Movie House Configuration

In 1928, the latest movie house designed by vanguard architect Frederick Kiesler opened up on a main street in Greenwich Village. Called the Film Guild Cinema, it featured a screen that at the time perfectly embodied the spirit of modernity: taking into account the importance of spatio-visual and acoustical aspects of a film’s performance, an expanding and contracting “iris” could respond to the geometry of the projected film. The height and width of the screen was entirely dynamic—the theater’s design was a design and engineering feat. (There were also plans for a “projectoscope” that offered simultaneous projections on multiple surfaces, like a planetarium, but that was never realized.)

Kiesler wrote of this movie house: “The film is a play on surface, the theatre is a play in space, and this difference has not been realized concretely in any architecture, either that of the theater or the cinema. The ideal cinema is the house of silence…The spectator must be able to lose himself in an imaginary, endless space.”

The movie house must make itself invisible, so as to allow viewers to focus on the screen entirely, and unwanted acoustic effects (such as echoes) must be minimized. Kiesler’s architectural inventions were reflected in the original Anthology Film Archive screening room, designed by Peter Kubelka. This latest modernist sanctuary took the spectator’s isolation fully into account: a divider encapsulated each viewer within his or her own cubby hole. Each viewer was insulated haptically and aurally—no communication was possible across the dividers.

But what happens when the space of the movie house doesn’t afford such carefully controlled acoustics? At a recent screening of a film in a giant loft space of an old warehouse—a space not specifically designed as a movie house—the sound was a bit uncontrollable. Quick sonic drops in the film (meant to be complete drop outs) were followed by an echo that eerily added to the film’s meaning. The rupture in the intentioned silence—the upsurge of the aural, those unwieldly waves—was welcomed by the audio engineer, who after the fact praised the gradually fading hum.