Extracts from Nigel Warburton Ernö Goldfinger: the Life of an Architect (out of print - copyright Nigel Warburton)
The cinema consisted of an auditorium with a single bank of seats with space for 1044, replacing the 4000 seater Trocadero, which Goldfinger declared was only ever full for Bingo. The problem set by the site and the project was to achieve an unobstructed view for every member of the audience given the relation between the beam thrown by twin projectors and the size of the giant screen. Goldfinger used a wooden mock up of the interior of the cinema to assure the sight lines worked – lengths of blue string and elastic bands allowing him to test these aspects of the design. The cinema also needed to be soundproofed against the noise of nearby trains. Beyond that, Goldfinger, an enthusiastic filmgoer himself - ‘Westerns, nouvelle vague, and damn silly films incredibly well-made in Hollywood’[i][ii]– felt that the only other essential factors were the comfort of the seats and the film showing.
His solution to the architectural problem was a concrete cinema that wasn’t disguised as something else. When it hasn’t been hidden inside the shell of a larger complex of buildings, cinema architecture has for the most part aped or exaggerated theatre architecture. This is particularly true of the interior of cinemas. Yet cinemas don’t have live performers, so there is little rational justification for the elaborate proscenium arch and the multiple curtains that have so frequently been used in them. The focus of a cinema should surely be the screen, not irrelevant allusions to theatre design and lavish parodies of rococo. Ernö refused to dress the building up as something else – at last, as Reyner Banham wrote, ‘a cinema that is not castrated theatre’.
Even from outside, the shape of the auditorium was apparent as was its supporting structure. The roof was supported by a visible reinforced concrete beam running across the building. Two lesser beams supported by the main beam followed the shape of the diverging rays of the projector’s light. Thus the whole building, inside and out expressed and also depicted its function. It was a constant reminder of the projector and the light it casts. The open space underneath the auditorium could, if necessary, provide queuing cinemagoers with shelter before entering through the single entry point. Inside, the projection booth appeared suspended above the auditorium. The large screen was a screen and not a quasi-stage and it was deliberately made the dominating element in the interior so that the filmgoers were always aware of it, even during the interval. When the lights were dimmed it appeared to float in front of the viewers without visible support. Rather than curtains closing across at the interval in that strange theatrical ritual that still persists, a kinetic light display was projected, much like a present-day screensaver. True to the spirit of Loos, there were no ornamental intrusions to distract from the point of the cinema.
Architectural historians have an unfortunate mythologizing tendency: they rarely mention the flaws in their heroes’ designs. Perhaps this is a reaction to the popular press’ habit of demonizing architects. Yet any major building is likely to be imperfect in some respects. Here the new screen design proved attractive to children for the wrong reasons. They had easy access to the stage and soon discovered that they could run round and hide behind the back of the screen. Worse, when Goldfinger located indirect lighting under the handrails leading down the auditorium, he hadn’t anticipated that children would discover how easy it was to unscrew the unprotected lightbulbs. During one day fifty bulbs disappeared leaving fifty live sockets at hand height in a darkened room. This was a far from ideal situation.[iii] The carpet that Goldfinger had designed for the auditorium had worn out in less than two years and was swiftly replace with aesthetically inappropriate but hardwearing coloured plastic tiles. Yet these were relatively minor problems once recognised, and for the most part the cinema functioned effectively, though, not, as I will explain in Chapter Ten, for as long as he would have hoped.
The bulldozing of Goldfinger’s cinema at Elephant and Castle, less than a year after his death, had symbolic signficance. It was a powerful expression of a rejection of the doctrines of Perret and the aesthetics of undisguised concrete building. The building’s demise was almost inevitable since the shuttered concrete exterior relied on an aesthetic that was not widely shared. In 1988 (several years after Goldfinger’s death) the property developers Imry hung a ‘closed for refurbishment’ outside the cinema, despite there being no planning application for this. Southwark Council wanted to issue a Building Preservation Notice so that the building might remain intact long enough for the listing committee to meet and decide whether or not to save it for posterity. But the council, fearing the financial penalty of having to compensate the developers for incurred costs if they issued a notice and no listing of the building resulted, a cost which they would have had to bear personally, backed down.
A photographer from English Heritage perhaps unwittingly triggered Imry’s fears that the building was about to be listed. One Friday afternoon, only days after the cinema had officially closed, and before any listing could take place, Imry ‘Let a little light into the building’ as one of its demolishers put it.[i] Andrew Saint, a research historian for English Heritage, described the building as ‘one of the most important, if not the most important, of freestanding postwar cinemas’.[ii] In contrast Bryan Martin, spokesman for Imry, revealed his dislike for it: ‘I find this mania for buildings nobody wants standing round beyond my understanding’, he declared, ‘it could have been designed by the people who designed Hitler’s concrete bunker’[iii]. This last comment is revealing. Even in the late years of the twentieth century, for many in Britain the connotations of exposed concrete were of the bunker, the pill-box, the tank trap, the gun implacement if not the grimy multi-storey car park and the graffiti-covered walkways of poorly-constructed shopping centres and tenement blocks. Such associations have coloured the public reception of numerous modernist buildings. For those who see concrete in this light, there is little hope of understanding Goldfinger’s enthusiasm for the medium, his pleasure in juxtaposing different textures and patterns of bush-hammering. For such people the use of exposed concrete may be a temporary if oppressive necessity, like brieze blocks, but ultimately something to be eradicated wherever possible.
For purists, though, the complete destruction of the building may have been a better fate than its partial reconstruction – the sort of distortion by modification reserved for the rest of Goldfinger’s Elephant and Castle complex. Much of the exterior of Alexander Fleming House has been so disguised that it is scarcely recognisable as a Goldfinger design.
(from Nigel Warburton Ernö Goldfinger: The Life of an Architect - copyright Nigel Warburton)
[i] For details see ‘Astragal’ Architectural Review 1988
[ii] Quoted in Deborah Thorp ‘Cinema rescue bid beaten by speedy demolition work’ Building Design, August 19, 1988.
[iii] See Deborah Thorp ‘Cinema rescue bid beaten by speedy demolition work’ Building Design, August 19, 1988. Also quoted in Elwall, p.89.