HISTORY OF THE KHUDOZHESTVENNY СINEMA
ARCHITECTURAL HISTORIAN ANNA BRONOVITSKAYA ON HOW THE CINEMA’S LOOK HAS CHANGED OVER THE LAST CENTURY
With its white semicircles of lunettes above the high doors and a giant billboard on the wall between them, the Khudozhestvenny Cinema is one of Moscow’s unmistakable hallmarks. Since the day the cinema was built in 1913, the old Arbat Square has completely changed its shape. The longstanding buildings on its sides have disappeared and new ones have appeared; even the building where the famous Prague restaurant is housed got its own tower and a colonnade after WW2, but the cinema is still standing as it always was.
However, Khudozhestvenny did not manage to remain completely unchanged: in the mid-1950s the stucco ornamentation of its main facade was removed. But even in this stripped form, the building designed by Franz (aka Fyodor) Shechtel, one of the best and most beloved Moscow architects of all time, the building has not lost its individuality.
Shechtel did not design Khudozhestvenny from scratch. The original building (the very first free-standing cinema in Moscow) was built in 1909 by Nikolay Blagoveshchensky. The entrepreneur Albert Broksh gave the commission to this architect because he had vast experience working with electricity: starting from the 1890s, Blagoveshchensky served in the Electric Lighting Society and designed several buildings of the power plant on Raushskaya Embankment. In those days, film was very flammable, and therefore the electrical equipment of the cinema had to be flawless, and the building itself as safe as possible in terms of being fireproof.
The cinema rapidly grew more and more popular. Just a couple of years after the opening of the Broksh’s Electrotheatre, the owner decided that the 450-seat hall was not enough, and chose to expand it by purchasing more land on the territory of the former Golovkin estate. By that time, fire safety issues were specified in rules approved by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, so that it was possible to involve any architect (not necessarily one who specialized in electricity), and Broksh decided in favor of the sought-after and well-established Shechtel. As such, the architect of the Moscow Art Theater also designed the Khudozhestvenny Electrotheatre 10 years later (in Russian «Khudozhestvenny» means «art»).
The name was a sign of both the new status of cinema — which was turning from frivolous entertainment into art — and the ambitions of the institution to keep its repertoire at a high-quality level despite all the twists and turns of fate.
From now on, the very word «theater» has ceased to be a mere formality, as it was in the case of Broksh’s Electrotheatre. Khudozhestvenny got its own lobby with a wardrobe, a spacious foyer with a buffet, and a small stage for before-the-film entertainment. Shechtel managed to squeeze all of this into the space of the former auditorium, while for the new one he built a two-story building stretching into the depths of the site.
Stylistically, the Khudozhestvenny Electrotheatre (as it read on the facade) does not look like the theater of the same name at all. During the 10 years that separated the two projects, the Art Nouveau style went out of fashion, giving way to neoclassicism, the style chosen by Shechtel for his own house which was built in 1910. Besides, in Kamergersky Lane, the architect was not allowed to redo the facade of the building completely. As a result, the exquisite portal with Golubkina’s bas-relief sits side-by-side with the 19th-century eclectic decor. As for the building on Arbat Square, Shechtel managed to create a solid design.
Unlike today, at that time the cinema was facing not the open space of the square, but the Borisoglebsky blind alley, on the other side of which there was a house with Count Keller’s Pharmacy (it was demolished along with the Boris and Gleb Church in 1930). The sidewalk was narrow, which is why the facade of the cinema was made completely flat, with minimal relief. To prevent crowding, there were two entrances at opposite ends of the facade, each with their own cash register, while the exits led to the courtyard, where the pavilion of Arbatskaya metro station of the Filevskaya line currently sits. Each of the entrances are marked with a slight protrusion of the wall, a pair of pilasters on the sides of the doors and a semicircular lunette above the classical cornice. The four windows in the middle of the facade were left over from the much lower first building. To counterbalance their disproportionate position, Shechtel lowered the cornice exactly above the middle of the building height. While the individual elements were classical, the facade itself was totally original and clearly stated its affiliation with the twentieth century. The architect wanted to complement the composition with four statues at the corners of the risalits, but the customer decided to cut down on expenses.
Also decorated in a classical style, the elegant auditorium could rival those of other theaters, but the location of the seats was changed. At an angle, the screen was much harder to see than the stage, so instead of tiers enveloping the hall, there are only two very small balconies on the side walls and a large, slightly curved one at the back. Behind a row of boxes, there were cheap standing areas. The balcony with its large overhang became possible thanks to the use of the steel skeleton. The main floor and the balcony of the auditorium were able to accommodate 900 viewers, a very impressive figure for those times: the most luxurious St. Petersburg cinema theater Piccadilly (opened in the same year, 1913) had only 800 seats.
The rebuilt cinema was rented by the prominent Russian filmmaker Alexander Khanzhonkov in order to avoid competition with his own Pegasus Cinema on Triumfalnaya Square which also opened in 1913. Soon after the revolution, Khudozhestvenny was nationalized and turned into the flagship site of the State Cinema Committee. It was the venue where major opening nights took place. In 1926, as part of the advertising campaign supporting Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potyomkin, a model of the ship was mounted onto the facade. It turned out that the composition designed by Shechtel was perfect for such use. Later, large movie posters firmly took their place between the risalits, and the ‘Khudozhestvenny Cinema’ sign was moved to the edge of the roof.
Further changes took place after the screening of the first Russia sound film Road to Life in 1931: no longer in use, the orchestra pit was closed, which made it possible to add rows of seats so that their number increased to 946. In 1931, the Udarnik Cinema with 1,500 seats was opened, but the more conveniently located Khudozhestvenny did not give up its position: new space was found for additional auditoriums. In one of them, documentary films were shown. Another one was turned into a reading room, while lectures and concerts were held in the foyer.
In December 1941, a bomb hit a nearby house and damaged the cinema. During the post-war reconstruction, a park was built on the site of the destroyed building (now there is a passage to the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya metro station there), and the cinema got its northern facade decorated with pilasters.
Finally, in 1955, Khudozhestvenny was turned into the first wide-screen cinema in the USSR by removing the portal that framed the previous screen. At the same time, at the height of the fight against excesses, the stucco decoration was removed from the main facade. In this form, the cinema existed for more than half a century until the new reconstruction. Now restorers have returned the mascarons over the doors and the bas-reliefs in the lunettes, and we can see the oldest Moscow cinema as it was conceived in 1913.