Interiority Complex

Posted in architecture by johnsnavely on November 7, 2007

This is a working post… after shitting the bed at my mid review, I’m trying to edit up a new thesis statement.

I’m kinda tired of trying to be smart, so I’m going to write this more conversationally. When I first presented my thesis I described the proposal as mostly driven by aesthetics and the criticism from my committee was that I wasn’t making an academic argument. But it seems like everything generated by this postmodern approach could be made more efficiently by modern, minimalist poo: less material, less effort, less everything. Well, “less is a bore“. The only real reason to make all this extra effort is because it just looks better. I like pretty stuff. And so does everybody else. We’re all nostalgic for the days when craft and not cleverness was king. Anyway… here goes again…. This time I’m going to try and be more matter-of-fact. This is not just the intro statement but the presentation script…


In 1914, a small theater was constructed on Broadway Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In the 1920s it was converted into a cinema and for twenty years successfully operated during the golden age of movie palaces. From 1950’s to 1970’s the theater gradually declined, eventually showing grind-house Mexican wrestling movies and pornography. After closing in 1977, the theater space was re-purposed as a ballroom and then a restaurant. Today the building holds a assorted retail stores, several apartments, and a five thousand square foot 99 cent store. This thesis proposes to reinstate the theater as it was during its heyday in the 20’s and 30’s, as an ornate movie palace.

To create this contemporary movie palace, this thesis uses an aesthetic which encourages nostalgia, that, through reference to the past, can endear a design to a community, mitigate programmatic dischord, and provide unusual formal qualities. To find this nostalgic beauty, this thesis will revisit antique typologies like that of the movie palace and nickelodeon, out-dated architectural techniques like poche and pastiche, and forgotten forms of ornament. Iconography and ornamentation, rather than being mere decoration of the interior, form a membrane which acts as a cultural interface to site the building in a strong, diverse, and ultimately stubborn community.

Since the original drawings for the theater have been lost or destroyed, the first attempt to create a movie palace was merely to copy an existing theater of approximately the same size and place it into the site. [I’m going to make these graphic better…]


The major problem with this approach is that the theater is too large for the community. In the 20’s and 30’s Williamsburg was at the height of its population density and prosperity. Today, this area of South Williamsburg is poor and only recently is making the same gains in population that we see elsewhere in Brooklyn. It cannot support a 500 to 1000 seat theater. In addition, an ornate movie palace wastes both structure and space in order to maintain its appearance. Re-examining how theaters like this one were originally constructed gave a clue how to proceed.


In the old theater, the poche space wastes both framing material and space. By inserting secondary program like apartments or retail into the poche space, whose structure can support lightweight ornament, we also gain the pro forma that might support a large “public” project like a movie theater. Given this logic the building could be read as a theater where the poche space is a midrise apartment building. Or, when we reverse the relationship, a midrise apartment building with a theater as its circulation space.

Since the theater and circulation are the same we can address the problem of the theaters scale. Movie theaters make money by having multiple spaces for different movies to show at the same time. A design that had several smaller movie palaces would be more successful than one with a single theater space. Here are some diagrams exploring how to balance theater, poche space, and circulation. [edit these…halfway done on my laptop]




To Come:

1.) There are three major theaters…

2.) Framing

3.) Offset Ornament (How a 3-5 foot EPS foam offset turns ornament into architecture and vice versa…)


5 Responses

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  1. Jenny said, on November 14, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    I just read some of your other posts…Some blunt thoughts as usual…but you’re used to this! 🙂

    I agree that your other revisions of the introduction and thesis “speech” should have more of an academic argument, not simply about the logistics of the theater and the site in Brooklyn. You might be losing a lot of conceptual ground in order to make room for the practical. But you need to balance both? I’m not sure if allowing pastiche and ornament to do all of the work will make for a better community?

    Nostalgia is a tricky thing and obviously Stern has a lot of clients who look forward to his buildings. I think the term detracts from your project.

