SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

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Design in the Dark: Finding Meaning in the Multiplex – SVA MA Design Research

Chappell Ellison

Design in the Dark: Finding Meaning in the Multiplex

The movie theater is a contradictory space. While it desperately clutches to an aesthetic of the past, it is also dependent on technological advancements for the future.

Among our public, everyday spaces, the movie theater is where everyman has his night out. Throughout the past century, society has shaped this space by allowing certain symbols to represent our idea of going to the movies. For example, the film reel, marquee, and Egyptian motifs have survived as symbols of movie going and are still evident as decorative elements in today’s multiplexes, despite technological changes in projection technology. Digital projection may soon cause the obsolescence of film, but the cultural, nostalgic connection to the film reel as symbol persists.

A close examination of the contemporary multiplex lobby reveals a quirky space, filled with symbols of a rich past mixed with the needs of a consumption driven present.

The movie theater is just one of many spaces that are rich in meaning, despite their banal veneers. To reevaluate such everyday spaces, Chappell proposes a Web site in which users are invited to upload an audio narration of a space they visit on a regular basis. Users are encouraged to record tours of their local bank, chain restaurant, or deli—a space they may have taken for granted. Titled Public Tours, this Web site provides a community forum where user-generated audio tours are downloaded, rated, and commented upon.

The Art of Movie-Going

The art of movie-going has existed for a little more than a hundred years. It is an ongoing continuum that provides a commonality between all races, genders and income levels. With the appearance of the earliest movie theaters over a century ago, movie-going was established as the everyman’s night out. The sheer pleasure of being a part of this continuum has kept audiences buying tickets.

The movie theater of today is a visual assault of plastic palm trees and cutout stars, carpeted walls and hokey wall scones, all awash under the glow of buzzing neon. The Art Deco movie palaces of the 1920s and 1930s provided the go-to standard in movie theater design, an aesthetic that has rinse-and-repeated its way to the present. Movie theaters today are as ubiquitous as Wal-Mart, as anonymously designed as Target. Yet every ornament, every swirl and doodad that decorates a movie theater, has a rich narrative that speaks to the history of film exhibition, as well as our relationship to it now.

Citizen Kane will always be Citizen Kane, regardless of whether it is viewed in a grand movie palace or projected on the side of a van. A well-draped Vivien Leigh will gracefully descend that Tara staircase, even if the film is viewed on a laptop. A great film will always be great, no matter where it’s screened. But the vessel of a medium can alter the way in which the medium is experienced. For instance, red wine served in a Styrofoam cup will still taste like red wine. But the overall experience and manner in which the wine is perceived would be completely different than if the vessel were a crystal goblet.

Since the early 1900s, cinema architects have shaped the way we see movies. In the early days, these architects drew inspiration from traveling fairs, predominately those in England and the United States. As cinema architecture developed past adolescence, a set of symbols emerged that defines our cultural understanding of movie-going. This essay analyzes three symbols—the marquee, film reel and Egyptian motifs. But there are several other symbols—popcorn, stars, the red carpet, etc.—that have come to define this architectural space. These symbols are found everywhere in a movie theater, no matter the size or location, and are so firmly embedded in the process of movie-going that our eyes hardly see them.

These symbols have also engendered and promoted a sense of nostalgia that is tied to the movie theater. As architect and design critic Edwin Heathcote has explained, “Often we feel nostalgia for cinemas that were never even part of our lives….They seem to talk of a particular moment, of the huge importance attached to the movies—they express the critical status of film in modern life.” These symbols speak to the Golden Era of film, engaging our minds in a conversation with the past. As long as symbols exist in movie theater design, movie-going will be linked to a bygone era, resulting in a subliminal dosage of nostalgia.

Yet, the movie theater is a contradictory space. While it desperately clutches to an aesthetic of the past, it is also dependent on technological advancements for the future. Aside from the IMAX format, film exhibition has remained fundamentally unchanged in the past fifty years. Most movie theaters still function to the rhythm of 35mm film passing behind the projector’s shutter. But now it seems that the threat of digital projection is becoming more real. While it still remains an expensive venture to convert analog film equipment to digital projection, theater proprietors are warming up to the notion of projecting films from a direct satellite feed. Digital projection does not significantly alter the audience experience of film, but it certainly holds implications for the future of movie theater design. The introduction of digital cinema is an opportunity to reexamine this sacred space that has defined so many lives and experiences.

The skyscraper organizes and disciplines. The airport divides and scatters. But of all the great 20th century structures, the movie theater unites and delights. A person may never look out from a window in 30 Rockefeller Plaza or board an airplane to Bali, but they have most likely gone to their neighborhood movie theater and sat with a room full of people desiring an afternoon of escape. The movie theater is built on a collective social history—a common experience.


The Marquee

The crowd gathered at dusk. It was 1907, and the people were prepared for a spectacle. Mammoth Fun City at Olympia, London, was a circus-like exhibition that promised a day of carefree delirium. “In the Fun City you can be moderately silly for sixpence, and uproariously imbecile for half a crown,” explained turn-of-the-century journalist James Douglas. “The consequence is that you are perfectly happy in the certitude that you are a fool.”

