The new life of the Khudozhestvenny, or how one of the oldest cinemas in the world was restored

April 14

After a seven-year pause, the Khudozhestvenny Electro-Theater once again meets the cinema fans. On April 9, the Oscar Award-nominated films and a number of other films were shown here.

Until recently, the old building was in a deplorable state, and in 2019, specialists from several architectural bureaus undertook its restoration. They managed to recreate the ideas of Fyodor Schechtel, who designed the building in 1912-1913. The new Khudozhestvenny cinema is not a remake of the old one, but its logical continuation. About what is hidden behind the walls of the main cinema hall, how the balcony was saved and what did not think of even the brilliant Schechtel, the restorers told

Colour and light

The grey with sparkling mica facade of the Khudozhestvenny is again decorated with white columns, above the entrance and exit there are bas-reliefs in the ancient style in the form of the heads of a man and a woman, and in the niches under the roof — horses racing a chariot with the Sun God Helios, and bulls slowly driving a chariot with the Moon Goddess Selena. There is also an inscription ‘Khudozhestvenny Electro-Theater’ - the same as in the time of Fyodor Schechtel.


The most difficult thing, according to the restorer, was to return the Schechtel’s colour of the facade. We had to mix different shades, waited for a chemical reaction for 20 days, then compare the resulting paint with the one described in the expense books of the Schechtel’s construction team.


On the facade, the four windows of the lobby appeared again: in Soviet times, they were bricked up. Without these windows, the architect's planned lighting system was disrupted. Now there is even more light in the cinema than Schechtel designed. The ceiling above the lobby became of glass. It descends to the undulating, seemingly moving (in the style of Schechtel) spiral staircase.

It is impossible not to notice the avant-garde design on the ceiling, restorers call it ‘lantern. “The ‘lantern’ and the staircase are our most serious intrusion into a historic building," Daria Paramonova says.

In Fyodor Schechtel time and in the Soviet era, above the lobby, an empty attic under a galvanized roof was located. There were no stairs. The designers who were engaged in adapting to modern use decided to fix this.

"In a modern cinema, you need to use every millimetre. Besides, there must be several movie theatres, and no room for them on the first floor were found. So we decided to convert the attic into a floor. In order not to change the level of the roof, not to distort the appearance of the building, not to break the clear Schechtel’s symmetry, we built a staircase in the centre of the lobby, and the second floor was made in the form of a gallery with two small cinema halls. In addition, in order not to leave unused space, we transformed the former office space next to the right lobby of the balcony into a chamber hall, and each lobby now has its own cafe," the architectural consultant explains.

What the audience didn't know

When the restorers began to work in the main lobby of the cinema, there was also something like an attic behind its ceiling. This plaster ceiling is a heritage of the Soviet times. It covered the two stucco cornices designed by Schechtel and the alabaster ventilation grilles, as if woven from stems and flowers. The cornices were completely restored, by sculpting new elements from the samples of the survivors.

"The ventilation louvered grilles are not part of the preservation object but they are quite interesting. It was not possible to preserve the original version, because the alabaster is fragile, dust and dirt stuck to it, and the rods were stratified. We replaced the grilles with metal ones, recreating Schechtel’s drawing," Denis Pisarev says.

The false ceiling blocked another important detail — the stained glass window. It's a full-length wooden grate with panes of glass in the cells, like on a veranda. In Soviet times, the stained glass window was changed to a regular plastic window. Now it is returned back in its old place. And a fountain was installed in front of it. Before closing the Khudozhestvenny Cinema there was a mini-stage there.

"The fountain was marked on the original drawing of Fyodor Schechtel, however, without any clarification: a semicircle and the inscription ‘Fountain’. Although, when they opened the floors, they found the foundation for the fountain. How it was conceived and implemented by Schechtel, we will not know, since the fountain was lost. Our colleagues came up with their own original installation on the theme of water," Denis Pisarev explains.


The new fountain is in harmony with the stained glass window. This is a system of metal rods, flasks and glass balls through which water flows. Between them are pots of fresh flowers-convolvulus. The greenhouse is another of Schechtel’s ideas, which was destroyed in the Soviet era.

"In Schechtel time, palm trees grew here. We are currently limited to the installation. In addition, we are referred to the theme of vegetation by the drawings on the wall panels," Daria Paramonova says.

Along the lobby walls, stretches, like a cinefilm, a strip of panel-painting with grey-green trees. These elements are removable. They can be easily replaced with posters, posters or photos of actors.

Balcony drama

From the lobby we get to the main cinema hall of the Khudozhestvenny. The history of the restoration of this premise reminds a detective story.

"The upper part of the hall is occupied by a balcony, which is supported by columns. Right all rights, this structure should have been removed. First, the columns obscured the view of the screen. Secondly, the floor of the Schechtel time was flat, which is unacceptable in modern cinemas, and the balcony did not allow you to raise it and make it inclined: the audience of the upper rows would rest against this balcony. But we understood that the balcony and columns should be preserved," Daria Paramonova recalls.

