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Inside the Khudozhestvenny After seven years of renovations, one of Russia’s oldest cinemas reopens in Moscow

Source: Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza

In April, Moscow’s Khudozhestvenny Cinema, one of the oldest movie theaters in Russia, reopened after seven years of renovations. This was far from the first remodeling in the cinema’s history, which spans more than 100 years. In the early 20th century, it was rebuilt by Fyodor Schechtel, the well-known architect behind Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Railway Station. While some elements Schechtel’s design have survived the latest overhaul, there’s a lot about the cinema that’s entirely brand new. At Meduza’s request, architectural journalist Asya Zolnikova looks into what has been preserved and what was changed inside the Khudozhestvenny Cinema — and examines why the new interiors have some drawing parallels to old Hollywood, but have left others saying that the renovation wasn’t the most successful.

The Khudozhestvenny Cinema, then and now 

The Khudozhestvenny Cinema is one of the oldest in Russia and it was the first to be housed in a separate building. It was designed by architect Nikolai Blagoveshchensky and constructed on Arbatskaya Square in 1909. In its 112 years, the cinema has never changed its main function, though it has been remodeled several times. The first reconstruction took place just three years after it opened. As the cinema gained popularity, it underwent an expansion led by architect Fyodor Schechtel — the designer behind Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Railway Station, the Ryabushinsky House, and other pre-revolutionary monuments of early 20th century architecture.

By 1913, the Khudozhestvenny Cinema had a new auditorium that could accommodate more than 900 spectators (the former 450-person hall was converted into a spacious foyer complete with a buffet and a fountain). Schechtel also changed the cinema’s facade, replacing its original asymmetrical design with two identical entrances separated by four windows, and adding bas-reliefs with images of the Greek sun god Helios and Moon goddess Selene. To the rectangular parapet above the windows, he added the inscription “Khudozhestvenny Electro-Theater.”

The facade of the “Khudozhestvenny Electro-Theater” in 1912
Khudozhestvenny Cinema / Film Museum

Schechtel’s version of the Khudozhestvenny Cinema has survived to the present day, albeit with numerous additions. For example, in the 1990s, the movie theater also housed slot machines and a casino. It closed for renovations in 2014 and reopened in April 2021. 

After the renovation, the main facade is as close to Schechtel’s original design as restorers were able to establish: complete with the cinema’s historical name, decorations, and cast-iron lamps. The street-facing windows, which were covered over in the Soviet period, have been restored along with the color and texture of the outer walls.

The interiors, however, have changed much more radically. In fact, they were designed from scratch — though the cinema’s original layout was restored and the interior design included what little was left of the historical decor. The end result could be considered a modern, though very conventional, interpretation of Art Deco.

The interior decoration is based on strict geometry and an abundance of expensive materials. It includes lots of reflective surfaces, like mirrors, gilded metal, and polished marble. There are white and blue trees painted on the walls of the main foyer by Russian-Georgian artist Georgy Totibadze, and there’s a large fountain at one end of the room. The chandeliers were designed specifically for the cinema — the largest one hangs above the new staircase in the lobby: it’s made of crystal and weighs 550 kilograms (about 1,100 pounds). 

Before the Khudozhestvenny Cinema closed for renovations in 2014, its decor and furniture were much more modest; the last major renovation was carried out in the late 1980s. But Muscovites continued to go there regardless — they loved the cinema for its cheap tickets, retrospectives of classic films, documentary film festival screenings, and themed “movie nights.” 

Designing for grand premieres 

From its first decades the Khudozhestvenny Cinema was an iconic location: after the 1917 revolution, it became Goskino’s (the USSR State Committee for Cinematography) first movie theater. The Soviet Union’s first sound film, Road to Life (Putyovka v zhizn) premiered there in 1931, and in 1955 it became Moscow’s first wide-screen cinema. It’s history is closely connected to Sergey Einstein’s famous film Battleship Potemkin, which had its first wide release at Moscow’s Khudozhestvenny and Metropol cinemas in January 1926. In honor of the film's release, the facades of both buildings were adorned with three-dimensional ships flying red flags (Moscow’s Film Museum has a miniature model of the Khudozhestvenny Cinema with the Battleship Potemkin facade). 

The Khudozhestvenny Cinema in 1956
Vladimir Sergienko / Film Museum
Screening times on display at the Khudozhestvenny Cinema in 1961
Vsevolod Tarasevich / Film Museum

Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, the main client behind the restoration project from 2016 to 2020, wanted to make the Khudozhestvenny “a cinema for premiere screenings, festivals, and retrospectives.” The design and implementation of the project was carried out under the direction of the architecture firm Strelka CA. In conversation with Meduza, the firm’s General Director, Daria Paramonova, also noted that they wanted to make the Khudozhestvenny Cinema Moscow’s “main platform” for premieres, and turn a trip to the movies into a meaningful event for Muscovites.