    Maybe if you position yourself via the architectural discourse on postmodernism (or even via literature or film), your critics will know what to expect. Or even critiquing the typology of the theater. I think it’s important to address each of those terms you throw out: culture of community, ornament, style, iconography. You also need to define for yourself how “style” functions…are you critiquing how architectural elements are put together and if so, what is the new model of operation? What about developing your logic around materials of ornament (Aranda Lasch did a decent job of defining their polygonal parameters and models of tiling/symmetry in their Grotto project…it got slightly too Columbia-esque for me but you can get an idea and probably do it better).

    Also this academic reasoning might come after you begin developing the script or formal rules that will be applied to the theater. I mean, right now, we are supposedly post-Deleuzian and entering the world of Badiou..time and event…our so-called relationship to materials and our design praxis is quite open to interpretations…

  2. johnsnavely said, on November 14, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    I think you’re right about the postmodern framing. My arguments haven’t been quite specific enough to architecture. I’ve had a lot of trouble being succinct and making a complete argument for a postmodern approach to people who don’t really buy it in the first place. But I think I’ve been barking up the wrong tree. Trying to argue for postmodernism, generically, is just too much work.

    So I think I just have to jump right in and say that this is a pomo thesis and position myself more quickly so that I can talk about what I am doing: using a graphic style to reinterpret architectural elements, from representational to construction techniques.

    And, I agree, I don’t think there’s enough critique in my presentation. It doesn’t feel very aggressive, but at the same time, crisis and solutions seem to be a modernist way of framing things. Maybe this is simply another way to generate form.

    In that sense, the last pass at the presentation was to pose the thesis as simple, practical question: How would I build a turn-of-the-century movie palace into the site today? And attempt an answer through this graphic, postmodern lens.

    I disagree with you about nostalgia, though. It’s one of those emotions that walks the line between cheesy and profound. Maybe I should use the german word “Fernweh” which literally translated means “far-ache”. It often gets translated as “wanderlust” but really it describes nostalgia for a place they do not know. For example, the nostalgia I might feel for a movie palace even though they aren’t of my time or place, and I haven’t been to one.

  3. Adrian said, on November 17, 2007 at 4:11 am

    If you make it real, beautiful, and effortless people will spend the rest of their lives theorizing over your work. I’m not sure if the same could be said about making it boring and well defended. Also, I’m all for the idea of using the framework of academia to subvert the idea of academia. It isn’t until you can disarm your master that you truly have mastered their art.

  4. johnsnavely said, on November 17, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    Adrian! Thanks for dropping some knowledge. And for the blog link!

    I’m always thinking about that quote you typeset. (Might as well make it amazing.) It’s more motivating than watching Old Boy vids.

    It was funny… the other day my advisor and her husband were wailing on one of my colleagues. And they were saying how there’s a some sort of generation gap between us (the 20 somethings in school) and them (the 30 somethings who are practicing). They said that they learned how to work out buildings and make drawings and just now they’re learning how to find strange forms. Whereas we, because of digital tools or whatever, make odd forms with ease. They said that thesis for students was more about demonstrating a huge paradigm shift, but for critics, there needed to be architecture first. Listening in, I thought that not only do I not know how to draw “worked” out plans and sections, but most of the forms I see in architecture (my work included) are for lack of a better word… boring. But really, what’s asked for is showing the jury what they already know in a new way– “mastering the master” as you say. Is that final line of your comment a quote from “Kung Fu”? (If so, I bow down.)

    btw, according to some sources, your blog is genius. On the other hand, I’m still writing like Billy Madison.

  5. Jenny said, on November 25, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    At least in history and theory of architecture, we have the old adage that we must first “kill” our fathers before we completely master our material…though I personally believe two generations of academics can co-exist as long as they each know their own boundaries…a bad example of this (no names now) but certain professors who want to “theorize” digital representation and modeling but have no idea what actually happens in the computer…

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