is marked by extreme simplicity and there is nothing fidgety to divert attention from the screen’ (Irish Independent, op cit.).
The Savoy (was originally intended to be called The Corrib), Robinson and Keefe (Irish Architectural Archive).
Savoy cinemas (the Waterford Savoy is not discussed here)
The Galway Savoy was opened in 1935 and was designed for Irish baritone singer Walter McNally by the successful architectural firm of Robinson and Keefe, known for their use of modernistic elements in their buildings (Rothery, 1991). The building was designed as a landmark on Eglinton street and, standing three storeys tall, accommodated 1,250 people. It was described as being ‘brightly decorated in green and white’, by the Irish Builder and Engineer (Anon (a) 1935: 314). The white effect may have been achieved with ‘colorcrete’ – a proprietary brand of render mentioned in the Bill of Quantities – while the green finish was described as a glazed terracotta tile (faience), in a report on the proposed cinema in 1933 (Connaught Tribune, 9th Sept. 1935 ). The ground floor housed four shops, two either side of the entrance and their glazed fronts were framed in bronze.
The design of the building is an interesting juxtaposition of the ‘new architecture’ and what could be described as ‘skyscraper-style’ (Hillier & Escritt, 1997). The ground floor, street level, of the building was brightly coloured and made a feature of reflected and diffused lighting to illuminate the streetscape by night, advertising the building’s presence. The central portion of the building is a modernistic element, vertical in emphasis, which had a central glazed feature with prominent san-serif lettering, topped with a decorative flourish. You can see suburban schools designed in the 1930s with a similar central ‘art deco’ entrance feature – showing how apparently jazzy features such as these could lose their commercial associations completely. The portions of the building on either side of this are horizontal in emphasis with large, steel-framed corner windows by Crittals, with bronze fittings. No distracting roofs are evident – simply a cement-finished parapet terminating each element. Lighting was a key part of any commercial design in this period, often being diffused through opaque glass or reflected off modern materials, such as chromium and polished rubber flooring. Back-lit white ‘Morocco’ plate glass was incorporated in the front elevation of this building, as well as neon signage.
Terrazzo was used for the flooring, including the treads of stairs, trimmed with brass. The new ‘Ruboleum’ material was used in circulation areas (as in Dublin Airport). Rubber flooring was novel, especially because of the variety of colours available and this novelty, combined with a contemporary taste for hygiene and reflective surfaces, meant that it achieved the same standard of consideration as the more expensive and labour-intensive terrazzo. In 1935 the Irish Builder devoted an article to terrazzo, titled ‘Quality in interiors – How terrazzo helps’, with the author arguing that cheap construction is a false economy (Anon (b): 1202). An article on the interior of a new bank in Dublin described it as ‘hygienically finished with terrazzo dados’. While Ireland was experiencing a tuberculosis epidemic the ‘hygiene aesthetic’ (which Paul Overy describes in Light Air and Openness, 2007) was a practical consideration (Anon (c), 1935).
In contrast to the modernist ‘wipe-clean’ interior, however, the Savoy featured heavy moulded fibrous plaster cornices in the tearoom and proscenium arch. Bronze kick-plates seem a luxurious material to use on doors on which the levers were in chromium-plated steel. Chromium was an ersatz material – it was associated both with hygienic and ‘clinical’ modernist furnishings, as well as the luxury and glamour of venues such as the American Bar in the Savoy Hotel in London (credited with popularising the material through its use of PEL stools) (Wealleans, 2006).
The ceilings and partitions were ‘painted with scenery, to give an atmospheric effect, on the lines of the palatial cinemas of the modern metropolis’ (Connaught Tribune, op cit.). No indication of colour schemes is provided in the archives but two contemporary cinemas, The Regent in Blackrock Co. Dublin (designed by J.V. McGrane, 1938) and The Odeon in Dundrum Co. Dublin (designed by the firm of Henry J. Lyons during ‘the Emergency’, 1942), contained typical 1930s colour schemes, which shows the influence of Expressionist and Ballet Ruses colours and pattern. The Regent was described like this:
The dado of the cinema is chocolate colour, flecked in gold and terminated by a silver band previously moulded in the plaster; the walls above are orange colour graduated to pale cream to blend with the ceiling. The wall features are picked out in silver to reflect the light from the fibrous wall fittings. The reeding of the proscenium surround is coloured a deep orange, the flats being silvered to reflect the coloured lighting from the stage battens (Anon (d) 1938: 215).
