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Picture palace.

Coop Himmelb(l)au's new cinema, in the eastern German city of Dresden, skillfully manipulates and elevates the mundane typology of the multiplex to stunning effect.

As a setting for mass entertainment, the cinema has proved itself a surprisingly adaptable typology. It has survived the effects of two world wars, television, video, declining audiences, unimaginative distribution policies and deteriorating buildings. Yet throughout the cinema's short history, over-reliance on internal scenographic effects has consistently proved an easily executable substitute for architectural merit. Few European cinemas exhibited the Modernist refinement of designs such as Hans Poelzig's minimalist Babylon cinema in Berlin, for instance, or Gunnar Asplund's jewel-like Skandia in Stockholm.

The cavernous, highly decorated auditorium that was the standard cinema form for more than 50 years is now virtually obsolete. For most mainstream distributors and operators, the key to profitability lies in being able to screen as many films as possible. In the 1970s and '80s this meant splitting up existing buildings into a series of patently unsatisfactory smaller volumes; latterly, this has given rise to the purpose-built multiplex, which can be either slotted into shopping malls, or plonked down on cheaply acquired, edge-of-town sites. Multiplexes are a generally undistinguished breed, but occasionally, lowest common denominator values give way to adventure and innovation. Richard Rauh's energetic conflation of superscale elements instilled a suburban American multiplex with unexpected vigour and presence (AR February 1996), and Koen van Velsen's cinema in the heart of Rotterdam (AR May 1997/, with its great luminous foyer conceived as an extension of the public realm, shows what can be achieved with a series of introverted, blind boxes.

Coop Himmelb(I)au's new cinema in the eastern German city of Dresden is another experimental recasting of a fundamentally prosaic programme. Like the Rotterdam multiplex, it also has urbanistic ambitions to energize and densify the city centre by creating new public spaces. The site is a right-angled triangle, bounded by the busy St Petersburgerstrasse along its hypotenuse on the south-east side. To the west, is a row of raised podium blocks containing barrack-like post-war apartments; beyond these, the main thoroughfare of Pragerstrasse. The cinema and its surrounding piazza form a new link with Pragerstrasse and St Petersburgerstrasse.

The new building is made up of two interconnected parts. An orthogonal slab houses eight cinema screens with seating for 2600. Four of the smaller cinemas are located below ground, the remaining quartet are slotted together as a series of interlocking wedges, forming a six-storey slab. Grafted on to the north-west side of this bunker-like block is a skewed crystalline volume which serves as the foyer for the cinemas. Escape stairs cascade down the length of the cinema block and the structure of the foyer writhes in implausible, computer-generated contortions. The raw concrete of the cinema block makes a dense, earthbound foil for the dynamism and lightness of the foyer. Yet it seems that the ethereal, almost quartz-like quality that characterized the original model has not fully translated to the final building. Instead, a kind of industrial austerity prevails, giving the cinema the appearance of a crumpled factory, or partially demolished oil rig.

Within the soaring interior of the foyer, ramps, stairs and bridges - some glazed, some enclosed by galvanized metal balustrades - contrive angular patterns through space, appropriately reminiscent of early German Expressionist films. A cafe-bar housed in a double cone is vertiginously suspended over the foyer, like a giant birdcage. Cinema-goers become part of an elaborately choreographed urban ballet, with dramatic views through the foyer and over the square. At night, the glowing glass volume becomes a hive of activity, its transparent skin revealing the animation within. Through this, the building engages in and sustains a dialogue both with the city and its habitants, bringing life back into the urban centre.
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Title Annotation:Cinema Dresden theater, Germany
Author:Kugel, Claudia
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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