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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.

New Design Directions: the Aldwych and Cosmo

The Aldwych in Cardonald (1938) for Smith and Welsh was rather more austere and abandoned streamlining altogether in favour of a savvier look rather closer in spirit to mainstream modernism. Essentially, it was a gigantic rendered box tied tight by a deep cornice of a size and proportion to comprehend the auditorium within.

Alas, the Aldwych was something of a white elephant (in every sense) as its 2,500 seats were rather superfluous to Cardonald’s needs (it was already served by two existing cinemas).

Moreover, it was a middle-class outer suburb which was barred from showing the latest releases until they had already played in the city centre and inner suburbs. After the Second World War, residents in such areas were among the first to equip themselves with televisions.

Singleton acquired the Smith and Welsh cinemas in 1950 (the two firms had always co-operated closely) and all were re-named Vogue. The former-Aldwych was demolished for a supermarket in 1964.

James McKissack’s final cinema design was also his firm’s masterpiece. Opened in May 1939 as the city centre flagship of the Singleton circuit, the Cosmo was the largest and the only purpose built 'art house’ in Britain outside London's West End.
By then McKissack’s health was failing (he died in 1940), and so the Cosmo was actually drawn up by a younger assistant, W.J. Anderson. The idea for a continental cinema came from Charles Oakley, a polymath Devonian who lectured at Glasgow University. Oakley was devoted to the city. He was a founder member of the Glasgow Film Society (formed in 1929 and thus having a claim to being the world's first), which specialised in screening the foreign films to which he was so devoted.

When 'talkies' came along the mainstream cinemas tended to show only English language films, pushing out even the high quality European ones. The Cosmo set out to put matters right. Moreover, while an independent cinema operator like Singleton could easily obtain sufficiently up-to-date British and American films to show in his big suburban cinemas, in the city centre, there was greater competition and the ‘first run’ cinemas belonging to Paramount, Gaumont and ABC showed the newest releases.

Thus, the Cosmo plugged a gap in the market where there was no direct competition. The name was derived from 'Cosmopolitan', a small cinema associated with Cambridge University, with which Oakley was familiar. Singleton, whose interest in the venture was more business like, insisted that a catchy five letter name was needed.

The Cosmo's geometric brown brick facade was clearly influenced by the Curzon, an upmarket art cinema in London built in 1934 designed by Francis Lorne of Burnet, Tait and Lorne – a highly respected Glasgow firm that also had a substantial London office. The Curzon was a building of elegant simplicity. Its neatly detailed brick frontage was partly the result of fierce opposition to a cinema opening in the heart of Mayfair and it had to be less than thirty-five feet.

The Curzon, in turn, was inspired by the work of Willem Dudok. As town architect of Hilversum in the Netherlands between 1920 and 1935, Dudok successfully solved the problem of creating visual integrity in large public buildings. His brick clad structures were conceived as series of massed cubic volumes playing off each other and were often topped by a central tower feature. His designs were obvious models for cinema architects.

Built on an awkward sloping sight on Rose Street, near Sauchiehall Street, the Cosmo was similarly well proportioned. Clad in Ayrshire brick finished with faience cornices, detailed in cream and amber, and set on a base of black Swedish granite, the cinema’s facade was as much an expression of internationalism as its programmes. Since the planners insisted that the Cosmo be set back from the adjacent frontages an extravagant large canopy and sign were fitted to advertise its presence.

Inside, the international theme was continued with a globe over the stalls entrance in the two storey high foyer. The vestibule was panelled in walnut. Two suites of offices, including a directors' room, were provided. Following the maxim that audiences would expect and appreciate fine surroundings the streamlined auditorium had neutral and pink toned walls, which flowed in a series of subtle curves towards the proscenium. There were satin curtains and indirect lighting to create an air of ‘seductive sophistication’. 'Entertainment for the Discriminating' was its trademark.

In 1974 the Cosmo was bought by the Scottish Film Council to become the Glasgow Film Theatre. It was subdivided into a 404-seat cinema in the former balcony and a conference cum exhibition space in the stalls. In 1988, a 144-seat cinema replaced the conference room and later a bar (now known as Café Cosmo) was added. The Glasgow Film Theatre is now independently owned and makes a significant and unique contribution to the cultural life of Glasgow and  the West Coast of Scotland.

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