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James McKissack - Cinema Architect
by Tom Widdows

0. Introduction
1. Early Works
2. The First Cinemas
3. The Search for Style: Cinemas of the 1920s
4. Art Deco and Jazz Moderne
5. Streamlining in the latter 1930s
6. New Design Directions: the Aldwych and Cosmo
7. Conclusion

Kingsway, Glasgow. 1929.

Art Deco and Jazz Moderne [Part 1]

The term Art Deco was derived from the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, although as a style, it pre-dated and outlived that exhibition. Stylistically, it ranged from such avant-garde exhibits as Melnikov’s Soviet Pavilion and Le Corbusier’s Pavillon De L’Esprit Nouveau to relatively conventional beaux arts-influenced designs. As its title makes clear, however, the exhibition gave prominence to the decorative arts and so the Art Deco tag came to describe a style mixing late-Art Nouveau with Colonial ‘jungle’ motifs and, later, imagery from popular culture.

Far from being a pallid imitation of something else, true Art Deco was a decorative subculture entirely unto itself. Art Deco buildings were distinguished by vigorous ornamentation - multi-layered recesses and exotic Egyptian, Mayan or ‘jazz’ imagery. They were decorated with etched glass, vitrolite, chrome, gilding and polychromatic tiles - and all the parts contributed towards to their visual climax - balconies, ironwork, lamps, graphics, windows, doors and parapets. The full-blown Art Deco style was relatively uncommon in Britain and was usually heavily diluted. In architecture, it was most popular in America, simultaneously taking on the sophisticated metropolitan look of such New York skyscrapers as the Chanin and Chrysler buildings and the tropical look of Miami Beach. Art Deco probably fed into British entertainment architecture as much through our attraction to American culture - especially the ‘screen deco’ of Hollywood movies – as through the direct influence of the Paris exhibition.

Jazz moderne was a mainly British and American derivative of Art Deco, inspired by the syncopated rhythms suggested by jazz music and the bright colours found in cubist painting, expressionism and De Stijl. It found brief popularity in commercial architecture and shop fitting during the late 1920s and early 1930s, but was much derided by ‘serious’ architectural commentators. While true Art Deco tended towards opulent excess, jazz moderne relied on cheap painted zigzag and wave patterns, bright clashing colours and ‘sunburst’ motifs. The style had a longer impact in home furnishings – rugs, carpets, upholstery, ceramics and the ubiquitous ‘sunburst’ suburban garden gate.

McKissack’s first commissions in these styles were for Robert McLaughlin’s Edinburgh Cinema Properties circuit (for whom he had converted the Caley cinema some years previously). Edinburgh was not an easy place for would-be cinema developers. Its city centre was already densely developed. The Old Town had few large enough sites to be worthwhile and the Georgian New Town was a ‘fait accompli’ , and so most projects in the 1930s served newly built suburbs, be they municipal or private developments. James McKissack designed a series of medium-sized super cinemas for various subsidiaries of Robert McLaughlin’s circuit to serve Edinburgh’s new peripheral housing estates. – such as the Carlton, Piershill.

He also designed the Raith in Kirkcaldy, Fife for the same owner. While the former two were of conventional appearance, an idiosyncratic cloud-shaped entrance portico distinguished the entrance to the Raith. McKissack gave a similar treatment to the Embassy in Troon, designed for another of his important clients, the Ayrshire-based K.R. Blair circuit (which also ran cinemas in Irvine, Beith and Girvan).

Altogether, McKissack worked mainly for four cinema proprietors, located right across Central Scotland. His most important designs were for Glasgow-based circuits.

That city had been in perpetual expansion since the Industrial Revolution and in the 1930s it increased further with new garden suburbs of bungalows for the middle classes and further municipal housing schemes to relieve inner city congestion. Glasgow was regarded by the film industry as ‘Cinema City’ and the CEA established that the average Glaswegian must have gone to the cinema a staggering fifty one times a year to achieve the attendance figures recorded in the late 1930s. This is remarkable as some people, particularly in prosperous areas, rarely if ever went to see a film, preferring the city’s many live theatres; the others simply went several times a week.

With 139 cinemas in business at the outbreak of the Second World War (Edinburgh had only 65) , Glasgow could boast more cinema seats per head of population than any other city in the country and these were evidently occupied more often than those in Manchester, the city with the next highest ratio.

In Glasgow, McKissack designed exclusively for the Smith and Welsh and Singleton circuits. Smith and Welsh, it will be remembered, were Labour councillors; Smith being the city’s Housing Convenor, and thus whenever a new municipal development was proposed in the 1930s, a cinema for Smith and Welsh to a McKissack design was sure to be included on a prominent site. Today, such an apparent conflict of interest might well cause political scandal but, equally, Smith and Welsh were ensuring that the occupants of Glasgow’s new housing schemes enjoyed the use of large and spacious cinemas, which were much-needed recreational amenities.

The Mecca in Possilpark, then thought to be a model of municipal housing design, was the first of these outer suburban schemes and was completed in 1932. It was unusual in that the auditorium was essentially an asbestos cement-clad ‘tent’ over steel frames, yet the façade to Balmore Road was, in contrast, a sturdy composition of red sandstone, faience and harling. It looked well when viewed square on, but its side elevation to Hawthorn Street was (and still is) messy and reveals the essential cheapness of its construction. 

None-the-less, internally the Mecca was colourfully decorated in ‘jazz moderne’ style with stained glass lights in the stairwells, robust terrazzo flooring in the hallways and an ornate proscenium arch and curtains, adorned with waves and zigzag motifs.

Also dating from 1932, the lumpish Regal at Stranraer was truly an ugly intrusion into the townscape. This medium-sized provincial cinema was built for a local syndicate (which may have been working to an extremely tight budget) and it presented to the street a tall and rather poorly resolved expanse of harled brickwork, within which a small faience-clad entrance portico was buried.

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