Michael Fletcher and Keith Priest's interests in design for entertainment go back to their days at the AA. Fletcher wrote a dissertation on film production, while Priest's third-year project was for a cinema. It was 1970. Colour television seemed to be usurping film, while old cinemas were being chopped up into bingo halls. Priest's imaginative scheme put two audiences in one space, to increase potential for drama and a sense of occasion. The volume and number of people in the space was larger, and different circulation routes made for show. The audience faced each other and giant screens above their heads: sound systems in the headrests prevented sound interference.
It had enough architectural quality for Domus to publish it, and it was practical enough for a Hollywood mogul who saw the magazine to want to use it as a prototype for new cinemas.
That came to nothing, but Romaine Hart also saw it, and went to Wolff Olins to have Fletcher and Priest design the Screen on the Hill, the first in her Mainline chain. With its design-conscious but cost-effective aesthetic, it was an immediate hit. FPA has subsequently designed all the cinemas for Mainline - for less than industry average cost and higher than average occupancy - including the Screen on Baker Street, the only cinema in London which Ken Russell has stated he finds acceptable.
Making a sense of occasion with a small budget became a Fletcher Priest hallmark. The Cameo, an old Edinburgh music hall, was converted into a movie house for the Festival in six weeks. A few seats were covered in fake animal skins or leather to stand out against the prevailing midnight blue. These are individually spotted as the house lights dim, making a memorable experience for people in those seats, at least. Other low-cost arts venues followed, including the Green Room in Manchester; a couple of railway arches converted into a performance space with judicious use of corrugated galvanised steel, blockwork and black paint. It cost £250,000.
Aided by a reputation for tight programmes and budgets, larger jobs followed. The Planetarium was remodelled for £4.5 million in 20 weeks, providing a new reception for the complex's 600,000 annual visitors which previously was shared with Madame Tussaud's millions. And Fletcher Priest is now designing the 3D IMAX in the MacCormac, Jamieson and Prichard Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum.
Work in this sector is sometimes seen by architectural commentators as frivolous and 'not quite architecture'. Corporate clients, though, do not see it as frivolous and 'not quite corporate design'. IBM found in the Green Room just the approach and innovat ion it wanted on its projects, even though it was perhaps 100 times larger. Ad agencies, of course, like a sense of show and an understanding of imaging technology, and similarly, Sony Pictures found the buzz of Fletcher Priest's entertainment architecture to be applicable to its European HQ.
And for those who prefer physical to intellectual recreation, Fletcher Priest has also designed a series of sports clubs.
In Mainline Pictures' early Screens on the Hill and the Green, Fletcher and Priest evolved a new aesthetic to lure viewers away from television, just as the great Art Deco cinemas had helped to reinforce the success of the fledgling medium in the 1930s. Comfortable seating, fresh, contemporary colours and imaginative use of simple materials helped to make a memorable night out. Foyers became enjoyable enough to spend time and money in - even though the fitouts cost less than industry standard - and the facades were enticing. People came back. The most recent additions to the chain are in Walton-on-Thames and at Winchester. The first inserted two auditoria in a small residual concrete shell within an office complex - long unused because it was designated for cinema use. The glass facade gives views into the lively, two-storey foyer where the cinema sign doubles as a safety barrier. At Winchester, the addition of lottery money helped to convert a former garrison chapel into a new venue.
Madame Tussaud's is London's most popular tourist attraction with 2.5 million visitors a year. The adjacent Planetarium is comparatively quiet with only 600,000, but when Fletcher Priest won the competition to remodel it, both attractions shared the same foyer. Now there is a separate audience-holding area for the Planetarium, and the dome interior has been reshaped for the first time since it was built in the 1930s. The floor slopes and the dome's underside create the optimum sitelines for the new Digistar II projector and other renewed technical infrastructure. Meeting the 20week construction period and keeping Madame Tussaud's fully operational throughout was a project-management feat.
Perhaps the most cost-effective performance venue in the UK, the Green Room cost £250,000. Set in two railway arches just down the road from the Cornerhouse which Fletcher Priest had converted from a department store to an arts venue, the Green Room is a complete facility, with a flexible auditorium, actors' spaces, a foyer and even a cafe.
What money there was went on items which can be seen, or make a difference to quality and comfort. But the venue's popularity belies its cheapness; lack of velour, caryatids and gold leaf has not put off Manchester's avant garde.
The Artezium arts and media centre in Luton shows what the lottery can achieve. Luton has a dearth of cultural facilities, but in its favour it has the highest proportion of population from ethnic minorities of any town in the South-east outside London, and a host of large employers like Vauxhall and the local council who wanted to capitalise on the potential to create a new form of arts centre. The concept also draws on two aspects of the town's not very glorious history: it was the millinery centre of the UK, and the home town of Judge Dredd's director. An old hat factory is the core of the new facility, providing studios for graphic and other design activities. The second part is a trellis-clad building with TV and dance studios and an art gallery. A small courtyard with a five-storey-high artwork by Tim Head makes a vestigial performance space, but the idea is for local people to create programmes or dance for themselves, not to watch others, although the basement vaults hold a small performance venue, as well as a cafe and club. Intelligent planning means that all can be served from one entrance (minimising the cost of security), while the overall concept shows how an arts centre can be built around local wishes and potential. At the very least it offers enjoyable and creative employment and training facilities combined with leisure activities: at best it could foster real innovation.
The £47 million Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum, designed by MacCormac Jamieson and Prichard, will include a large suspended volume reached via a long escalator. It is not the access gangway to an alien spacecraft, but the route to the museum's new 3D IMAX film theatre. It makes a counterpoint to the shelf-like floors, introducing a large, mysterious volume into the space. Inside the mysteries of science are unravelled, either through the IMAX projection system or more conventionally, as the auditorium can also be used as a lecture theatre.
Leisure is not just about passive pleasure in soft, wraparound seats. Modern life bombards us with ever more complex images, but has not removed the primal need for physical activity. Fletcher Priest's health clubs provide these facilities within a contemporary context. At the Espree Club within the J P Morgan building, that meant being sited between the actuarial and data-processing departments. The new staircase to make the club visible, and its simple layout and fresh interior, belie the comp lex it ies of acoust ic separat ion and ensur ing that the showers cannot leak into the computer department.
Several other sports clubs in less fraught venues followed, including several facilities in European cities, culminating in a 7000+m 2club with training, teaching and sports pools, an aerobic and exercise areas, as well as an external running track and rooftop tennis courts.