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Gunnar Asplund's Skandia

By Leo Gullbring
You slip into a cinema, leaving the blackish grey city-walk, heavy doors closing behind you. Inside you're welcomed by warm, attuned colours, getting your ticket at the box. Lights fading, shadows moving over the screen, searching for an empty seat. And under the introductory titles, a flicker of a memory, the scene in Jean-Jacques Beineix's Moon in the gutter, starring Nastassja Kinski in a shiny red dress in a shiny red car, Gérard Depardieu a heavily set dock worker, just standing there in the dark but nevertheless overdone stage-set, the uplit billboard an enticing exclamation mark: 'Try another world'. And you try it for two hours, once again ready to dispute what life really is about. And sure enough, going to the movies, leaving the trite everyday behind you, triggers your dreams: yes, you wanted something more, and you'll do it, sure as hell!


  

But this is not a common cinema. This is what going to the movies once was. This is what cinemas really should be about. Still. Seventysix years later. Take a closer look. The exterior reluctantly tells you this is a movie-place, the building itself originally a palace built at the border of the expanding citycore, just a few yards from August Strindberg's 'Blue Tower'. But well inside another cityscape opens up, admittedly on another scale, but nevertheless with a feeling of streets, narrow passages and a small room which feels like a starlit park. Indoors mingle with outdoor sequences of rooms over limestone floors and marble walls, all of it multiplied in mirrors. From the promenoir with its dark green and white colours you get a glimpse of the lavishly decorated auditorium behind innumerable doors. But first you better check out the upper floor. Take one of the steep staircases which under the starkly coloured frescoes by Leander Engström leads up to the balconies which frames the saloon on either side, classical motifs abounding along the side-gallery barriers and the upper-circle canopies. Here you can hide away in boxes and oldfashioned sofas (which certain ladies are said to have been taking advantage of), looking down into the elongated saloon, all this red fluffy velvet surrounding you, and a cool blue vaulted ceiling above, letting your mind soar into nothingness.

This garish example of the heroic age of movie palace architecture is one of the gems you can find among quite a number of preserved cinemas in Sweden. It quite matches the word of Gene Kelly who said that 'I can remember a time when where we went to the movies was just as important as the movies we went to see.' The atmospheric kind you might stumble in on in the states, masterly executed by architects like John Eberson, did never really catch on in Scandinavia. But theater-like interiors did proliferate beginning as early as 1904 when Stockholm got its first permanent cinema, only some eight years after Paris, London and Berlin. And this is no plaster or mailordered stucco with signs at the projection box saying: 'Please do not turn on the clouds until the show starts. Be sure the stars are turned off when leaving.' These are all real materials, just look at the remarkable textiles which required some fifty seamstresses occupied in doing appliqué and embroidery with gold wire and pearls on velvet and silver fabric.

That Gunnar Asplund was commissioned to do Skandia, which opened up 1923, was no exception. Do take a look at Röda Kvarn and Göta Lejon from 1815, Palladium from 1918, or China's orientalist interior from 1928 (to know more about these unique places, try cinema-historian Kjell Furbergs site: www.furberg.nu). The cinema had already acquired a reputation as an essential part of civilisation, with weekly newsreels and a repertoire where Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller were to prepare the ground for international stars like Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman. Well-known architects as well as artists were commissioned to add to the imaginary. Asplund hadn't got in contact with modernism yet, but the simple straightforward lay-out of Skandia is somewhat promising, and his City Library is already under way, a masterpiece of the classical announcing the modern. His inspiration for this overly decorated interior with its classical vocabulary was to be found in his Italian journey less than ten years earlier. The monochromatic painted walls with their intricate borders reminds of Pompeii. But this is surely more immortality than sin, although snakes in brass are present at the end of railings wreathed in red leather. The freely hanging lamps covered with grey silk are not yet put back in place, but they are a reminiscence of the Greek Theatre Asplund visited in Taormina, where he and his companion got lost in a catholic festivity. And what couldn't be more befitting? Isn't cinema still the very worship of semi-gods and saints among pop-corn and soft drink debris?

At its heydays statues of Adam and Eve flanked the screen, and the backlit curtain really promised paradise. With 70 mm the proscenium was moved forward, but the grandiloquent romanticism is still in place. And this very movie which flickers on the screen fits right into the place anyway. It plays with the same fleshy red colours, the same sensual stamina as Skandia itself. David Cronenberg's eXistenZ questions reality as well as virtual reality. Jennifer Jason Leigh as the programmer Allegra Geller embarks on a roadmovie into a game of her own making, where your own fantasy, your fears and dreams are the very stuff this virtuality is made off, which is even worse than The Blair Witch Project.. And Cronenberg is presenting a kind of existential propaganda, a fear of detachment, of loosing what makes us human, a dread that the division between body and soul becomes a reality, that the real is divorced from the virtual. You've got no rules in this virtuality, you might kill the next waiter you meet, why not?, it might push the game forward, or are we outside the game now, oops, I shot him, was he real? But Cronenberg is fascinated anyway, a game where the only restrictions are the players themselves, where their senses are triggered way out of the ordinary when they plug this umbilical-like cord into that moist little hole in their backs, experiencing a virtuality more real than reality. Instead of our own impotent bodies we immortalize ourselves in this new reality. Fiction defeats reality. And there you sit in this very cinema, a dream in itself, and Cronenberg is asking you, 'do you know where the fiction really ends?'

But Skandia doesn't work for every movie, the interior is way too lavishly decorated, way too bourgeois in its stylised classicism, and those precious textiles are way too hard to preserve. Asplund did opt for this semi-athmosperic romanticism. But is this really what dreams are made of, all this crimson velvet, all these archaic motives? Compare this to Kubrick who is said to have had a New York cinema's interior painted matt black for the premiere of Barry Lyndon, 'cause the existing colours were to vivid. Or David Cronenberg'seXistenZ which seems to aspire to a kind of future cinema where you plug that umbilical cord directly into your bio-port, deep into your nervous system, entering the movie itself, where space is nothing else than a property of your own mind, bereft of all exterior embellishment. Flamman, conceived by Uno Åhrén whom helped out Asplund on Skandia, was built just a few years later, but had done away with sumptuous romanticism and is already modernist with its freely sweeping contours, icy-blue ceiling and neon-signs, dead on target with the Stockholm Exhibition 1930 and ready for sound. This sober elegant space was far more in style with the movies and Kubrick's 2001 wouldn't have been out of place, had only the cinema itself survived.

Skandia did survive, although the cinema had a hard time in the '70s and was threatened with plans for a restaurant only a year ago, a fate of some other gems from the heydays of the cinemagoing. Triangelfilm, a small Swedish distributor, stepped in and are now in charge. And while Mattias Nohrborg shows the same kind of enlightened pessimism as Ingmar Bergman, deploring the high lease as an obstacle. But Nohrborg will surely fight for the restoration of Skandia. He says he want to get the old Wurlitzer back in place, so that old silent movies can be shown again. The only feasible solution is nonetheless to have Skandia declared an historic landmark, otherwise this neo-liberal creed that everything must be measured in money terms might do away with one of the most precious gems in Stockholm. Ad notwithstanding all its pro and cons Skandia is not meant to be a museum, although that might be the aim of a municipality stuck on a retro-nostalgic policy regarding the city. Skandia will show the major movie releases as well as having a cineclub, and why not fitting it out with THX and maybe digital projecting?

Deplorable enough SF, the largest film-distributor of Sweden and once Asplund's client and still the owner of the interior, are reluctant to help out. And this is all the more unjust since they got themselves a new movie-palace right in centre on extremely favourable terms to the detriment of the tax-payers. The Sergel-cinecomplex might be far better than the cinemas of the '80s, but shows nonetheless a commercialized lovelessness in its contempt for the public. Here art is commissioned to add credence to the most dysfunctional functionalist-pastisch one can ever imagine, ever more so a shame since Sergel was conceived by the city architect himself. SF goes for the money, too rare on quality though. Asplund leaves a heritage in need of a care as careful as for the movies themselves. At the end of the century this is a velvety jewell Stockholm can be immensely proud of, and just the kind of place where to see certain very special movies.

 

Filmens hus in Copenhagen

Photos available

New cinemas can be something entirely astonishing different from the mainstream. This is clearly shown in Filmens Hus which attracts a steadily increasingly amount of spectators. The cineclub is now situated in the midst of the Danish capital. Since the opening of the three movie theatres two years ago the public has steadily increased to almost 100 000 a year, with ten films shown each day. Dan Nissen, director of the Filmmuseum and the Cinematheque, proudly declares that Filmens Hus have reapt the benefits of the success of Danish movies at Cannes during the last years. The Danish Film Institute has thus been granted raised subsidies not only to promote more Danish movies, but also to boast the distribution of Danish as well as foreign quality movies through some ten independent distributors and their cinema-halls. Here's undoubtly some old-fashioned Danish public spirit and a sense of noblesse oblige, they same inspiration which fed their beer-making once upon a time.

In Filmens Hus the architects at Nielsen, Nielsen & Nielsen has opted for a greyish interior with sober dark colours and a lot of glass. As in many other examples of contemporary Danish architecture this provides a sober background, where instead the public are meant to add the local flavour. But the architecture is by no means shy of the context, this is an addition from our time which manages to relate by force of its newness. Here is admittedly a more modest kind of surprise than what you can find in Paris, but it's still something completely different, which both fits in to and challenge the surroundings.

Kim Herforth Nielsen explains that they cleared the old Gothenberg House of everything and then simply cut an oval hole in the ground floor deck, inserting a two-storey building block. The freely distinct volumes heightens the contrasts accentuated by the conscious use of clearly separated materials. No labour is spared on the details and all these trite signs and installations are hidden away quite successfully.

The boldly conceived space contains a massive, precise, zinc-sheeted box containing the two movie theatres. Daylight spills over the edges and is let down to the lower floor where it reflects in the waxed and acid-treated zinc. Here is also a videotheque and a bar to be found. This visual clarity, meant to reveal and add to the character of this ex-publishing building, is quite typical of Nielsen, Nielsen & Nielsen. But they are also citing their own former works in the details, like some clear reminiscences of the way too luxurious court-house in Holstebro or the more recent Architect House here in Copenhagen.

The Århus-based architects does acknowledge the film Noir for example, or like right now, the Neo-Noir. The steely feeling is not unfriendly, just clear and sharp as a bullet. The interior does aspire to a quest for the realistic, although succeeding in varying degrees. One could ask for an exterior a little more proud of the interior, but Filmens Hus is nevertheless a given meeting-point in Copenhagen where the movies are kept alive, as well as the movie-going.

Published in Frame

Read more aboute Swedish Cinemas at ww.furberg.nu


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