The cinemas of Chişinău
Immediately after it was invented, cinema spread with lightning speed across the world, being appreciated mainly for its entertainment purpose and secondly for its fantastic ability of presenting visually the complexity of the surrounding world, reducing distances and capturing crucial moments from history, allowing them to be reproduced, virtually, for ever.
The first film screenings were held in the open, as all they required was improvising a screen. Once the art of cinematography developed and in order to provide comfortable viewing conditions to the filmgoers, special halls were organised, equipped with chairs or seats, with the possibility of shutting out light completely, with a permanent, fixed screen and a projection booth. Access to film shows was permitted only to those who bought tickets from the ticket booth (“the “box office”) in the cinema hallway. Film production and screening became an increasingly profitable business. The flow of visitors in the cinema building had to be organised from a functional point of view, devising an optimal path, starting from the entrance hall to the ticket booth, going through the access doors to the audience hall, and at the end of the movie, going out the exit door(s). In the beginning, the same movie would be shown without interruption, the projection being resumed straight after the end, with the moviegoers entering the cinema at any point, being escorted to their seats by ushers carrying flashlights. Once the importance of cinema as an establishment for cultural pastime, the schedule of film projection became mote structured, with intermissions for ventilating the projection room. Showing the movies according to a pre-established schedule required setting up a hall for those waiting to get in; this hall, the same as those in theatres (playhouses), had a sound system. For comfort reasons, the waiting hall was turned into a lobby, with seats around the walls, with a buffet or a bar, selling sweets and refreshments. In rare cases, the lobby also had a toilet and a cloakroom for winter coats, but this required the optimisation of the outward flow of visitors. Some luxury cinemas had a stage with a piano in the lobby, where actors and singers, invited or hired by the cinema, entertained the audience before the start of the projection. Through these elements, taken separately or together, theatre influenced greatly influenced the organisation of the interior space of cinemas, which was close to the traditional organization of theatre shows, but much simplified, as the important elements here were the speed at which the filmgoers entered the hall and then left it at the end of the show.
For the management of these establishments, auxiliary rooms were included in the design, occupying as little room as possible: ticket booths, the director’s office, staff room, a guest room etc..
In the Soviet milieu, as in any other state with a totalitarian doctrine, cinema was used particularly as an effective means of ideological propaganda, the information presented visually being more accessible for the larger masses of population, at the time semi-literate and semi-educated, also due to the realist form of “life-like” presentations. The cinema’s ability to inform rapidly and in a simple form was highly appreciated by the system’s ideologues, their appreciation being stated in Lenin’s quote “For us, the most important art is film”. It is not by accident that the cinemas in the Soviet Union, up until the time it fell apart, showed before fiction (feature) movies documentary, “non-fiction” reels, containing news, information about high-level political meetings, the departure or arrival of delegations, data about the harvest, records set at work, party congresses, conferences etc.
Dotting the urban texture of cities and towns in the SSRM with cinemas had the purpose of satisfying the population’s demand for leisure, and the cinemas became the most accessible culture sites in their areas, both in terms of cost (cheap tickets) and in terms of show scheduling (the movie started in the morning and went on until evening, irrespective of the number of spectators). In the morning, and particularly on Saturdays and Sundays, cinemas showed children’s movies, both animated and live-action, which children viewed on their own or accompanied by their parents. During the day and in the evening, the cinemas showed films for more mature audiences, with some even being restricted from being shown to under-16s.
The cinemas of Chişinău, like all cinemas in the Soviet Union, covered for the greater part the demand for feature (fiction) films, documentaries (non-fiction), popular science and animation. Soviet films were shown on normal screen, wide screen and in cinemascope, some of them with stereoscopic projection. Films were made in the Russian Federation, in the movie studios in Moscow, Leningrad (Sank-Petersburg) and Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg), in Ukraine – at Kiev and Odessa, in Georgia, in Latvia, in the republics of Central Asia, despite the fact that the latter were not particularly popular due to their approach, specific to the Oriental world. Moldova also had a centre for film production, both feature and documentary, and some of its movies became famous. The large masses of the population awaited and appreciated most the European and American productions.