The restorers, according to their own statement, fought for the composition ‘to the last plaster’. As a result, the floor was not raised relative to the screen, but made lower. "If you look at the side doors, through which the audience used to enter, you will see that they seem to hang above the floor. In fact, they remained in their places. The floor went down, " the restorers explain.

The columns were in a state of disrepair. They had to be replaced. Engineers created metal supports that were placed under the balcony, and in the meantime built new columns. Their upper parts - the capitals - are native, from the time of Schechtel: the architect, a lover of ancient mythology, depicted the head of the god Dionysus and acanthus leaves.

"Along the balcony, we laid oak veneer on a historic pine handrail. We found this handrail under the layers of chipboard. The back and front of the balcony was not changed, only a local opening was performed to find out how it works. Under the plaster were wrought-iron brackets, on which the wooden bars of curved shape were vertically stuffed. On top of the plaster, decorative elements were cleared out: arrows, torches, ribbons. They were cleared out of paint and dust. Before the repair, they seemed shapeless," Denis Pisarev says.

In the control room behind the balcony, the restorers found fragments of the Schechtel’s coffered ceiling: the same was over the entire hall, but in the 1950s it was replaced with a regular one, with whitewash. Under a layer of paint, the grating on which the chandelier was held was also hidden. Now the ceiling, consisting of fiber cement, as well as the stained glass in the lobby, was made anew with a hint of Schechtel’s coffers, and the grating was cleared out. It turned out that its tops were covered with acanthus leaves.

The coffered ceiling is not just a tribute to the architecture of Schechtel. The frames play a special role: audio engineering is built in between them.

"Cinema halls are usually hung with loudspeakers. This is necessary. But they do not fit into the historical decor. And our team flew to London specifically to meet with the sound experts who designed the 54 loudspeakers for this hall. Some of the equipment is hidden under the ceiling, and some is hidden behind the walls," Daria Paramonova explains.

A separate story is connected with the walls. In the original version, they were simply plastered. Of course, there was no sound insulation. Modern standards for the construction of cinemas oblige to cover the walls of the halls with mineral wool or other analogues, so that the sounds do not penetrate outside. Such a material in its appearance is far from the design of Schechtel.

"We decided to lay out the walls with acoustic plaster. It consists of many balls that are applied in several layers. The cavities between them muffle the noise. They made rustic work — stylized stones from this plaster according to Schechtel’s drawings. That is, we used the technology at the junction of restoration and adaptation," Daria says.

However, due to the application of acoustic plaster, it was necessary to preserve the bas-reliefs-wreaths over the former entrances to the cinema hall. The originals turned out inside the walls, and their replicas were applied over the plaster. But the bas-reliefs above the doors, depicting the battles of centaurs with Lapiths, were preserved.

"Centaurs survived the Soviet era. They were even restored. But, unfortunately, they used ordinary cement for the restoration. We chipped it off from the noses, fingers, and swords of the Lapiths," Denis Pisarev recalls.

Another change in the cinema hall is a bas-relief above the screen depicting two symmetrical seahorses with fish tails (hippocampus), which hold a sign with the date ‘1912 — the year of the reconstruction of the cinema according to the project of Schechtel. In the Soviet era, the original was demolished. Restorers recreated the bas-relief from photographs and analogues.

Schechtel’s sequel

The entire interior of the Khudozhestvenny cinema is filled with Schechtel’s ideas. In the right lobby that leads to the balcony, there are shelves that resemble a stained glass window and a coffered ceiling. In the blue-grey walls of the northern lobby, there are niches as if intended for bas-reliefs, and white chairs follow the curves of the Schechtel’s staircase.

"The staircase leading to the northern lobby is historic, designed by Fyodor Schechtel. Only two steps remain from the original. The rest we reassembled, put together. But in general, the design of the stairs remained the same. The wooden handrail is also made according to the project of Schechtel. We took a similar one from the house on Bolshaya Sadovaya where the architect lived, and made a replica," Denis Pisarev reveals the secrets.

By the way, the north lobby can now be accessed from the street. Since the main cinema hall has turned into an amphitheatre with a falling floor, at the very bottom of the wall, the restorers managed to make doorways that are not visible from the outside. Thus, not only visitors of movie shows can get to the Khudozhestvenny cinema but also those who want to sit in a historical place with a cup of coffee.



"Everything that could be restored, we have restored. Everything that was left behind the scenes, was unknown, not finished -has been created. Our concept is not to imitate Schechtel’s design but to develop a new, modern style that would fit into Schechtel’s," Daria Paramonova says.

According to experts, the restoration ends where the fantasy begins. In the Khudozhestvenny cinema, the work was carried out relying not on imagination but on the skill and understanding of the ideas of the brilliant architect.


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