Throughout the twentieth century, cinema and television stood as opposing paradigms of the moving image. Decades of cross-pollination, however, eventually undermined both their medium-specificities and traditional social identities. Today, electronic signals infiltrate public movie theaters, and movies of all kinds are readily available in private homes and on mobile devices, sometimes on the same day that they first appear in theaters. The architectural and urban consequences of these conflations are profound, as private and public spatial typologies of image-consumption have become anachronistic. Television no longer resides in private space, and cinema no longer occurs in public space. Two cinemas of the current transitional era, the IFC (Independent Film Channel) Center and the PFA (Pacific Film Archive), epitomize the blurring of traditional habits and contemporary practices. Both address the changing nature of the media dissemination, but neither exploits its full potential.

The IFC Center (Bogdanow Partners, 2005 & 2009) occupies the former Waverly Theater in New York City. Its opening signaled a new direction in cinema programming. IFC executives envisioned their center as an offshoot of retail superstores whose primary function is to promote, as opposed to literally sell, product. Like the pioneering Nike Town outlets of the 1990s, the IFC Center communicates a corporate image, in this case literally. It is essentially a brick-and-mortar television set peddling the moving image products of the IFC cable channel. The monetized distribution of these products, however, occurs primarily through cable television screenings and DVD sales. Whereas conventional models of motion picture promotion use television advertisements to promote theatrical releases, the IFC Center uses theatrical releases to promote television screenings.

The weekly programming strategies of the IFC Center accentuate the reading of the building as an architectural-scale TV. The center screens multiple programs in the same screening room on any given day and reserves weekly timeslots for themed series. Its programming adheres to season-like rhythms and cycles, and the diversity of its offerings far exceeds that of most models of cinema programming, including repertory models. Although the center continues to screen analog films, digital technology enables its strategy of diversity. As digital production becomes the default mode of moviemaking, both the scale and the diversity of programming sources increases exponentially, and the IFC Center takes advantage of the potential of digital distribution far more than most venues. At the same time, it maintains a semblance of normative cinema programming, as some feature-length programs (both analog and digital) screen daily at regular intervals. The paradigm, however, has been destabilized.

The IFC Center’s occupation of the former Waverly Theater is both perverse and appropriate. On the one hand, it injects the sensibility of a formerly private phenomenon (television) into a public space. On the other hand, cinema may be receiving its comeuppance. The Waverly was built in 1831 as a church and became a movie theater only in 1937. Poet Geoffrey O’Brien chronicles both cultural and architectural associations between religion and moviegoing in The Phantom Empire, and the Waverly epitomizes his thesis that, “It was when your world blacked out and the other radiant world imposed itself that you understood the word ‘awe’ … If God was anywhere, He was across town working wide-screen miracles.” (O''Brien, pp. 24-25, 52-53) The Waverly was a premiere venue for repertory programming and foreign films, and its closure at the end of the century embodied a broader decline of non-mainstream moviegoing. A second religion seemed to have run its course. The third coming of the venue as the IFC Center upholds the transcendence typical of either religion or traditional moviegoing. Few cinemas in New York City, old or new, rival the quality of the IFC Center’s primary screening venue. Both its technical specifications and its material atmosphere summon the exaggerated pleasures and cultural significance of the movie palaces that first appeared in the 1920s, despite the fact that the programming of the center promotes an unconventional (or non-cinematic) type of image consumption. An aesthetic dissonance, therefore, arises between an architectural agenda and a programming strategy.

A greater discord, however, arises in the secondary screening rooms of the center. Although every cinema receives the same quality seating, finishes, and technologies as the primary screening room, the spatial parameters of the secondary cinemas betray that quality. Awkward spatial proportions compromise sightlines, and poorly placed doorways open directly onto seating areas in ways that disrupt conventional cinematic viewing. The design team, which includes the clients, failed to seize the opportunities embedded within the inevitable problems of an adaptive reuse project. Its objective was to make every cinema as theater-like as possible, and that mission was doomed to failure. The center’s occupation and transformation of the Waverly could have reimagined the spatial paradigm of cinematic viewing, similar to how the programming logic of the center reimagines the temporal paradigm of moviegoing. The awkwardly placed and proportioned secondary screening rooms could have articulated a new cinematic aesthetic that complements traditional cinema. Instead, these spaces are victims of a limited vision. The center features one successful, albeit uninventive, screening room and four compromised screening rooms that aspire to an ideal that they cannot reach.