The movies were circulated through the distribution network according to a system called “прокат” (leasing), that is they were bought from the producer, copied and then leased to the distributors for being screened in the local cinemas. The films were rotated in time and location, depending on the hierarchy of the public importance of the cinemas and on the contents of the movie. The movies opened in the more favoured cinemas in city centres, as a rule during a meeting with the film crew; later on, after a fitting time interval, they were taken off the schedule and sent to other cinemas, in the residential districts. This was a system to which connoisseur filmgoers, which formed an educated but small-sized audience, and which appreciated skilfully-made films authored by famous directors, irrespective of their origin, adapted quickly. Given the circumstances of a totalitarian state, it happened that certain movies that the local ideologues deemed capable of jeopardizing the cultural values attuned to the communist standards would be marginalised by being shown in cinemas located away from city centres and at inconvenient times.
The ’70s and the ’80s were a brilliant period for the artistic quality of both Soviet and world cinematography, the time that marked the emergence of non-fiction films about the mysteries of history, which were very popular among the Soviet intelligentsia. Seeing a movie that everyone was talking about was an issue of prestige, and, like reading a good book, mandatory for a man of culture, a necessity when one wanted to form a personal opinion on the topic. Thus, due to the rotation method, which sent the movies from the centre to the outskirts of cities, “restricted access” movies could be seen for certain and the result was the reverse of the expected one: the theatres would fill and the movie would stay in the circuit for a long time, sometimes returning on the bill whenever the institution was in a financial slump.
For the convenience of moviegoers, the schedule was updated daily and published in the daily “Chişinăul de seară”/”Вечерний Кишинев” (“Chişinău in the Evening”). Information about movies and show times was also accessible from the infokiosk telephones in the city cinemas.
The importance of viewing movies in cinemas decreased steadily after 1985, when the evolution of current events became more captivating than the topics of action movies, and the TV screen became favoured over the cinema screen.
The 1900s brought poverty to the population and the cinema tickets became very expensive, due to the high tariffs, becoming inaccessible to the common citizen; meanwhile, the pirated, racy movies shown in internet clubs attracted the immature youth away from the art of cinema. The situation culminated with the categorical instauration of the reign of Latin-American soap operas on television, followed by similar Russian productions. The system of television series, continuing the story from one evening to the next, kept moviegoers at home and finally resulted in the desertion of cinemas and the demise of the tradition of viewing movies in optimal cinematographic circumstances: large screen at an appropriate distance, colour, sound etc. The economic and social circumstances took cinemas to bankruptcy, and the advent of widescreen plasma TVs put the last nailed in the coffin of group moviegoing, as people chose home theatres instead. The only cinemas that remain in operation are those that show premieres, take part in festivals, organise cultural events etc., the sort of occasions that involve the live dialogue between the creators and the public interested in their art.
The cinemas of Chişinău
According to historians, the first film screening took place in Chişinău in 1897, and the Aristocrats’ Club, followed by one in the current City Hall building, in 1902. The first cinema was called “Orfeum”, and it was opened in 1912; it was followed by the cinemas of the interwar period: “Odeon”, “Express”, “Colosseum”, the theatre in the Polish Club, which together could accommodate over 1000 moviegoers.
The “Odeon” cinema, built between the two World Wars, was restored in 1945-1946 based on a design by architect Etti-Roza Spirer, and then reopened with its old name. Between 1956 and 1962 the cinema was completely reconstructed according to a design by architect Serghei Vasiliev, and its name was changed from “Odeon” to “Biruinţa” (“Victory”). The cinema’s architecture was subject the strict rules of socialist modernism, its appearance being determined by the geometrical volume, functional, with straight lines of the halls inside, with a showcased lobby, elevated on a tall plinth, with a podium stairway. The glass wall of the lobby, quite long but not very tall, contrasts with the large pure surfaces of the building, which were traditionally used for displaying movie posters.
