Tom de Paor has directed a cinematic spatial arrangement for a Galway picture house, discovers David Grandorge

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Words and photos
David Grandorge

Cinema was the major new art form of the last century. The story of its evolution is told in Mark Cousins’ epic 15-hour documentary ‘The Story of Film’ (2011), where numerous spatial and temporal inventions are described with beautiful, gentle words. Having grown up in Belfast in the 1970s during the troubles, Cousins describes the cinema he attended on a regular basis in his childhood as “a refuge”. South of the border, in Ireland, film and the tradition of viewing movies in a ‘picture palace’ seems to have even greater reach, as evidenced by the Galway Film Fleadh that has run annually since 1989.

It is in Galway, a socially and culturally rich city on the west coast, that Tom de Paor has built Pálás, a new independent cinema and a truly ‘public’ house that shares affinities with the films it will show. Whereas film is relatively fleeting and depends on our suspension of disbelief, architecture has to address external conditions throughout its life: after the complexities of construction it is subjected to the elements, wear and tear, and changes in use. Nevertheless this building strives to be cinematic, from its labyrinthine spatial arrangement to its use of extended thresholds and framing devices. It also shows an acute understanding of the cinema-going experience.

The project was commissioned in 2006, after grant funding was received from the EU, which was championing the screening of European-made films in purpose-built cinemas as a pushback against Hollywood. De Paor designed it through analogue means – hand drawings and models at varying scales – to test the qualities of rooms, circulation spaces, the passage of light and the relationship between structure and linings.

De Paor has described the design as simply an extrusion of the maximum buildable extent of the site, the simple stacking of the largest theatre volumes the plan could accommodate, one below ground, two above, and the use of the residual space between them for fire-protected vertical circulation routes, services runs and ancillary parts of the programme. The banality of this description belies the strength of the spatial imagination that has been employed to produce one of the most extraordinary buildings I have encountered.

Its genesis was difficult: there was a long pause in construction at the shell and core phase due to Ireland’s economic difficulties at that time, and it was finished only in March of this year. The building has been leased for the next 30 years by Element Pictures, a Dublin-based film and television production company which also owns and operates the Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin.

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Located in the old town between the docks that face the Atlantic Ocean and the River Corrib that flows into it, the building sits on a very tight corner plot previously occupied by an early-nineteenth-century merchant’s house. The house was partially demolished and reconstructed in concrete – de Paor calls it a “ghost” – in order to maintain the low scale of the adjacent street.

This structure, eroded on its inner side, accommodates the box office and popcorn counter with an office above, accessed by a deftly placed stair. Above this rises the main body of the building, a structurally complex concrete monolith that had to be fully built before being de-propped. It is a building of walls; there are no columns. The building’s profile is exquisitely treated, a result of deflections in the orientation of the external walls and the rise and fall of the parapet between corners. It reads differently depending on one’s viewpoint. From a distance, it appears typologically and icongraphically as a tower house or keep, topped off by a weather vane that also acts as a lightning conductor. Up close the profile becomes more jagged, though it is carefully sculpted. This attribute, and the scale and mass of the volume overall, reinforce the public nature of the building. It is a clear rejection of the prevalent multiplex typology.

The grit-blasted concrete facades appear as render from a distance and have a similar quality to the exposed firewalls of Berlin. The facades are punctuated with 25 square operable windows made of Iroko with galvanised steel plate sills to throw off the rain. They are arranged in a seemingly scattered pattern, giving little indication of internal use. Indeed other than the words ‘Palace’ and (the Gaelic) ‘Pálás’ imprinted on the thinnest sides, the building’s form and language give few clues as to its function.

The way one enters is similarly ambiguous. The entrance on the primary street is via steps or a ramp, then through a gap between the two buildings. One passes through a ‘carved’ space, whose strangeness is reinforced by the underside of an internal stair breaking through the wall above, into an external room that has an almost medieval atmosphere due to its intimacy, material continuity and strong contrasts in light. Here you can buy a ticket or refreshments, enter the cafe, walk on up to a pub or exit out again through the existing stone arch in the partially retained facade of the merchant’s house.

The vertical routes to the three theatres are via the cafe or pub through to powerfully sculpted lobbies, stairwells and stairs. The beautifully cast walls of the stairwells are not insulated, and punctured occasionally with windows at different heights. This results from the intelligent strategy to have differently tempered spaces – only acoustically ioslated spaces are thermally separated from the outside.

The threshold from the street is extended through the building spatially, materially, thermally and through the gradual reduction in natural light levels to prepare one for the dark, intimate space of the auditorium. The light is often coloured on this journey by the installation of resin artworks in the windows designed by the artist Patrick Scott, who sadly died before the building’s completion.

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The building’s section incorporates a series of skillfully carved voids that allow light to penetrate into its heart, and open up a series of views to other spaces. This porosity serves more often than not to disorientate one, giving instead the emotional charge of dissonant notes in musical composition.

Similarly, the spatial configuration of the stairs that pass over each other at conflicting angles, and sometimes split off and lead to nowhere, feels both profound and playful. Tolerance is addressed in the meeting of materials that are expressed as autonomous layers. The detailing is sometimes refined and sometimes rude. It has a directness that seems to have been embraced by the building’s early visitors.

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Authorship in architecture is most often defined by originality, which is frequently confused with spectacle. This highly authored and very original piece of architecture rejects spectacle and embraces the city at different scales in a manner that is both serious and celebratory. Like an arthouse film, it is an entity difficult to understand at first, but is very rewarding on repeated viewing. If you find yourself in Ireland, make a pilgrimage to Galway and enjoy a movie inside a masterpiece.

Additional Images

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Credits

Architect
dePaor
Structural engineer
Casey O’Rourke Associates
Services engineer
Ramsay Cox Associates
Quantity surveyor
Andrew Nugent & Associates