Kicking off the University of Birmingham’s Arts and Science festival, the lecture from Dr Kate Ince introduced the work of the acclaimed architect Robert Atkinson; examining his professional progression as ‘architect of cinema’ and the principal architect of our very own Barber Institute. Atkinson’s ideological progression from designing ‘super-cinemas’ for the masses, to viewing the cinema as an institution which should be interchangeable with buildings and their varied uses, is succinctly demonstrated by the plans to equip the Barber’s auditorium to screen view – turning it into a cinema for all intents and purposes.
The talk itself was illuminating. A snapshot of the history of cinema development, and Atkinson’s creations, Dr Ince focused on The Regent Cinema, Queen’s Road, Brighton as the epitome of Atkinson’s career. He had a particular style, easily seen through the range of black and white photographs we were shown, although they could do no justice to the bright and vivid colours Atkinson was known to use. It is a tragedy of history that most of his work has been demolished or destroyed by fire through the 1950’s-70’s, when cinema attendance was at its lowest.
Comparing the ‘Picture Houses’ of our past and today’s multiplex giants is fascinating. They had ballrooms, The Regent had an Italian restaurant on its second floor, and crucially they were so much more beautiful than, for example, the Cineworld on Broad Street. Atkinson’s style made cinemas beautifully decorated, two storey galleries, with motifs and frescos often having an art deco feel; the classic features creating an air of elegance. The Regent Cinema exemplified this beauty and, more like a theatre to our modern eyes, it seated up to 3000 people. An example of a remaining cinema today that is similar to this, although not designed by him, is the Majestic cinema in Leeds, a listed building since 1993.
In my eyes the era of Atkinson’s architecture is a romanticised view of what cinema has come to be known as. Super-cinemas of the 1930s are perhaps a snapshot into what we have come to know as the modern cinema. However, we should look more to the past and recreate the masterpieces that cinemas were. We should appreciate film as an art form, and give them the setting they deserve. Eros News Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue Piccadilly Circus was a piece of his work, and in 2002 its interior was gutted and re-opened as a Gap clothing store. It is clear this is such a shame to the heritage of Cinema.
I turn to his work designing the Barber Institute, only twenty years before his death. The Institute we have today, although having stood the test of time, does not exactly resemble his work. For example, by the 1960s the flat roof needed to be replaced and a truncated glass pyramid was constructed in 1986-9. Atkinson presented three plans to be considered. Interestingly, one of which shows how we could have had a Barber Institute which could have looked much more like the traditional cinemas he designed, with an oval shaped entrance and two sets of steps leading up either side.
There is no doubt though that the Barber Institute is a beautiful addition to the University. Borne from the mind of an acclaimed successful architect of cinema, the fact the auditorium may soon be equipped with a screen should be celebrated. Atkinson would no doubt approve of such a use for his masterpiece.
The lecture provided an opportunity to appreciate more of Birmingham’s culture and heritage. The rest of the Art and Science festival will no doubt do the same.