“Today, cinema’s are very utilitarian,” Paramonova explained. “People buy popcorn, come to a dark room, and don’t pay attention to what surrounds them before the screening. But here the task was to create a [meaningful] place, on the premise that the new interiors had to work with Schechtel’s legacy.

Who did what (and how much it cost)

After Mamut’s company Pioner signed a 20-year lease on Moscow’s Khudozhestvenny Cinema in 2016, he brought in Strelka CA to develop an overall vision for the renovation. The firm, a subsidiary of the consulting company Strelka KB, which Mamut had a hand in creating, also handled the internal tenders for architects, designers, and other specialists, and monitored the restoration work. 

Previously, from 2014 to 2016, Moskino (a branch of the Moscow Department of Culture) had attempted to renovate the cinema with the help of the architecture firm Wowhaus. The architects suggested preserving what was left of Schechtel’s version of the building as much as possible. However, the project was abandoned; the contractor, SianStroy LLC, failed to meet the construction schedule and the mayor’s office terminated its contract. After that, the cinema — and the restoration project — was transferred to private hands. 

Fyodor Schechtel’s drawing of the Khudozhestvenny Cinema
Khudozhestvenny Cinema / Film Museum
A draft of the wall decor in the auditorium 
Khudozhestvenny Cinema
The design for a chandelier
Khudozhestvenny Cinema
Schechtel’s drawing of the cinema’s interior
Khudozhestvenny Cinema

Strelka decided to contract two foreign firms for the interiors and the architectural design. The interior design was done by the Spanish studio Lázaro Rosa-Violán. The architectural portion was done by the Berlin-based architects merz merz, who were chosen because of their extensive experience with heritage projects. In Germany, they were involved in the reconstruction of the Berlin State Opera and the Berlin State Library. Both firms have also worked on commercial projects in Russia: merz merz designed the Mercedes-Benz Avilon dealership in Moscow, while Lázaro Rosa-Violán has designed the interiors of more than two dozen mass-market clothing stores across the country (mainly for the clothing brands Lefties and Oysho). 

In 2017, Mamut estimated the cost of the renovation at “one and a half billion rubles” (that’s more than $20 million by today’s exchange rate). The Moscow authorities allocated 870 million rubles ($11.7 million) for the reconstruction, and billionaire Roman Abramovich was going to cover the rest of the expenses. However, amid the remodeling, Sberbank acquired Alexander Mamut’s media company, the Rambler Group, in 2020 — and the deal also included a share in the Khudozhestvenny Cinema. Sberbank’s Deputy Chairman, Stanislav Kuznetsov, later said that the bank sank an additional 2.6 billion rubles (about $35 million) into the renovation project.

Why the original interiors weren’t restored

According to Daria Paramonova from Strelka CA, little remained of the cinema’s original interiors when they began their work. The builders had damaged most of the finishings between 2014 and 2016, she said. Photos from those years show that in the main auditorium, the seating was ripped out and the ceiling was almost completely destroyed — the building’s stucco moldings, along with the decorations on the staircase in the foyer, had been torn down. Moreover, Paramonova claims that not all of the original plans and drawings have survived, which further complicated the restoration of historical details.

“Everything that survived or that the restoration workers were able to restore based on the results of historical and academic research has been returned to its place. The question arose of what to do with the ‘cleansed’ walls. We thought that stylization [based on] Schechtel would be inappropriate. And we tried to imagine how this cinema would have developed if its history were linear — without the upheavals of the 20th century. This is a project about the past we missed.”

Olga Alekseenko for Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza

The designers from Lázaro Rosa-Violán suggested drawing inspiration from the Cannes, San Sebastian, Venice, and Berlin film festivals, though Paramonova said that there are no direct references (“you won’t find an Oscar statuette here”). Instead, the cinema’s interior is meant to create this atmosphere. Hence the choice of materials and clear references to the Art Deco aesthetic, which, in turn, is associated with Hollywood’s “golden age.” 

What’s new

Thanks to historical documents from the Russian State Archive of Scientific-Technical Documentation and other sources, the building’s original facade was completely restored — right down to the Greek deities (they were removed in the 1950s) and the pre-revolutionary spelling of the words “Electro-Theater,” “Entrance” and “Exit.” 

Olga Alekseenko for Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza

When, in the absence of the original drawings, it was unclear what a particular element of the building used to look like, it was restored to its original place without an attempt to recreate its style. For example, Schechtel’s plans include a fountain in the main foyer (its basin was found during the renovation). However, since the designers couldn’t restore the appearance of the fountain with any degree of certainty, they decided to create a new one according to the historical dimensions. The finished product features plants in glass bulbs, which are meant to recall the indoor garden that the cinema housed in the early 20th century. 

