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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.


When McKissack died, on 24th June 1940, Britain was again at war and, by its end, society had changed radically. Even so, the cinema remained popular - for a time.

Whilst the aim of any architect is to design buildings that stand the test of time, also appealing to current fashion, they have also to recognise that unless these buildings are outstanding and exhibit strong, recognisable traits of the period in which they are built, most of them will eventually disappear. McKissack’s cinema designs, which so accurately reflected the popular modernity of the 1930s are no exception - indeed it is remarkable that any of them still exist today.

At the time of McKissack’s death in 1940, cinema was, perhaps, the most popular form of entertainment for the majority of people. For the generations who had grown up between World War 1 and World War 2 a visit to the cinema had been an escape from unemployment, poverty, bad housing and the general drabness of their existence. Cinemas were ‘a haven of comfort, where you could come in out of the cold, be entertained, have a sleep, have a cuddle, and four hours later be only a few pence worse off’.

Thus the colourful, decorated and illuminated fascias and the lavish interior designs were an important part of the cinema- going experience; but just as the admission price was cheap, the materials used to achieve the effects were also inexpensive and ephemeral and would inevitably become decay over time. 

The ephemeral nature of the materials used to build and decorate many cinema buildings, only intended to last for a fairly short period, meant that by the 1950s and 1960s, the buildings would have required extensive refurbishment which would not have been cost-effective, so it is hardly surprising that many were demolished, especially as they occupied land which had considerable value for other building projects. However some were to survive and their salvation was Bingo.

As Cinema declined as a popular entertainment, reform of gaming laws meant that bingo flourished, and is still popular today, although converted cinemas have largely been replaced by new premises. Of McKissack’s designs, the New Tivoli in Edinburgh, the Riddrie in Glasgow and the Vogue in Rutherglen are still bingo halls and in good condition. The La Scala in Hamilton and the Mecca in Possilpark in Glasgow are derelict and likely to be demolished.
[In 2006, the New Tivoli is currently derelict, the La Scala is due for demolition but the facade will be retained, and the Mecca has been turned into shops]

Today only one of McKissack’s designs is still a cinema. The Cosmo, now the Glasgow Film Theatre, is perhaps the finest work of his firm, and while substantially altered to accommodate two screens, it remains a well-constructed, dignified and comfortable haven in which to enjoy the magic of cinema.

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