The opening on the South Bank of the largest imax cinema in the uk last weekend marks a double benefit. The eradication of the toxic 'bull ring' underpass eyesore, and the promised flood of public art represents one level of gain, of course. But the other is much richer and less well understood. It is the infinite learning space of the IMAX experience itself.
During the Thatcher years, Terry Farrell had a go at replanning the South Bank but nothing was built. Nor was Richard Rogers' Millennium project for a 'breathing roof'. Nowadays, people secretly accept that the strip between the old County Hall and the National Theatre is going to be hotels and flats. The rest will just remain sloap - Space Left Over After Planning. Except that (as Albert Einstein might have written were he still alive), E over sloap squared equals imax.
Enter Bryan Avery, a man to whom the South Bank already owes much. Avery has an unbeatable track record when it comes to dealing with the intractable. In 1987 he designed the Museum of the Moving Image, a structure almost entirely hidden underneath Waterloo Bridge because - despite the vast areas of sloap lying around - no-one would give the British Film Institute any more land to put it on.
It was as a result of an encyclopedic knowledge of the South Bank, gained from the MoMI project, that Avery had his next brainwave. He realised that another cinema would solve all the problems of the Bull Ring at a stroke. Not an ordinary cinema, of course, but a 500-seat, state-of- the-art imax 3-D theatre with a wrap-around six-storey screen, superb sound quality, and a sensory punch so powerful that patrons emerging from a film of a Rolling Stones concert would emerge as wild-eyed and poleaxed as the audience at the real thing.
The imax Corporation's standard prefabricated exhibition theatre fitted perfectly into the lozenge-shaped Bull Ring and still left room for pedestrians to walk round the outside, so all Avery proposed to do by way of architecture was to erect a lightweight steel circular frame and grow Japanese honeysuckle all over it to create a mass of vegetation in a formerly no-growth area. But it wasn't that easy. The standard imax structure turned out to be too light to keep out Central London roundabout roar, so Avery added a ring of concrete. This alone was strong enough to support the theatre, so it no longer made sense to use a prefabricated imax, better to build a new theatre from scratch. But this in turn needed special foundations. Before long, the cost of the project was pushing £10 million. That was in 1991. The version that finally went on site in 1996 with a combination of Arts Council Lottery and bfi money was slated to cost half as much again. In the end it cost double.
But never mind. The point is that an imax is worth it. It is no ordinary cinema. Nor is it just another high-decibel attraction. It is a phenomenon that has mind-expanding properties. Anyone who has been to Bradford, or who saw the imax and omnimax installations at Expo '92 in Seville, will know that imax is not just an illusory roller coaster, it is a profound sensory experience. At Seville you could go into the Fujitsu pavilion knowing nothing about biology, watch Echoes of the Sun and come out understanding photosynthesis. You could visit the main imax cinema, watch The Age of Discovery and come out understanding navigation. As it develops technically, imax becomes increasingly educational. Not obsolete three-terms-a-year, three-years-a-degree educational, but instantaneous 90-minutes-a-subject educational, keeping pace with continual change.