Deco Nouveau: A New Life For An Old London Movie Theatre

I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to a wonderful restoration-conversion project in London, where an old Art Deco-era cinema has found new life as an hotel. This article gives an overview of the project, as well as a link to a video featuring Jason Flanagan, the lead architect from the firm of Flanagan Lawrence who worked on it.What is particularly interesting about this design however, although this fact is not mentioned in the video, is that it has nothing to do with what the original building looked like.

Today we look at the lines of the exterior facades on the former Shepherd’s Bush Pavilion and say to ourselves, “Art Deco,” but at the time it was built the cinema was supposed to be in the Italian Renaissance style. One takes this description with a grain of salt, of course, since as anyone who has been to an old movie palace built in the early part of the 20th century knows, stylistic mish-mashes were quite common in these places. Here there would be some Chinese Chippendale, there some Hispano-Moorish, over there some Italo-French Rococo.

Nevertheless when it opened in 1923, this cinema made quite an impression, for both the exterior and the interior of the building won design awards from RIBA (The Royal Institute of British Architects). It was named as Best London Street Façade of the year, described as an “imposing structure of brick and stone in which the former material especially is used with great imagination.” It also won a Bronze Medal for Best Interior Design, due in part to having over two miles of carpet, and solid silver light fixtures. This was occurring at a transitional time in the entertainment industry, when films were becoming longer and more elaborate, and the stars of the silver screen were becoming the trend-setters in society, so that movies were no longer something raunchy or silly shown only in gaming arcades or at the seaside.

What is particularly interesting here is that the interior of the new hotel is not a retrofit of the original. In fact the original interior was bombed out by the Luftwaffe during World War II, and the place was essentially abandoned until 1955. The ruined interior was ripped out, and a more utilitarian interior put in its place, rather than attempting to restore the original. Thus when Flanagan Lawrence began work on the building a few years ago, they did not have an historic interior to try to preserve, only an historic exterior.

The end result is neither a recreation of the 1920’s original, nor a restoration of the 1950’s replacement, but something contemporary that references both eras. During the day the interior atrium is somewhat reminiscent of a building in which the advertising men of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “Mad Men” would feel at home, all wood paneling and simple, curved geometry. At night however, when those panels are illuminated from within, the effect is to create dazzling, rippling bands of gold stacked up to the ceiling, like a stage set waiting for a Busby Berkeley production featuring The Rockettes, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tap dancing down the middle of the room. I must confess, I never went to Shepherd’s Bush when I lived in London, but to see this interior in the evening, and have a cocktail at the bar, I just might, if I lived there now.

Such conversions of lumbering structures that have lost their way are never easy. However in this instance the architects did a tremendous job of bringing new life to a sad shell of a building. Kudos to Flanagan Lawrence for doing such a great job.

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Gargoyles Over Manhattan: A Skyscraper Like You’ve Never Seen Before

Skyscrapers are pretty boring.

Once you get past the Art Deco period, urban towers tend to get rather ho-hum. Even though they cost a fortune to build, most skyscrapers always strike me as looking rather cheap, banal, and infinitely interchangeable. If you could build the same thing in Detroit as in Dubai, who really cares what starchitect’s name you attach to it?

It wasn’t always this way of course, nor does it have to continue to be so, as architect Mark Foster Gage recognizes in his proposed tower for 41 West 57th Street, just south of Central Park in Manhattan. In his plans Gage, who is an Assistant Dean at the Yale School of Architecture, presents what would become a major New York City architectural landmark, both referencing the past and looking to the future. Illustration and video renderings of the project, which some are calling the “Gargoyle Tower”, can be seen on his firm’s website.

It is exciting to look at a contemporary building design which has so much richness to it, particularly as compared to most of its surrounding neighbors. The incorporation of significant, numerous sculptural elements into the structure has not been seen on this scale in Manhattan since the 1930’s. The fact that there is so much differentiation between the floors of the building provides far greater interest externally; the individualized layouts of the apartments along more sculptural lines will provide both challenges and rewards for those living in them; the rather Balinese temple-like rooftop observation deck will no doubt have a stupendous view of the city.

Gage’s proposal immediately calls to mind the work of Antoni Gaudí, which of course is why I wanted to share this with my readers. Certain elements of the design and forms are reminiscent of those employed by Gaudí in the Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, and elsewhere, although without directly copying them. As an aside, this brings to mind the sad story of the skyscraper hotel that Gaudí designed for what is now the site of Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan, but which (sadly) was never built. You can read more about that here.

One must acknowledge that there is a kitchy aspect to Gage’s assemblage of design elements, as admittedly one finds in Gaudí’s work as well. Giant angel wings and cruise ship propellers seem as bizarre on Gage’s design as giant snails and bowls of fruit do on Gaudí’s. Yet the difference between the two lies in the approach to the decoration itself.

Whereas in his work, Gaudí was generally making nationalistic or religious references, Gage admitted in an interview with architecture and design magazine Dezeen that there was no deeper meaning behind the design for this project. While deploring the ubiquitous “glass box” tower, Gage does not attach any significance to the exterior of this project, save for its aesthetics:

“Our primary interest wasn’t symbolism as might have been the case with such sculptural forms a century ago,” said the architect. “Instead we were interested in having high and low resolution areas on the facade, so the building revealed different qualities from different viewing distances – including from the interior,” he added.

