Thursday 22 May 2008

New Lighthouse a beacon for cinema design

The design of the new Lighthouse cinemas in Smithfield - miles away from the multiplex model - has real star quality, writes Frank McDonald , Environment editor

FOUR CINEMAS in a basement - it sounds terrible, evoking fears of claustrophobia and being shovelled into the bowels of the Earth. But with the new Lighthouse cinemas in Smithfield, DTA Architects has turned the idea of a basement upside down and transformed it into a "scenographic experience".

The inspiration, believe it or not, came from the Palais Garnier in Paris - not the opulence of the opera house, but the sense of arrival and procession through various levels, going down rather than up. "We wanted to create maximum drama of coming to the cinema, a different experience than going to a multiplex," says Derek Tynan.

Multiplexes have become so commonplace that we overlook how bad they really are. Cineworld on Parnell Street is one of the worst.

It's like finding yourself in a very congested airport terminal, suffused with the smell of popcorn, with escalators going up through several floors to disgorge you into corridors with rooms off (ie, the cinemas).

The Lighthouse, run by Neil Connolly and Mareta Dillon, was always different. A beacon for arthouse movie buffs (pre-dating the IFI on Eustace Street), it thrived on Middle Abbey Street until the building was gobbled up by Arnotts in the mid-1990s. And since then, it had been without a home - at least until two weeks ago.

Its re-materialisation in Smithfield was a long drawn-out process.

A cultural use had to be found for the huge scheme of apartments, offices and retail units built on the west side of the square by Fusano Properties, led by Paddy Kelly, John Flynn and Joe Linders. Indeed, it was one of the conditions of Fusano's planning permission.

Various options were examined, including a science museum and even a reincarnation of Donie Cassidy's Waxworks, before Fusano finally did a deal with the Lighthouse. Fusano put up €3.75 million for the project, with a further €1.75 million coming from the Arts Council, the Irish Film Board and the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism.

The original Lighthouse had been designed by O'Donnell and Tuomey Architects, and they did a feasibility study for the Smithfield scheme. In the end, however, the developers chose DTA Architects to carry out the challenging task of installing four cinemas in two enormous voids, 9.5 metres (over 31ft) deep, below ground level.

Derek Tynan had previous experience of cinema design with the Northgate in Cork, which is still highly rated, and he worked on the Smithfield project with Colin MacKay and Dermot Reynolds. To get their heads around it, they made models to show how the cinemas, back-up services and circulation space could be slotted in.

Flanked on both sides by a three-level car park, the four-storey void under HKR's tower block was linked to a three-storey void beneath Market Square on the podium in front by a structure that already had floors and a staircase. Reinforced concrete columns supporting the apartments overhead were another design constraint.

What the architects did was to install screens 1 (the largest, with 288 seats) and 2 under the podium, while screens 3 and 4 are under the ground-floor cafe and the stepped terrace - more than a mere staircase - that leads down to the depths. The latter two intersect to form an angular ceiling for the bar area below.

The volumes are all clearly expressed, clad in black aluminium, and "you can see the top, side or underbelly" of each of them, as Tynan says. They are also used to form the processional route to the four cinemas, so that "at every turn, you're informed of what we've inserted as opposed to what was given", according to MacKay.

Behind the scenes, in the area that was already floored, the architects located all the back-up services, including projection suites, management offices, staff areas and a multi-purpose room that could be used for seminars. There are also two lifts, to ensure universal access, but hardly anyone uses or even notices them. At the foyer level, glass balustrades give views down so that cinemagoers can get a sense of the depth and scale of the new Lighthouse. "You can't drop people down three floors - it just makes them feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic," says Tynan. "So what we were at was to provide a sequential experience of descending."

THE ENTRANCE, tucked away near the corner of Market Square, is marked by an elongated upstand in mirror-finish stainless steel, with a large rectangular cut-out - an extension of the wall inside - and the idea is "to draw people in physically, hook them into the space", as MacKay says. Above it are vents for the air conditioners.

Mirror-finish stainless steel is also used for the poster board on one side of the foyer, the box office and the counters of both the cafe and bar. Floors are all done in American light oak, at least in the circulation areas, with simple resin-coated floors alongside. The carpets in the cinemas seem a bit cheap, reflecting budget constraints.

Altogether, the Lighthouse has a capacity of 600 and each of its four cinemas has a different colour code. Screen 1 is all blue, Screen 2 (which is peculiarly narrow) has grey walls and multi- coloured seating, Screen 3 is red and vivid, while Screen 4 has multi-coloured walls and black seating. In other words, it's nothing like a multiplex.

Clusters of fluorescent tubes, huge vertically, provide lighting in the circulation areas, which could provide dramatically different settings for fashion shows, product launches and receptions such as the opening bash on May 8th, when the place was thronged with sightseers from the southside, marvelling at what the northside has to offer.

Smithfield is off the beaten track, even though it's a short hop on the Luas from Abbey Street. But then, most of the city centre cinemas are actually located on the northside. South of the river, with the exception of the Screen and the IFI, so many cinemas have closed that the nearest now is probably the multiplex in Dundrum.

There is a large public car park underground, beside the Lighthouse, so anyone with a car can easily get to Smithfield without having to worry about parking. The office of film censor John Kelleher is to relocate here from Harcourt Terrace, using the smallest of the Lighthouse cinemas as a screening room - and helping with the rent.

There is an obvious payback for Fusano in playing host to Connolly and Dillon's new venture, not least because it will increase "footfall" in the area and make it easier to find tenants for several vacant retail units. Creating "critical mass" is what it's all about, and this 5,500sq m (59,201sq ft) cultural facility is a step towards that goal.

Market Square, previously a vacuous space, is already more lively, with the Thomas Read pub spilling chairs and tables outside. People were also making use of the limestone benches, which pre-exist the Lighthouse, to loll about or read the cinema programme.

But there was litter everywhere. Doesn't anyone have a brush?

Irish Times

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