Over and done with: Oldest cinema’s renovation

December 23, 2020
Culture

The Khudozhestvenny (Art) Cinema on Arbat Square has completely been done up. It was founded in 1909 and became the first Moscow cinema with its own premises.

“In 1909, the first cinema in Moscow was opened. People in the city saw this as a miracle, and 111 years later, another miracle happened: the renovation of Khudozhestvenny has been completed and a magnificent landmark closely connected to the fate of many generations has returned. Millions of people waited impatiently for Khudozhestvenny to come back to life, and not just return but to be there once again in all its majesty and splendor. And, of course, with advanced equipment and capacities,” said Sergei Sobyanin after a visit to the oldest cinema in Moscow.

Cinema as art

Khudozhestvenny was opened by entrepreneur Albert Broksh, manager of the Varvarinsky Joint-Stock Company of Homeowners. He also owned a plot of land on Arbat Square where the cinema was built. It was recorded in documents as “Broksh’s Cinematograph.” The first film was shown on 11 November 1909: 400 people watched the premiere of the French drama Georgette.

It was suggested that the audience should regard cinema as a form of art and watch it in an appropriate setting. It was a real revolution, because at the beginning of the century, cinema was shown in Moscow in ordinary rooms not really suitable for films to be shown in. People often had to stand, and the use of flammable celluloid film often resulted in fires.

The original cinema building, an Art Nouveau one-storey palace, was designed by architect Nikolai Blagoveshchensky. He was very experienced in working with electricity (since the 1890s, he’d worked at the Electric Illumination Society and designed several power station facilities on Raushskaya Embankment), which was reflected in the cinema’s electrical equipment: it was impeccable, and the building was as fireproofed as could possibly be.

It was also incredibly decorated: the foyer was lit by intricate chandeliers and even had a fountain, pots of palms and an orchestra that played for the public before the filmshow. Moreover, it was the only cinema that had a home delivery ticket service.

Just a few years later the most fashionable cinema could not seat everyone. Its new owner, director Alexander Khanzhonkov, invited architect Fyodor Shekhtel to renovate the building, so in 1912–1913 eclectic decorations were replaced with stricter neoclassicism. The entrances were decorated with niches with antique reliefs: small avant-corps with paired pilasters and semicircular lunettes. After the reconstruction, the cinema’s seats more than doubled: now there were over 900.

A Moscow travel guide from the 1930s notes: “The hall has 946 seats; an orchestra plays as background music for silent films; the latest newsreel is shown in a special hall in the foyer every 45 minutes; there is a baby care room, reading hall, chess and checkers and a crush bar. In the summer, concerts are given in the nearby garden.”

In 1955, the first wide screen in Moscow was installed there. For many years, Khudozhestvenny remained the main cinema in Russia where films premiered, for example outstanding silent films Kino-Eye by Dziga Vertov (1924) and Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein (1926), the first talking and colourful films Road to Life (1931) and Grunya Kornakova (1936) by Nikolai Ekk as well as the first widescreen film The Sword and the Dragon by Alexander Ptushko (1956).

In 1992, the building was recognised as a regional cultural heritage site. By early 2010, its condition was quite unsatisfactory. The brickwork was partly damaged by damp and fungi and the historical ceiling girder lost its bearing capacity.

Unfortunately most of the decor did not survive the 20th century: throughout these years, the cinema was fired at by White cadets during the civil war, shelled by the German aviation during WWII and reconstructed in order to fight bourgeois architecture extravagances.

Recreated from Shekhtel’s sketches

The decision to carry out a complex renovation of the cinema’s historical building was made by the Moscow Government. The work under the approved project was launched in the autumn of 2019.

Renovators had a serious job on their hands: they had to renovate a landmark building while preserving Fyodor Shekhtel’s ideas but also add the latest cinema technologies in order to screen films at a cutting-edge level.

Several design bureaus worked on the renovation project funded by private investors.

“Of course it is worth a lot to connect history and today and bring a landmark back to life. We’re carrying out a lot of renovation jobs in Moscow using money from the city budget and federal agencies. Our renovations are among the largest in the world. I am very thankful to the people who invest their money and resources to help us restore the history and cultural heritage of Russia and Moscow,” Sergei Sobyanin said.

Sberbank CEO German Gref thanked the Moscow Mayor and his team and noted that the renovation had been carried out as quickly as possible, taking only14 months. He also thanked renovators and builders who took part in the renovation process.

“This landmark is special for people living in Moscow, and many were waiting for it to reopen. And finally they’ve got a cinema with four halls: one large and three smaller ones, with the most advanced acoustic systems available in the world and beautiful image. The cinema will start working at the end of December,” German Gref said.

Work was underway all day round. The renovation of the cinema covering 2,600 sq m began with accident-prevention work: over the first months, workers cleaned and strengthened the facades and repaired the roof. Experts have managed to preserve two authentic ceiling girders made of rolled corners and strips of German gauge metal and assembled with rivets. They were installed on their original supports: on one side, the girder is firmly attached to the wall, and on the other, it can move depending on the temperature.