Whereas the IFC Center is a television trapped within a cinema’s body, the PFA (Diller Scofidio + Renfro, expected 2015) is a cinema trapped within a television’s body. Renderings of the project (see press release) portray a zinc-clad, single-surface cuboid volume that houses the archive’s primary screening room. The same volume accommodates a large outdoor screen on its exterior elevation. The interior and exterior screens share a wall in a beautiful reciprocal gesture that recalls the way in which a projected image is able to penetrate a perforated screen and appear as the inverse of itself on the back of the screen. Despite this cinematic reference, the form of the dual-screen volume bears a striking resemblance to a golden-era television set. Formal allusions aside, the exterior screen operates like a television set, as it produces a backlit image that, unlike a projected image, is insusceptible to diffusion through ambient light. One rendering of the screen portrays a daytime screenings of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), which would be impossible without backlight technology. Another rendering depicts a nighttime screening of Jacques Tati’s Play time (1967), which is at least conceivable through an act of projection. Nonetheless, even this rendering further establishes television, as opposed to cinema, as the conceptual precedent of the archive: as in the daylight rendering, an object-like form seems to generate, not receive, an image of light. The reciprocity between interior and exterior screens, therefore, may refer more to the spatial occupation of a television set than to the permeability of a projection screen: the interior venue is analogous to the interior of a television set, and the audience faces (conceptually but not literally) the back of the screen that appears on the exterior of the set. This version of image reciprocity, unfortunately, complements the television-inspired mission of the IFC Center more than the film preservation mission of the PFA, which is ironically better suited to the traditional notion of cinema promoted by the television station’s venue. Perhaps the two institutions should consider swapping their architectural identities.

Press releases by the Pacific Film Archive state that the interior screening room will accommodate a variety of analog and digital formats, which is mandatory even for institutions that ardently defend celluloid. It is unlikely, however, that the archive will exhibit films in anything other than their original media format and original aspect ratio. Renderings of the project that portray screenings of traditional films on the exterior video screen, therefore, are curious. It is perhaps notable that press releases do not mention this screen. In addition to its aforementioned technological and referential issues, the proposed screen abuts an impossibly small lawn from which an audience is supposed to view feature-length movies. As the renderings show, the screen would overwhelm viewers on the lawn and would more likely serve as a fleeting attraction for passers-by—more of an advertising sign than a venue. The screen’s apparently fixed aspect ratio compounds its problem. Its proportions appear to conform to the standard 1.77 (or 16:9) aspect ratio of digital television. If so, Vertigo and Play Time, which have an aspect ratio of 1.85, will require letterboxing.8 Similarly, movies that have an aspect ratio of 1.33, which is the vast majority of any archive’s catalogue, will require pillarboxing. Whereas legitimate cinema screens have adjustable masks that define whatever aspect ratio is required, the dimensions and proportions of the archive’s exterior screen are strictly defined by the static geometry of its building and therefore unchangeable. The minimal detailing and aversion to material layering of the proposed building seem to preclude a feasible masking detail.

Dan Graham, an artist who engages light as an architectural material, interrogates issues raised by the Pacific Film Archive in Cinema (1981), a conceptual project unburdened by economic and technological factors of actual architecture. The project addresses both the resistance of projection to ambient light and the notion of reciprocity and/or inversion between interior and exterior spaces. Graham acknowledges the Cineac (Jan Duiker, 1935) in Amsterdam as a precedent of his work. Duiker sought to accentuate an already sharp contrast between the Modernist engagement of the Cineac and the decadent escapism of its Art Deco neighbor, the Tuschinski Theater. Both the Cineac and the Tuschinski confront their visitors with abrupt entrance thresholds, but that similarity belies a deep aesthetic distinction regarding the relationship between spectacles and the city. Whereas visitors to the Tuschinski pass through a compressed passage on their way to a soaring lobby that acts a hub for the theater’s multiple seating areas, visitors to the Cineac pass under a simple metal awning that covers separate direct entrances from the street to ground level and balcony seating areas. The lobby of the Cineac is, in fact, the street itself.

Given the immediacy of its presence in the city, it is unsurprising that the original programming strategy of the Cineac adhered to a progressive ethic. Far more than the IFC Center, the Cineac sought to redefine the social role of cinema. Reflecting the avant-garde’s embrace of social realism and its rejection of formal abstraction in the 1930s, the Cineac screened short newsreels, which were typically shown only before feature-length films, in a continuous loop without intermissions. Audience members entered and exited the screening room when they pleased, just as one might stroll through the city. Duiker calibrated the spatial parameters of the venue to complement this transitory condition. The plan and section of the seating area and the size and placement of the screen minimize the likelihood of obstructed views caused by moving bodies. The sinuous and monochromatic forms of the interior derive further from a functionalist aesthetic and technical specifications relating to sightlines and acoustics.6 While these forms may seem to contradict the spatial patterns and material textures of urban fabrics and thereby to induce a sense of displacement from (as opposed to affiliation with) the city, the Cineac has a balanced its relationship to its context. It is neither an escapist retreat from, nor a direct extension of, the city. The geometry of the screen, which extends the flowing lines of the interior, articulates the intended equilibrium. In a remarkably prescient manner, the screen (like the PFA screening volume) looks like a golden-era television set. Unlike a conventional rectilinear screen, its floats in front of the wall as a disengaged object and prevents its imagery from seeming like a world unto itself. The Cineac accommodates illusion but prevents it from replacing reality.


the construction of drawings and moviesorthogonal picturesqueindeterminate projections
public television • more writing samples to be uploaded 10/21/18