Located in the central area of the city, at the corner of the quarter bordering the streets M. Eminescu and Mitropolit Varlaam, across the road from the Philharmonic, and close to the Ştefan cel Mare boulevard, where the National Theatre was situated, the “Biruinţa” cinema was in an area with a high density of cultural sites, being so popular with the public that four ticket booths had to be opened. As the line of ticket buyers stretched out into the street, a special ticket booth was created for VIPs (emeritus cultural workers, veterans etc.): they would show their credentials and receive the tickets at a discounted price, but the best seats in the house.
The cinema’s structure included three theatres: the Blue Hall, the Red Hall and the Green Hall, with separate access, organised from both neighbouring streets. The halls were different in terms of seat number and comfort.
One entered the first two halls of the “Biruinţa” cinema from the Mihai Eminescu street, through a shared hallway, but with separate lobbies. The Blue Hall, structured like an amphitheatre and with a balcony, had a capacity of 525 seats, with chairs upholstered in blue velvet, hence the name of the hall. The screen was large-format, which meant that it could display special-format movies. In the 1980s, an extra five-storey volume was added to the building, to house the air conditioning equipment, and thus the Blue Hall became the most comfortable of the three.
The Red Hall, with a capacity of 320 seats, had chairs upholstered in red fabric, and after the cinema was refurbished stereoscopic film projection equipment was installed in it.
The Green Hall was meant for the screening of children’s movies; the access into this hall was on the side opposite to the door to the first two, from a square that opened towards the Mitropolit Varlaam street. In 1981 the Green Room became the core of a separate cinema, with a capacity of 309 seats, called “Andrieş”, after the name of a fairy-tale and movie hero, indicating the intention to preserve the old designation of children’s cinema. Close to the entrance there is an open-air café for children.
The first dedicated movie theatre built in the past-war years was the “Patria” (“Motherland”) cinema, located at 103, Ştefan cel Mare şi Sfânt boulevard, 103, currently called “Emil Loteanu”. It was built on the ruins of the former Club of Bessarabian aristocrats, which in its turn had been built in late 19th century and then destroyed during World War II.
This cinema became the main movie house of the city, due mainly to its location – at the corner of the Ştefan cel Mare public garden, with its main façade towards the Ştefan cel Mare boulevard, a very profitable location for a cultural site – and secondly to the architectural solution of the facades and of the visual decoration, which was meant to showcase the new social order. The architecture of the “Patria” cinema (built 1949 – 1952), signed by architect V. Voiţehovschi, engineer Max. Berber, is indebted to the Aristocrats’ Club, due to the adaptation of the old structure and planimetry, which included, among many other rooms, a theatre. Thus, from a planimetrics point of view, the “Patria” cinema continued, to a certain extent, the functional use of the old building, while the architecture (signed by V. Voiţehovschi) was in line with the style of the era – socialist realism (Stalinist Empire style or Socialist Classicism). The functional solution chosen for the interior of the old building allowed the construction of two halls, capable of showing films simultaneously. The main hall, with a seating capacity of 948, used the volume of the old theatre entirely, with its large lobby, access from the boulevard and exit on the opposite side, towards the park. The capacity of the hall was increased by building a large balcony, with access through a separate door on the top floor, hosting a concert hall, a reading hall and a buffet. The small hall had 98 seats, and it was meant for a more select audience, to initiates in the art of cinema, and it was used for the screening of experimental films.
For the second cinema, a dedicated structure was built: the open-air, summer cinema, known as “Cinematograful de zi”/”Дневное кино” (the “Day Cinema”), at 113A, Mateevici Street. It was opened in 1953 in a leisure area in Valea Morilor called Parcul Central de Odihnă şi Agrement (“The Central Rest and Recreation Park”), with the purpose of accommodating the public during the summer, when the Park was the main attraction point for the capital’s inhabitants. A standard design (by architect C. Pavlovski) was adapted by architect R. Curţ to the conditions of the sloping relief in Valea Morilor, and the cinema was opened in 1953. The building had stone walls and it was covered with a canvas canopy. The summer cinema had the shape of an amphitheatre, had a seating capacity of 728, and the films were shown on a wide screen, outlined in black velvet, allowing an optimal viewing during the day (hence its’ nickname the “Day Cinema”). Instead of individual seats, the theatre had long wooden benches, in a rustic style. The sloping relief of the park allowed the construction, under the summer theatre, of a winter cinema, with the entrance on the lower side, sharing the projection booth with the summer cinema. The winter theatre had a capacity of 190 seats, with furniture similar in style to that in the open-air cinema, long benches that only allowed the circulation of spectators through a central interval. It was uncomfortable, it had no architectural features, but for that particular area, especially in winter, it was the only cultural establishment.