The crowd surged forward, men adjusting their boater hats and women minding their lace-up boots. Children stood on their tip-toes for a better view, hiding their yawns after a day of navigating the motor-car arcade, haunted castles and oscillating stairs. But this was the special event of the day, not to be missed. Anticipation swelled for the moment Collins’s Wonderland would come to life. Pat Collins toured one of the country’s finest bioscope shows—a pop-up theater that exhibited the earliest motion pictures. Like other bioscope shows of the time, Collins’s Wonderland was a large box-like structure, capable of housing several patrons for a screening. But the films exhibited within the Wonderland were only half of the attraction. Every night, crowds convened for what Collins referred to as an “electric firework display.” Just as the crowd became anxious and children pulled at their mother’s hands, the switch was thrown. Gasps emanated as the mass raised their hands to shield their eyes. The ornate facade flickered to life, radiating the light of 5,000 electric lamps embedded in its surface. Hundreds of faces were awash with swirling multi-colors, a cultural baptism that rinsed off the final remnants of the Victorian hangover.

But Pat Collins had competition. Several bioscope shows toured through England’s fairgrounds during the first decade of the 20th century, each with an elaborate facade and gregarious proprietor. No account of bioscope shows goes without mentioning Annie Holland’s Palace of Light. Requiring a 26-foot truck to transport just the proscenium, the Palace of Light was a traveling theater with capacity for 1,000 patrons. The sister of the Fat Boy of Peckham and showman Captain Thomas Payne, Annie Holland began touring her Palace in 1901. She traveled throughout the United Kingdom with her six sons, building a reputation as the finest purveyor of moving pictures in the land. She competed against Pat Collins until 1912 when her Palace caught fire in Anglesey, Wales. Within twenty minutes, the Palace of Light was a pile of ash. Holland rebuilt by cobbling together booths and wagons acquired from other showmen, but by then it didn’t matter. Permanent movie houses began to emerge on crowded city streets. The itinerant picture show was on its way out. As social historian Vanessa Toulmin explains, bioscope proprietors were victims of their own success: “In the formative years of the introduction of the moving image [bioscope proprietors] cajoled, enticed, and finally created a fascination for the film medium that would eventually prove their downfall.”

Traveling bioscope shows were the first structures built for the specific purpose of exhibiting motion pictures. Previously, movies were shown in converted store fronts and repurposed music halls. Showmen and women like Pat Collins and Annie Holland shaped the early vernacular of movie theaters. When Collins flipped that switch every night and fairgoers fell under the spell of Annie Holland’s twinkling Palace of Light, the early foundation was laid for the marquee as we know it today. Bioscope facades acted as electric billboards, luring crowds like the esca of an anglerfish. Up to that point, playhouses and vaudeville theaters defined the architectural presence of the marquee that announced showtimes and information. But bioscope proprietors electrified it.

As permanent movie theaters overshadowed bioscope shows, city streets became studded with lights installed by nickelodeon owners. Usually covered in pressed tin, nickelodeon facades adopted the electric billboard aesthetic when proprietors realized that a few cheap bulbs could attract just as much attention as the pre-teen barker hired to holler.

When bioscope proprietors screwed in those first decorative bulbs and mounted their arc lights, they initiated a cultural stigma that haunted movie theaters for several decades. The movie theater became a contradictory structure—a bright and twinkling exterior with a dark, cavernous interior. This relationship confounded the early turn of the century audience. As architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas later explained, “In Western architecture there has been the humanistic assumption that it is desirable to establish a moral relationship between the two, whereby the exterior makes certain revelations about the interior that the interior corroborates.” Because bioscope shows seduced patrons into a darkened room, the movie theater developed a seedy reputation from the start. In fact, any movie theater with a classical name, such as Odeon, is an attempt by the proprietor to elevate the theater to a higher taste.

Marquee History and Symbolism

As with many other American English terms, marquee is an etymological maze. Marquee comes from the French term marquise, “originally a large tent with open sides, similar in style to the carriage in which a marquis would ride.”  The word made its journey across the ocean to America, where it became “marquee” as early as the Revolutionary War. George Washington and other high-ranking colonels kept quarters in marquees, described as smaller versions of modern circus tents. Yet the true origin of the word remains a mystery. Some scholars claim it came from Turkey. All that is known for sure is that both terms in question have been used to describe tent-like structures for the past four centuries.

By the late 19th century, the touring circus tents that dotted the countryside of England and America were known as marquees. Just under the lip of the mouth of the circus tent was the ticket taker, standing behind a podium and barking at potential customers. When bioscope shows appeared on fairgrounds, cinema began absorbing the visual language of the circus. The relationship of the ticket taker under the marquee soon defined bioscope shows and eventually, permanent movie theaters.

City streets filled with movie theaters during the first two decades of the 20th century. It started innocently enough. Marquees were one-dimensional and dainty, with very few lights, if any. But as the pace of pedestrian life changed from walking feet to rotating tires, marquees exhaled and expanded. What was a flat sign became a trapezoid, reaching out into the streets. As automobiles became sleek chrome bodies, the marquee grew taller and wider, dominating the facade of the theater. Chaser lights were added to reflect in car windshields, attracting even car-bound passersby. Movie theaters grew in clusters during the early days, drawing upon each other for support to withstand their negative reputation. An urban street became an oasis, spilling over with fountains of blinking lights. By the early 1930s, marquees became what theater historian Ben M. Hall has referred to as “electric tiaras.” As cars traveled at higher speeds, marquees became simpler and more streamlined. A high-speed life demanded instant communication.