Olga Alekseenko for Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza

The historical details restored in the foyer include the gratings, along with the decorative cornices and friezes. The oak doors leading to the main hall were based on photographs from the early 20th century. The staircase leading to the second floor had to be recreated, but the stairs leading from the second floor and the fifth floor to the top are made from the original steps. The metal railings along the staircase are completely original, but the handrail itself was recreated based on a design from one of Schechtel’s estates.

In the main auditorium, the balcony is open to spectators once again — it had been blocked off years before the renovation because it was threatening to collapse. The balcony’s railing was preserved according to Schechtel’s design. The ceiling was restored on the basis of his drawings, though its proportions have been changed to accommodate utility lines and acoustic equipment. Other speakers are hidden behind the wall decor, with the help of a special acoustic plaster.

Olga Alekseenko for Meduza

The auditorium's walls are painted a muted, dark pink. Paramonova explained that the designers abandoned the original yellow color that Schechtel chose because it “isn’t suitable for cinema technology, as it’s too light.” The architects also changed the slope of the floor, to make sure the audience members won’t block each other’s view of the screen.

What’s really new

Prior to the renovation, the Khudozhestvenny Cinema had five auditoriums, four of which were built during the Soviet-era expansion. Now, the building has four halls, as Schechtel intended. The smallest one, which seats 21 spectators, is located on the second floor.

Two of the auditoriums (each with 46 seats) are located on a brand new floor — one of the most notable changes to the building’s original structure. It was set up in what was formerly a cold attic used for storing film. Paramonova explained that this made it possible to preserve the building’s outward appearance — the new additions aren’t visible from the street. She also emphasized that it was impossible to build a basement instead, because there’s a subway tunnel nearby. 

To get to the new auditoriums, you have to walk up a twisting, black marble staircase, which sits in the center of the lobby and wraps around to form the reception desk. This is a very noticeable addition, but the German architects insisted it had to be placed in the middle of the room to preserve the symmetry of Schechtel’s design. 

Olga Alekseenko for Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza

Architect Hans Günter Merz told Afisha that working on the Khudozhestvenny Cinema reminded him of the Berlin State Opera. Spectators come to both places to sit down and watch a show. But in his opinion, simply equipping the auditoriums for screenings wouldn’t have been enough — it was important to him that people perceive the cinema as a public space that they can visit for other reasons.

In conversation with Meduza, Paramonova added that one of the main problems identified in the analysis of the property was the building’s isolation from its surrounding context. The designers behind the renovation project wanted to get rid of the cinema’s image as a “transit” zone — to achieve this, a library, as well as several cafes and restaurants, were opened along with the new screening rooms on the second floor.

Olga Alekseenko for Meduza

To make it even more accessible, the building now has entrances on all sides, including through the coffee shop on the north side closer to the Arbatskaya Subway Station. This section of the building was lowered to form a small amphitheater, where tables and chairs will be set up in the summer. Here you can see one of the most noticeable deviations from the historical exterior — parts of the walls were rotated at a 90 degree angle, revealing glass doors. According to Paramonova, this decision was made in consultation with heritage specialists.

The reviews are in

The cinema reopened to the public on April 9. Opinions on the renovation are divided. On the one hand, many social media users like the new Khudozhestvenny: one Instagram user called it “the very movie theater from Hollywood films,” while others praised it for its high-quality interior design, and restaurants and libraries. 

On the other hand, many of those who knew the cinema prior to its renovation are outraged at its radically new interior. In particular, the former deputy director of Moscow’s Film Museum, Maxim Pavlov, who now heads the film programs department at the Tretyakov Gallery, has criticized it repeatedly. He noted that the earlier Wowhaus renovation project was “very passionate” about the building’s heritage, whereas in its current form the cinema has been turned into a “remake of an old box of walls.” “Almost everything inside has been changed, even the large hall was lowered so that the entrance doors to the stage have been turned into decorative elements, losing their actual function as doors,” Pavlov wrote in the comments on one of his Facebook posts. In Pavlov’s opinion, the designers had enough documentation and other information to restore the cinema to a form closer to its original.

Olga Alekseenko for Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza
Olga Alekseenko for Meduza

In a comment to Meduza, design historian Viktor Dembovsky, who lectures at Moscow’s British Higher School of Art and Design, noted that the Khudozhestvenny Cinema’s interiors now lack a sense of wholeness: “When working with a historical building, you need to create either emphatically historical interiors, or distance yourself from them and do something completely modern. And here there’s a lot that doesn’t correspond: the chandeliers point to the luxury of the foyer of Soviet houses of culture, with which the murals of the trees on the walls and the literally futuristic fountain don’t correspond at all. As a result, the interior doesn’t add up to a single picture — it’s as if the space of these halls exist separately from their design.”

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Story by Asya Zolnikova

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart