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    Design and Beyond: Palace Central and the “small complexities” of cinema architecture

    Chippendale, Sydney

    Residential, commercial, education, public and hospitality. The typologies of architecture are ubiquitous and firmly established within the industry. So when you come across a practice that specialises in cinema architecture, the obvious question to ask is: What is it, exactly?

    Dean Lewis has spent decades working within this particularly niche space within architecture – first working as an “architect slash project manager” at Village Roadshow, where he was involved in the design of cinemas in 22 different countries; and now as director of his own practice, Design and Beyond, which he founded in 1998.

    Most recently, Lewis was commissioned for the design of Palace Cinemas’ latest location within the iconic Sydney Central Park building. Completed in collaboration with the interior designers at DesignOffice, the new independent cinema outpost required more than just a selection of theatres with comfortable seating. Palace Central occupies the entire second floor of the Central Park building, and entails a focal entrance point, a beer hall, and an expansive prosecco bar and lounge area.

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    Ascending the escalators, the first thing that strikes you is the brightness of the space; a break from the darker schemes of many cinema buildings. Although there were a significant amount of restrictions and design constraints that came from working within an established retail environment, Palace’s pocket of the building manages distinction with its pop-pink neon lighting, pale timber cladding, and sheer abundance of natural lighting and open space.

    In the wake of Palace Central’s launch last week, Architecture & Design sat down with Dean Lewis to talk the “small complexities” and the technological specificities of designing for the movies.

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    How did Design and Beyond come about?

    I’ve by default become an architect, I guess. I started off with Village Roadshow in ‘88 and I’ve been involved in cinemas ever since. I was an architect slash project manager with Village, and while I was with them we built cinemas in 22 countries. After I left them, I started up Design and Beyond, and have since worked for a lot of the independent cinemas.

    I was approached by Palace about three years ago for their rollout across the country – the ‘new breed’ of Palace, if you will. [The ‘new breed’] was to have a fairly digital focus, as well as a focus on food and beverage. I’m currently working with them on a number of other projects around the country, including two other cinemas in Melbourne – Pentridge and Moonee Ponds.

    Cinema architecture is a rather niche sector of the market. How does designing for cinema differ from other areas of architecture?

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    It’s a lot of small complexities that make cinema architecture different from other kinds. I work with a broad range of acoustic consultants, IT technicians, and projection and sound specialists. There’s a lot to it, but when you break it down, the architecture itself is similar to other projects. The floor of the cinema is similar to designing a bar or a restaurant, and then you’ve got the cinema box, which is more of a scientific area where you’ve got proportions that you need to get right, and very specific sightlines to the screen. This is especially crucial with Palace Cinemas, where they show a lot of foreign films with subtitles, and you need to ensure that the sightlines from the box allow for this.

    What was the brief for the Palace Central project?

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    They were very definite about what they wanted. They sent over a moodboard with a look and feel. A few areas of the brief were important to both Fraser and Palace, and one of the most important was to complement the existing fit-out of central park, and taking on-board all of those environmental considerations. We employed a number of sustainability measures, like aircon with CO2 monitors. The system can determine the population of different areas based on the number of people exhaling, and the aircon adjusts accordingly. This system has been around for a while, and was designed for Palace in consultation with a mechanical engineer.

    The family behind the Palace enterprise is a third-generation Italian family of movie exhibitors who are very passionate about their film. Like good Italians, they’re very fashion-conscious, and the aesthetic is of great importance. It’s a very competitive market, and they’re up against some big players. For them to compete, they’ve got to stand out. The brief was basically that they needed to be better, which meant better seats, better sound, better aesthetics, better bars, better food, better everything. That touches on the seats, which we scoured the world for, and we believe we found the most comfortable cinema seats in the world. They’re produced in Spain, and we went to great lengths to secure the contract with those seats.

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    The idea around the bar areas was to give them choice and allow them to go to different spaces. Depending on the move and the patron, you might have a group wanting to catch up before the film and go to the prosecco bar, where they can talk on the lounges that have views out to the green plaza below. Or others might prefer beer over wine, so they could go to the beer hall for a more informal gathering over dumpling.

    We were restricted with space and with the existing footprint, and the entry point was pre-determined by where the elevators arrived. We really focused on the corner where the main bar and prosecco bar is, as that’s quite a significant area of the floorplan, and has the best outlook. We wanted to capitalise on that outlook, but more importantly it’s a very prominent corner of Central Park. It looks outside and hangs over the square and the plaza below, so there’s a lot of exposure to patrons. We’ve used coloured lights to attract patrons from the ground-floor – like moths to a lightbulb, I suppose. We wanted to encourage people to dwell – to sit and chat about what they’d just seen – so all of the furnishings have a focus on comfort and luxury.

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    The material palette was [conceived] in collaboration with DesignOffice, who were the interior designers for the project. We wanted – and this goes back to the brief – a better aesthetic. Something that looked good but also performed well. It needed to be a bit utilitarian considering the number of people who will be getting through. A lot of the materials also needed to be in-line with what already existed within Central Park. So for instance, you’ll notice we didn’t treat the columns, we just rubbed them back to the bare concrete.

    How was it to work within such an established, large-scale retail setting?

    There were lots of constraints, primarily the existing forms and ceiling heights, the existing services and air-conditioning. It was a real spaghetti of services that you had to sit within or relocate. There was a lot of coordination to make it work. But I must say, the space – unlike any other retail centres that I’ve worked in – had an impressive focus on quality, which I applaud Frasers for. It was a beautiful design and a great environment in which to work, and to have our cinemas complement that look and feel.

    Key Info

    Architect: Design and Beyond

    Interior Architect: DesignOffice

    Completed: 2017

    Photography: Supplied

    Words: Kirsty Sier

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