The Odeon had ‘Russet’-coloured seats, orange painted walls, ‘speckled in’ red and gold, and a speckled blue ceiling. Both schemes sound very art deco. Use of gold and silver paintwork reflected the available lighting while also adding depth and movement to the interior as well as a sense of luxury and glamour. The draperies of the stage were in boldly clashing red and green whilst the decorative proscenium grilles (which concealed coloured lighting) were gold with red and black columns (Anon (e)1942: 293).
Regency style elements are a surprising feature of 1930s design and are also evident in the Savoy in the use of decorative urn forms on the stair balustrade, perhaps lending an air of aristocracy to the interior. Perhaps the reviewer in the Irish Builder was not very enthusiastic about this cinema’s design as he blandly acknowledged that: ‘the lighting and the interior decoration combine to give an atmosphere of charm and restfulness, qualities that the public is rapidly learning to appreciate’. Was he referring to the ‘evolving’ taste of the masses?
A local newspaper referred to the ‘atmospheric’ decoration but the Irish Builder probably decided to tread carefully and simply stated that it [the decor] was ‘treated much on the lines successfully adopted in the Dublin and Cork Savoys’. As this was an architect-designed cinema – and Shand maintained a distinction between this and the type of cinema whose plan was designed by quantity surveyors and decorated by shop-fitters – the Irish Builder may have appreciated the design in terms of what Shand described as a ‘tasteful levity’ (Shand, 1930: 4). These architect-designed cinemas were imagined in total; Gropius viewed this approach as being like the construction of a medieval cathedral, and many of the atmospherics seem to evoke a sort of futuristic baroque in their church-like interiors. Instead of critiquing the aesthetic of the design the article concentrated on its technical aspects – a tactic which seems to have been employed whenever an author did not want to offer an opinion. However this also reflects the contemporary association between the architectural and engineering professions in which their distinction was often blurred. The Cork Savoy was apparently the subject of a cutting analysis in the Architectural Review which Sean Rothery says mockingly described it as ‘Ireland’s most beautiful theatre’ (1991).
In 1928 the Irish Builder’s Page L. Dickinson described the architectural typology of the cinema as ‘the modernist’s opportunity’ saying: ‘new types of building come into being as a result of sudden demand…buildings that make no claim to permanence…Here the modernist finds ample scope for original experiment’ (1928:858). Predating Shand’s 1930 publication (in which he described the cinema as ‘a young and happy nation, (it) has no history’, 1930:3) but writing amidst an architectural discourse that referred to ‘traditionalism’ and the ideologies of Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, his views were perceptive. In 1930 he described the factors that were ostensibly, in his view, internationalising Irish culture and key amongst them was the cinema:
It may be noted, just in passing, that the cinema has played a great part towards internationalism, as it has familiarised people with every part of the world. As a consequence, it seems to me, people are far less ready to criticise new ideas and forms to-day than they were twenty-five years ago (1930:894).
This was problematic for some, and is noticeable in articles written from a Catholic propagandist perspective in contemporary Irish newspaper articles. An Irish Cinema Handbook (1943) also illustrated this tension – historian Claire Wills writes that it was edited by the notoriously puritanical Reverend Devane. It began with a reprint of Pope Pius XI’s Vigilanti Cura of 1936. The influence of the proclamation, in which the Pope stated that the cinema medium ‘has enlisted in its service luxurious appointments…everything calculated to delight the sense and cater for man’s lower faculties’ was preceded by similar comments in the Irish media at least from the early 1930s (Redmond,1943:10). Films were accused in the Handbook as causing ‘emotional agitation’ and showing alternative lifestyles for which economically impoverished people would yearn (Ibid).
Architect Alan Hope contributed an article to the Handbook on ‘The Modern Cinema Interior’, in which he reflected the views of Shand and the modernists, referring to the waste of money and labour involved in elaborate decoration, and also criticising the conceit of illusion in decoration. This draws a line between the aesthetic of modernism – its moral associations between ‘hygienic’ architecture and culture – with the church’s condemnation of ‘decadent’ cinema interiors. With their economical / hygienic aesthetic Scott’s Ritz cinemas might not have been easy to criticise on the grounds of morality. Likewise, with Robinson and Keefe’s Savoys, particularly the Galway one, the blend of functionalism (which was associated with hospital and school building design) with atmospheric elements may have diluted the ‘problem’ of their decadent interiors.
Note: the information for this came from sources which include the Irish Builder and Engineer, Irish Newspaper archives, Irish Cinema Handbook (1943), Modern Theatres and Cinemas (Shand), Cathedrals of the Movies: A History of British Cinemas and Their Audiences (Attwell), The Picture Palace and Other Buildings for the Movies (Sharp).