Celluloid Stories: The History of Dublin Cinema Design

Posted March 24, 2015 in Features


In our city’s patchwork of imported ideas, one trend Dublin has yet to port is the rooftop cinema. Whether because of climatic inclemency or our collective vertigo, this milliennial phenomenon, which has spawned film festivals in New York and London, has failed to take hold.

Let’s be thankful that it hasn’t. My experience both attending and hosting screenings in retrofitted spaces has only served to make me appreciate the wit of cinema design. Neck-aches and sound bleed are enough to send anybody scuttling from a John Waters night in an old garage right back into the ergonomic womb of the nearest IMC.

Physical comfort is not the main draw of the picture-house, of course. Setting aside the obvious temporal consideration of the feature film you’re pissing €13 away on, there is a more mystical vitality that cinemas have retained over time. Whether it’s the cloud of adolescent pheromones or the compounded nostalgia, there is a magnetic force in cinema’s ether.

In his considerations of film as a pervert art, Slavoj Žižek notes that cinema ‘doesn’t give you what you desire – it tells you how to desire’. The culture of post-independence Irish society was one formed around normative notions of what was permissible to desire, and how that desire ought be expressed. The trauma of colonialism walled the nation off from the world. Hollywood, as a domineering propaganda machine for American individualism, opened a window to an alternate reality. In a culture contingent on revisionist nationalism, whether expressed through institutions as notionally diverse as the GAA or the Abbey Theatre, film offered an entirely different concept of the modern. Where devotional Catholicism’s austerity was reinforced by the ritual of mass, cinema-going was a secular ceremony. Cinema was a combustible hazard.

It makes sense, then, that such seditionary assemblies found it difficult to find a home. 100 years before Happenings made spending summer afternoons in public parks watching Back to the Future a viable social event, films were screened in fit-ups (for anyone who’s ever used a bedsheet and an Argos projector for a screening in their back garden, the fit-up’s arrangement will not require much explanation). You might also catch one in a converted shop building, or at cinematic events in theatres like the Olympia.

Given his position as Modernist anti-Christ, it’s no great surprise that James Joyce was partially responsible for the city’s first dedicated cinema. At 45 Mary Street, way back in 1909 before Penney’s turned the site into a paradise of teddy-bear onesies, the author established the Volta. Joyce had convinced some budding venture capitalists from his second home, Trieste, to invest in his enterprise. The seed money didn’t send him very far though: within seven months he dropped his sidegame and went back to jotting down notes for Ulysses.

Despite pretty rubbish attendance figures, the Volta ticked over until 1947 (having been rebranded as the Lyceum some time along its path). More successful was Ellis Quay’s Phoenix Theatre which today houses Bargaintown. The cornice-work can still be seen in the building, all curlicued flourish and gilt protrusion.

The Gala Ballyfermot

To return to notions of desire: Rowan Moore proposes at the beginning of his Why We Build that ‘desire shapes space, and space shapes desires’. As nationalist hegemony over culture eased and cinema entered its pre-television golden age, Dublin played host to a miscellany of desires played out in the architecture of its picture-houses.

The first to note is the escapist, exoticist form of cinemas such as the Savoy which employed flourishes pulled from Venetian motifs (right down to a painting of The Doge hanging from the walls). Directly opposite it, The Carlton cited art deco glamour, as did Abbey Street’s Adelphi. The nearby Metropole opted for a pared-down classical grandeur. The Rialto cinema, latterly a car showroom, was described as ‘one of the most original and attractive schemes, combining outline, character, comfort and beauty with the dignity and strength of modern architecture’1 . This was cinema as elevated to the status of opera or theatre, a prestigious pursuit conscious of its place in history and optimistic for the future.

As cinema became a suburban enterprise, picture-houses became loci for their communities, alongside dancehalls and bingo cathedrals. As Dublin began its sprawl in earnest, the development of picture-houses such as the Whitehall Grand and the Ballyfermot Gala were the bow on the parcel.

Television did not kill the cinema, but it relegated its value significantly. This much is clear from the dozens of cinemas that began to shut their doors from the 1960s onwards. Many of these buildings remain as palimpsests in the Dublin landscape, their function now whitewashed by their new tenants. The Adelphi is barely recognisable as the Arnott’s car-park, the Ballyfermot Gala a mixed-use leisure centre. Donal Fallon has written an invaluable piece about the evolution of the Cabra Grand from cinema to concert venue2 – interestingly the space seems to been a magnet for violence.

Carlton Cinema

Perhaps the most intriguing retrofitted cinema is O’Connell Street’s Carlton Cinema whose shell is now occupied by Dr. Quirkey’s XD Theater [sic.]. The facade of this once quietly majestic building is now covered in a collage of typo-heavy, stock image-reliant decals of poorly-rendered 3D animations – it successfully finds the horizon of crassness and sails right beyond it, transforming a building that demanded nostalgia with a kind of brazen futurity. XD Theater promises ‘SUPER-EXTENDED-3D’, a definitely authentic experience which ‘extends so incredibly far into the audience’s space that they feel they can touch it’. XD Theater legitimately offers a different experience from the cinema-going tradition. The idea of a kind of hyper-realism that is so immersive as to deceive human common sense belies the postmodern emphasis on the optical that seems almost cartoonishly retro-futuristic already. Capel Street’s 7D cinema, shoehorned into an old shop-front, is similarly gimmicky (though at least admirably lo-fi).

