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Ready for its close-up: Glasgow Film Theatre by NORD

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NORD’s new auditorium for the Glasgow Film Theatre harks back to the cinema’s 1930s grandeur, writes project architect Brian McGinlay. Photography by Dapple Photography

When it first opened in 1939, the Cosmo Cinema, as it was then called, was Scotland’s first art house cinema. Designed by prolific Scottish cinema architect James McKissack, it has become a well-loved and treasured landmark within the city, both its exterior and interior conveying an immediate sense of the heyday of cinema design and the romance of the world of film.

It became the Glasgow Film Theatre, or GFT, in 1974, gaining a second screen in 1988 as well as becoming a Category B listed building.  Today it is the only major independent cinema of its kind in the west of Scotland, welcoming annual admissions of more than 200,000.

It is also home to the Glasgow Film Festival, held every February since 2005, which has grown to be one of the UK’s top film festivals. However, the lack of screening space has limited the cinema’s ambitions for the festival, as well as restricting the GFT’s ability to increase audiences, carry out education and outreach works, and the potential to screen more niche films and provide longer runs for particularly popular films.

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In 2011 the GFT appointed NORD to design and deliver a phased refurbishment to the cinema building, following an invited competition. The first phase of the alteration works, as well as reconfiguring the entrance box office and implementing efficient boiler plant and services infrastrwucture, introduced a new 60-seat digital auditorium - Cinema 3.

The client’s aspirations for the new cinema were to offer a comfortable, modern and high-quality viewing experience with the largest possible screen to provide cinemascope capability.

From the outset we were fascinated by the inherent richness and crafted appearance of the original building. Drawing from the cinema’s heritage, we adopted a palette of materials inspired by the 1939 design, including brass, bronze, mirror, and sustainably sourced teak and terrazzo.

Our approach was to cultivate the audience experience from the moment the building is approached. Architecturally, the principal aspirations were to sensitively insert new programme while reinstating interior elements and surfaces that made visual reference to the cinema’s former glory.

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Cinema 3, with a remodelled rampway approach from the existing foyer level, has replaced the somewhat underused Café Cosmo.  To optimise the screening layout and accommodate the required 60 seats, every inch of construction space became valuable. Some careful excavation and stripping‑back in and around the existing fabric and structure were required to provide complete sound separation from the existing two auditoriums, above and adjacent to Cinema 3.

A new ‘box-in-box’ construction and tiered seating arrangement maximised the viewing experience. Our strategy was to combine the demanding acoustic requirements with a rich architectural expression. Through collaborative detailing and specification design with its cinema consultants, a technically focused but aesthetically driven attitude to the inserted construction offered a strong and confident modern feel.

A new ebony-coloured acoustic ‘hood’ defines the room, crafted in a manner that adds a subtle but rich sense of decoration to the compact space, while reducing visual distractions by concealing all audio-visual equipment, LED lighting and ventilation components.

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A key part of the whole user experience was the seat selection. The bespoke leather ‘Charles’ seats, manufactured by auditorium seating specialist Quinette Gallay, were designed in collaboration with the GFT.  Their teak backings enhance Cinema 3’s spatial qualities and make visual and material reference to the former grandeur of the 1939 interiors.

The new auditorium space not only functions as a screening room, but is fully equipped for other demands, such as film director Q&A sessions, lectures and commercial events. It has allowed the Glasgow Film Theatre to expand its programme, creating up to 1,500 new screening slots per year. It has also been used to encourage youth activities by providing a home for the Glasgow Youth Film Festival, which takes place during the main festival.

NORD is now developing the second phase of works, planned for 2016.  This will focus on foyer spaces and the creation of main and snug bars, kiosks and the reconfiguration of the public toilets.  The project will tackle circulation and wayfinding throughout the building, improving accessibility through a new foyer platform lift and adding a central piece of drama by reintroducing and reinterpreting the cinema’s original foyer butterfly staircase.

Brian McGinlay, project architect, NORD Architecture

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