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Dream Machine

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This drawing of a design for a small cinema by Herbert Bayer is a popular drawing in Bauhaus exhibitions and publications. It’s still in good condition after 85 years, there’s something pleasing about the layout, and it has some pretty colours. Lovely. Now let’s see what the drawing tells us about the building.

  • The dotted lines in the plan for the upper level tell us that the width and depth of the auditorium have been determined by the power of the projector lamp and lens. This is a sensible thing to do because although the projector can project a larger image, it won’t be as bright. People have to be able to see what they’re paying for.
  • All seats are on the same level and have a good view of the screen. This is also good, and for the same reason.
  • The cinema does not have balconies like an opera theatre or side galleries like a drama theatre. When watching something that is two-dimensional, side galleries and balconies are not clever. Same reason again.
  • There is no curtain or stage because IT’S A CINEMA! Films don’t need stages that has to be hid while scenery and performers move into position.
  • The cinema looks like it has three classes of seating, with 3 probably the most expensive. All cinemas used to be like this.
  • The wall and seating area colours show the seat (ticket price) type and become progressively darker towards the screen where it needs to be dark. This is a good thing.
  • There are two fire escapes, one at each end of the central aisle and this is the best place for them to be. This is a good, for obvious reasons. Back then, smoking inside cinemas was allowed.
  • An arrow on the front stairs shows they are (somewhat obviously) the entrance, but an arrow on the rear stairs shows they are intended to be used as the exit. Such an arrangement reduces the time between screenings.
  • The entrance door is a revolving door. This keeps out streetnoise – not that this would have mattered all that much since, in 1924, movies were still silent movies.  (The first commercial screenings of short films with soundtracks were in 1923 and the first feature film with a soundtrack was released in 1927 – both in America.)
  • Entry is directly into the lobby, but something is blocking the direct line from the street. This stops light from the street hitting the screen when the inner door is open.
  • To the right of the entrance we have what is probably a ticket booth and stairs leading up to the projection room. Both spaces are necessary spaces for a cinema.
  • To the left is a room but we don’t know what for – toilets perhaps, or maybe not, as it’s unlikely you would have been able to buy buckets of Coca-Cola in German cinemas in 1924.
  • Apart from the door, the entire façade of the building is given over to advertising the cinema and what is showing inside. The façade is providing useful information, not decoration.
  • Apart from the facade, the building has no external presence at all.

All this we know from this one drawing. What we can’t tell is that 1920s Berlin was an exciting place to be. In 1924, when this building was designed, modern Berlin cinema-goers were probably watching the following films, each of which is an example of German Expressionist cinema.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Nosferatu (1922)

Phantom (1922)
Schatten (Warning Shadows, 1923)
The Last Laugh (1924)
Although it was being filmed in 1925, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” wasn’t released until 1927.

Metropolis (1927)

Even from these few images and clips, we can see that 1920’s German Expressionist cinema wasn’t too concerned with reality. The “feeling” that the film evoked in the viewer was the important thing and those feelings were often to do with spectacular escapist fantasy, whether horror, historical, futuristic – or all three at once. What’s any of this got to do with architecture?

Absolutely nothing!

And that is the brilliant thing about this cinema design of Bayer’s. It’s the job of movies and drama (and perhaps opera) to provide reaffirming and/or disturbing visual fantasies of people’s lives and loves, their emotions and cultures, their times and their places. All this little building does is provide a place for that to happen, and in as sensible a way as possible. The “cinema-going experience” is a more recent invention designed to extract as much money out of you before you get to your seat.

So next time you go to a cinema, particularly if it’s in a shopping mall, have a look around. You might have a bucket of Coke, a barrel of popcorn and a lapful of incredibly noisy sweets, but the box you’re sitting in (and the one next to it, and the one next to that) will be not much different from this 1924 prototype.

Herbert Bayer, MISFITS’ salutes you!