So much for these dead forms. It is useful to divide today’s cinemas into two categories: those that evince conformity, and those that eschew it.

The exurban shopping centre is a monument of Dublin’s inexorable sprawl (and, if you really want to stretch the symbolism here, a monument of the eventual triumph of the American ideological way over Irish society). The multiplex is perhaps the most integral block of any shopping-centre worth its salt. Their relationship is inextricably entwined, both leeching off each other’s human traffic (in particular, teenagers) and other shareable amenities). From the 1980s onwards, we see the rise of the IMCs and the Odeons.

Multiplexes are built for economic sufficiency. Think of the assembly line from in-house arcade to box-office, through pick-and-mix franchise, popcorn and Coke counter, ice cream franchise, hot dog franchise, to screen, to bar. All the while, the cinema can market its own products back to its audience – there is no opportunity missed to flaunt upcoming films through stands and posters, integrated escalator displays and limited edition food cartons. The proportion of everything in the multiplex is slightly superhuman – whether the super-sized soft drinks or the luxurious seats, the scale of the screens and the sheer proportion of them. It all goes to say: you can have it all if you want it. These cinemas employ the typical tactics of chain businesses: bright but unremarkable interiors, staff in branded uniforms, easily cleanable surfaces. This model was streamlined outside the city, then imported back in to it in the shape of Virgin Cinemas (now Cineworld).

IFI Interior

Ellen Rowley and Jane O’ Halloran’s architectural history of Dublin’s cinemas in Art and Architecture of Ireland (Volume IV) published by the Royal Irish Academy (to which this feature is indebted) observes that as independent cinema developed in reaction to the economic and cultural domination of Hollywood, so did the architecture of those picture-houses which offered an alternative. O’Donnell and Tuomey’s Irish Film Institute (né Irish Film Centre) remains a landmark piece of architecture in Temple Bar since its opening in 1992, thanks to the ‘patient, invisible mending, as opposed to brute cauterisation of the existing urban fabric’3. Everything about the IFI’s architecture bespeaks its ethos, manifests the desires of its members (indeed, that the IFI is so vitalised by its membership scheme is significant – it is at once open to all, at the same time exclusive). Its materiality is a mix of the European and the local: those towering Scandinavian doors opening up to the limestone courtyard. The courtyard is pliable, a space for meeting dates, loitering in post-film discussion, doing business over lunch, flicking through culture free-sheets in an almost consistently noisy atmosphere.

The IFI was borne from the National Film Institute, an arm of church bureaucracy. That this has recontextualised a sacred space (the former Quaker’s Hall) represents our break from the religious culture of the past towards a secular culture, a mesh of our own modern artistic identity and commercially-minded arts sector placed within the context of Western European culture.

This Temple Bar mainstay had no real competition in its milieu until the establishment of the Light House Cinema. The Light House, like the entire Smithfield development project, seemed destined for failure. However, its resurrection from closure is a testament to the power of good design. Now Smithfield’s flagship indoor public space, DTA Architects’ building is a far more dramatic edifice. It is a subversion of multiplex norms: the space is expansive, but intimate, the circulation systematised, but informal. Where the multiplex sticks to a bright, but two- or three-note palette in its interior fixtures, the Light House’s trademark cushions and seats are an anarchic swathe of colour. While its ground floor café is, in a sense, an analogue for the IFI’s, the real social space is its basement-level bar – in contrast to the high, open ceiling of its Temple Bar competitor, this space is perenially nocturnal, nestled surreptitiously into the angular skeleton of the building. Whether by fault or design, the impossibility of receiving phone reception or taking a fag break forces interaction, an architectural solution that pre-empts a socio-technological problem.

The Light House Cinema Interior

If there is a criticism to be made of DTA’s work on the Light House, however, it is that much of its empty space seems arbitrary. Furniture sits awkwardly in some nooks, the middle ground floor is devoid of function other than during specific events. In some ways, its aesthetic trumps the optimal use of space. In this regard, it reflects this generation’s commercial and social considerations.

If arthouse cinema represents an alternative culture, are the IFI and Lighthouse necessarily forbidding places? Even the city-centric cinephile subsisting on a diet of Pasolini and Noé will find herself in Cineworld or the Savoy during the release of crossover blockbusters. Does the system go both ways? I would argue not. Design can play a role in these perceptions of exclusivity, as much as marketing approaches. Neither of our arthouse cinemas could rightly be criticised for fostering aloofness, both boasting visible exterior presences and accessible outdoor spaces. The Cineworlds and Movies @ Dundrums will continue to draw the larger audience, however. The multiplex’s diminishing primacy as the main marketplace for film in the face of virtual distribution has only served to strengthen its hand at codifying the real-world experience of cinema-going. Through its economic dominance, the multiplex increases its authority over time. It is still here that cinema’s ether is at its sweetest.

1 According to Archiseek’s excellent directory of cinemas past and present.

2 Head to ComeHereToMe.com and search ‘Cabra Grand’.

3 In the Architectural Review’s contemporaneous reckoning.

Words: Daniel Gray

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