Thursday, 1 January 2009

Historic Buildings - new life for old stuctures

When Cecil Bernstein visited Granada, Spain, in the 1920s, he was inspired by the grace and elegance of the Islamic architecture of the Alhambra and the Moorish town of Albayzin on the adjacent mountainside. At that time Bernstein and his son Sidney were seeking to develop their cinema business, and like many in the burgeoning British cinema industry, sought to do so through the development of ‘atmospheric’ super cinemas similar to those that had become popular in the United States.

‘Atmospherics’ were designed to provide an experience beyond the film shown on the screen. Their interior opulence enabled the patron to enter another world – one far removed from the travails of life outside. The Bernsteins’ Granada chain based their atmospherics on interpretations of Moorish Andalucia, as well as the Gothic and Italianate architectural traditions, and they duly developed some of the most sumptuous and fantastical interiors in the pre-war cinema industry. The primarily Gothic interior of the Granada at Tooting, for example, includes baronial halls and a minstrel’s gallery, but also Moorish influences in the mirrored halls ( The Moorish influence is most strongly felt at the Granada Walthamstow and at Ealing (, the latter seeking to recreate the feel of the Albayzin.

Bernstein’s designer for these and other cinema interiors was the theatre director, set designer and Russian émigré, Theodore Komisarjevsky. He had fled the Russian Revolution, and in London concentrated on translating his success as a director in Russia to the British stage, with noted productions of both Shakespeare and Chekhov. Though Komisarjevsky worked with some prominent architects – such as Cecil Massey – to produce the Granada feel, it is ultimately his interiors that have led to many former Granada cinemas becoming listed. Indeed, the Granada at Tooting was the first cinema building in Britain to placed on the statutory list at grade I, joining only 2% of all other listed buildings. Yet despite recognition, particularly in the last 10 years, that cinema buildings – including those of the rivals of Granada – are historically and architecturally valuable, many today face an uncertain future or are already languishing in a state of disrepair or dereliction.

The ‘atmospheric’ of the 1930s, sometimes with over 3000 seats, began to become obsolete in the 1950s as television became the premier medium of entertainment. From the 1960s many cinemas were ‘tripled’ - their auditoriums split into three. A few 1930s cinemas survive today in their original use, but have usually been split into even smaller units to compete with other forms of entertainment. Some open auditoriums remain more or less intact in other uses – such as Bingo Halls (Granada, Tooting), pubs (Coronet, Holloway Road) or music venues (Brixton Academy). Often only vestiges of the original buildings remain, as frontages to supermarkets or residential developments.

But seeking an appropriate alternative use for listed buildings is a requirement of planning policy, and many cinema owners have been forced to think hard about how to give their buildings a new life, rather than simply resorting to demolition. After 10 years of neglect, and negotiation with the local planning authority on development options, the Granada at Clapham Junction will shortly become a church, for example, with residential units placed on its roof and flytower to help make the conversion and restoration of the Komisarjevsky interiors economically viable. Likewise, the Granada at Harrow has been converted into a health club and gymnasium, and has been cited by English Heritage as an example of good practice.

The Walthamstow Granada remains closed, as do many other historically significant cinema buildings. Experience shows, however, that with imagination and a willingness by both developers and local planners to be flexible, new uses for buildings whose original purpose is no longer viable, can be often be found. When they can, historic buildings can continue to make a positive, and often uniquely idiosyncratic, contribution to the communities and areas in which they are located.

Author: Lewis Eldridge

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