Fyodor Shekhtel’s original sketches were used to recreate the appearance of the main (western) façade. It is covered with terrasit and made to look as much like it did in 1913 as possible. Sealed windows were opened and the historical decor restored, with male and female mascarons, bas-reliefs of the ancient gods Helios and Selena and the inscriptions Entrance, Exit and, of course, the main one, Artistic Electro-Theatre. Elegant cast iron lampposts have returned to their original places (on both sides of each doorway). They were also recreated according to Shekhtel’s sketches.

The balcony is the main feature of the main hall’s spatial composition and layout. In recent years, nobody has been allowed there because of the danger that it could collapse. The balcony and its structures were dilapidated, but the renovators managed to preserve the parapet, which was included in the landmark’s subject of protection. It was put on a new supporting structure.

Ceiling stuccos were recreated under the balcony. Renovated plaster faces of the god of wine Dionysus returned to the pillars supporting the balcony. The original capital has survived on the left pillar of the eastern wall. It served as a model for reconstructing the rest of the capitals along the perimeter of the hall. The stucco hippocampus reappeared above the stage, stretching out a medallion featuring the year of the cinema’s renovation, 1912, with their tails.

Numerous coats of paint on the ceiling hid an authentic ventilation grill. There was a massive chandelier in its centre, but it has not survived. During the renovation job, the grill was dismantled; the paint was stripped; and lost elements (leaves, twigs and an intricate net) recreated and returned.

During the renovation work, experts found a priceless gift: during the dismantling process, they found ceiling panels designed by Shekhtel. They were carefully done up and put in the control room. The cassettes now hide a complex sound system of a modern cinema.

The surviving ceiling cornice and frieze have been restored in the foyer. A historical staircase designed by Shekhtel and covered with light marble is a true adornment to the interior. It was recreated from samples of two authentic dolomite steps. It goes from the northern foyer to the main hall’s balcony.

Experts returned the lost wooden window fillings. The frames are made of light larch and the fittings of softly glowing brass. Oak doors were recreated from photographs from the beginning of the century.

Fyodor Shekhtel’s sketches were used to recreate a large stained glass window, which was lost in the 1990s and replaced by a plastic one. There will once again be a fountain designed by the architect and lost later. Its location and size were written in fixation layouts and the original foundation has been preserved in the foyer.

Unique cinema projectors and audio system

The cinema will receive the first visitors at the end of December. The cinema will show premieres and serve as a festival centre whose programme represents the diversity of the global cinematograph. A large share of the schedule will be given to festivals and retrospectives prepared in cooperation with international cultural institutions.

There will be four halls in Khudozhestvenny: the main hall will have 474 seats, two small ones 47 seats each and the chamber hall just 21 seats. Each hall has Barco high-contrast laser cinema projectors that ensure maximum brightness and no colour distortion or glare. Only 17 cinemas in the world have similar equipment. The cinema also has a projector that makes it possible to show films from a digital copy as well as from 35-mm film.

Dolby Atmos will provide high-quality sound. It is designed to consider all the architectural features of the building. A special solution was developed for the complicated configuration of the main hall that unites the pit, balcony and the zone under it to make the sound equally excellent in all points of the room. The technical equipment fits naturally into the interior and preserves the historical appearance of the main hall.

Electronic schedule is now placed on the cinema’s main façade where Khudozhestvenny’s famous posters used to be.

“I would like to congratulate everyone in Moscow on the reopening of the first Moscow cinema hall. Today, 111 years after the construction and 108 years after its renovation by the great maestro Shekhtel, it is once again accessible for people living here,” German Gref added.

Renovation of Moscow landmarks

Since 2011, as many as 1,593 cultural heritage sites have been done up in Moscow, including 99 in 2020. In addition to Khudozhestvenny, the Northern River Station, Narkomfin Building and Orlov-Denisov’s House in Bolshaya Lubyanka Street were the most important renovation sites this year.

According to Sergei Sobyanin, this year an enormous amount of work has been carried out to renovate a lot of landmarks: “Work on another 500 is still underway. We do not stop Moscow’s renovation and revival even for a day.”

Since 2010, the number of Moscow landmarks in unsatisfactory conditions has dwindled to one-fifth. The share of landmarks in a good and satisfactory condition has grown from 66 to 94 percent.

Since 2011, Moscow has completely restored 55 churches. Renovation at 34 of them was carried out under the city programme of subsidies to religious organisations. In 2020, work is still underway in 41 churches, including 10 religious institutions renovated under the city programme of subsidies.

Since 2012, 24 emergency architectural landmarks have been leased to private investors as part of the Moscow Government’s programme “One rouble per one square metre.” Comprehensive renovation work of 19 buildings has been completed. Work continues at five sites.

Moreover, from 2011to 2019, renovation of 111 pieces of monumental art and 426 architectural and artistic gravestones and historical and military necropolis objects, which are cultural heritage sites, has been completed. In 2020, work has been carried out on 30 graves with decorated gravestones in the Armenian, Vagankovskoe, Donskoye and Novodevichye cemeteries.

Monuments to Nikolai Gogol in Gogolevsky and Nikitsky boulevards have also been done up, as well as monuments to Yury Dolgoruky on Tveskaya Square, to Vatslav Vorovsky in Kuznetsky Most Street, to Dmitry Pryanishnikov in the street of the same name and to Alexander Fadeyev on Miusskaya Square.

Source: mos.ru

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