Is it fair to compare these two architects? Gaudí was, of course, a deeply Catholic, proud Catalan patriot; his idiosyncratic designs, particularly as he grew older, came more and more to reflect his desire to honor God and his homeland. By contrast Gage is a fashionable, young, and innovative architect, who wants to explore interesting and beautiful designs by using the technology at our disposal.

Perhaps it would make more sense to take Gage as he is. His effort to do something different, yet still familiar, is a tonic to the samey-ness of most contemporary skyscrapers – which haven’t really changed that much since we started building plain, glass Kleenex boxes stood on end in this country over 80 years ago. A skyscraper is, in the end, something which functions independently of its decoration: even the beloved Chrysler Building, covered in sculptural decoration referencing the automobile which paid for its construction, does not depend on its decoration for its function.

Certainly this particular building, if it is ever built, would be a magnificent and unique addition to the Manhattan skyline, not only because it is so different, but precisely because its decoration serves part of its function. One need only consider the way it uses sculpture to provide elements such as outdoor space, for example. And it is, admittedly, very cool: one can imagine Batman and the Joker leaping about it on it, in a yet-to-be-made superhero movie. Yet therein lies the rub: without imbedding some deeper meaning into its programmatic decoration, one does wonder whether, over time, it will come to be viewed as little more than a very expensive bit of set design.

Whether this skyscraper is ever built, it certainly gives us a lot to think about. And like his work or not – I’m still making up my mind – Gage is certainly someone to watch. What do you think of this project? Feel free to leave comments and engage in some discussion below.

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When Good Buildings Go Bad

This is not a piece about how much I despise architect Frank Gehry. (Although I am working on a new one of those, so stay tuned.) Rather, I would like you to think a little bit about the relationship between patron and architect, when it comes to how a public building will be used. If you want to have fuzzy 1970’s wallpaper and a sunken fire pit in your living room at home, that is between you as patron and your architect or designer. Yet when it comes to buildings which serve public purposes, such as hospitals, churches, and hotels, sometimes it seems as though patron and architect are asleep at the wheel.

Case in point: the former National Park Seminary here in Washington D.C., which was featured recently in The Washingtonian.

The complex began life as a hotel in the 1880’s, built in the exuberant, historical mishmash style which the Victorians enjoyed. When the hotel failed, it was purchased in the 1890’s for use as the nucleus of an exclusive Christian girls’ boarding school. Over the ensuing decades the school, known as the National Park Seminary, added dormitories built in a range of international architectural styles, in order to encourage pupils to learn more about the world they lived in.

During the Great Depression, when many families lost the ability to pay for expensive boarding schools, enrollment began to decline sharply. With the outbreak of World War II, the Army requisitioned the property for use as an annex to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. For the next several decades, patients suffering from a variety of maladies were treated at the facility.

At first glance, the repurposing of this assemblage would appear to be a good use of a space which might otherwise have gone to waste. Creating a convalescent hospital with more cheerful, less clinical surroundings seems like a kinder way of addressing the needs of those recovering from the horrors of war. In a landscaped, park-like setting, surrounded by woods and streams, it was thought that the patients could make a better recovery from both their physical and their psychological wounds.

The problem was, many of these patients were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”). They had witnessed their friends being maimed or killed, and experienced things which haunted them day and night. So you can imagine, if you were a patient suffering from PTSD, what it must have been like to wake up from a recurring nightmare about something you experienced during combat in an old village in the French countryside, only to find yourself in a setting that looked remarkably like it. The psychological impact must have been terrible.

The Army did little to keep up the property, so that things began to crumble fairly quickly. A creeping decay, combined with whispered stories about medical experimentation, only heightened the sense of gloom about the place. This, combined with the nature of the buildings themselves, had a hugely negative impact on generations of patients, until the facility was finally closed in the 1970’s. The Army had never picked up on the fact that what was supposed to help soothe their patients had turned into something out of a Goya etching.

Although the blame for this must fall upon those who didn’t stop to think, historically it has often the case that the road to architectural hell is paved with good intentions. Carlo Maderno’s main façade for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for example, hews to the Counter-Reformation ideals which his patron Pope V espoused, and it was completed relatively swiftly. However the structure is also too squat, its bell towers were never completed thanks to poor surveying of the land which they were supposed to sit on, and the whole thing blocks the view of Michelangelo’s dome. Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, designed to reflect the Mayan love of water-based palaces and bring prestige to a burgeoning industrial city eager to foster greater ties with the West, was able to survive serious earthquakes relatively undamaged, thanks to its floating design. Unfortunately that same, highly evocative design meant that over time, the complex began to sink deeper and deeper into the muck on which it was built, until it had to be demolished.

The National Park Seminary was never a hugely significant piece of architecture, except perhaps for its remarkable main ballroom. Today, its buildings and grounds are in the process of being converted into a mixed use residential community. Yet the example of this strange, little-known corner of the Nation’s Capital does go to a larger point, which any consideration of new or repurposed architecture must take on board. Whatever their vision, sometimes both architects and patrons can get things very wrong, if they do not think of the long-term implications of their decisions.

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