Communist-era cinemas were often housed in the most important buildings, usually given unique designs, writes Owen Hatherley
In among the news stories that reached the English language press from Ukraine in the past couple of weeks was one that concerned a building: Kiev’s Kino Zhovten, or October Cinema, which caught fire after a bomb was thrown in during a screening of Summer Nights, a French film on transexuality. The fire is considered to be either a homophobic attack, a real estate-related arson, or both.
Kino Zhovten, though, is not any old fleapit, but an exceptionally rare Constructivist cinema built in 1931, and supposedly protected. After a petition and protests, Kiev’s mayor, the former boxing world champion Vitaly Klitschko, has pledged to repair it, though, given that the city’s newly appointed police chief is a leader of the openly neo-fascist Azov Battalion, it’s hard to imagine the perpetrators being caught. Similar attacks on cinemas showing LGBT films have followed, supporting the theory that the bombing was a homophobic attack. However, the cinema’s destruction reveals the usually overlooked role of urban politics and of architectural preservation in the recent unrest.
Communist-era cinemas are a varied and fascinating genre, ranging in style from the Nordic Neoclassicism of the Kino Soprus in Tallinn, the flamboyant High modernism of East Berlin’s Kino International, or the Baroque of Warsaw’s Kino Muranow, placed at the front of a grandiose housing project and bearing in gold letters the inscription from VI Lenin: ‘For us, cinema is the most important art.’ Because of this esteem, they were often housed in the most important buildings, usually given unique rather than standardised designs - the equivalent, in both architectural and ideological terms, of the picture palaces built in every UK suburb during the Great Depression.
Kino Zhovten is the earliest, and one of the most interesting. Its laconic facade of pilotis and porthole windows conceals a typical avant-garde ‘social condenser’; it was planned with a library and games rooms, and a café and bar share space with the various auditoriums. Unlike many cinemas of the era, its placement near a university and in a capital city has saved it from dereliction, and today it’s Kiev’s main arthouse cinema.
The Kontraktova Square area in which it sits is one of the most complex in the city, with a rich texture of low-rise buildings in every style, from the austere Neoclassicism of the Contracts House and the Hostynnyi Dvir shopping arcade to Constructivism (the fabulous former Club of Food Industry Workers) and the expressionistic Late Modernism of the Zhytny covered market. Because of this, developers have long had their eye on Kino Zhovten. The Hostynnyi Dvir was recently at the heart of a major boondoggle, where, after delisting the building, the city council and developers prepared an expensive ‘restoration’ project, allegedly aimed at returning the building to its original 18th-century form, but in practice turning it into a mall. This elicited a response from Right to the City protesters, who dressed in parodic 18th-century costume and, later, an occupation. In 2013, the building conveniently suffered a fire of its own. Still, the area continues to lack the pompous developers’ architecture that is rammed aggressively into infill sites all over the city, and that’s why its buildings are particularly vulnerable.
Behind the story of the arson attack is a reminder that there was another side to urban protests in Ukraine, before it was swept up into a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Russia and the West - both sides backed by the oligarchs who were the root of the problem in the first place. That side is a disgust with a development culture dominated by ignorant chauvinism, historical fakery and ubiquitous corruption. In that, it’s not so exotic.