The construction of cinemas gained momentum in the late 1950s – early 1960s; until then, the task of spreading cinematographic culture among the larger masses of population had been assigned to the halls equipped for film screening within big institutions: the Officers’ Club, the clubs in factories, universities, schools etc. By the 1980s, six cinemas had been built, their shape dictated by the rigors of modernism, underlining the functional organisation, and a typology of movie theatres emerged. One generic element is the showcasing of the main volumes, hosting the audience hall, the waiting hall or the lobby, the hallway and the ticket booths.
There are no major differences between the architecture of cinemas in Moldova and that of cinemas in other USSR republics; most of those that were built after 1955 were based on the adaptation of standard designs, made in a centralised fashion in institutions in Moscow or in the capitals of the sister republics, to the concrete circumstances of the site. The functional demands of designing this type of buildings are quite rigid, and their architecture fits the rhetoric of socialist modernism. The difference sin appearance concern only the solutions for the interior design and for decorations, with or without the inclusion of folk art trends.
In 1957, in the historical part of the city was finished the building of the cinema named after the city – “Chişinău”. It was the first cultural building erected in an area away from the city centre, located at the corner of the historical quarter, at the intersection of Alexandru cel Bun with Tighina. It is an edifice built according to a standard design made by V. Voiţehovschi, with an architecture in the spirit of socialist modernism, but with reminiscences of socialist realism in decorations, as it features cornices and pilasters, o sublimation of the classic architectural elements of a bygone era. The building consists of a single geometrical volume, set on a tall plinth because of the slope, with the access through a small square formed at the corner of the quarter, also set on a podium of steps, leading up to the hallway with the ticket booths and then into the lobby. The audience hall occupies most of the volume of the building, towards the back, while the administrative rooms are located above the lobby. In 1981, the building was offered to the Filmmakers’ Union, hosting screenings of old and famous movies, in order to educate the public about cinematographic art.
In 1958, at the southern edge of the city, on the domain of the city cemetery, on a triangular plot formed at the intersection of V. Alecsandri and Izmail, after the evacuation of the Lutheran tombs, the cinema called “40 de Ani ai Komsomolului Leninist” (“The 40th Anniversary of the Leninist Komsomol”) was built. Its name was inspired by the anniversary of the Komsomol organisation, which coincided with the end of the works. The cinema, with a capacity of 668 seats, was built based on the same standard design developed by V. Voiţehovschi. The building was dominated by the volume of the audience hall, with a showcased lobby outlined by glass walls, a solution that contrasted with the walls of the audience hall volume, which were made of stone. After Moldova gained its independence, the name of the cinema was changed to “Gaudeamus”. The location of the cinema was chosen in order to showcase its architecture, being surrounded by a square on three of its sides.
In 1959, in the suburb of Poşta Veche a cinema was built, being initially called “Pavel Tkacenko” (1959, 71, Doina St.), in honour of an activist of the resistance movement of the interwar years. After the state gained its independence, the cinema was renamed “Fortuna”. The design was based on the same standard cinema design developed by V. Voiţehovschi, with an audience hall with a capacity of 570 seats.
In the old city centre, where a boulevard was laid out in order to connect the Civic Centre of the city to the Aerodrome sector on the Râşcani promontory, an important urban centre was formed and the “Moscova” (“Moscow”) cinema was built (15a, Grigore Vieru boulevard). The building was erected on the former location of the old city cathedral, demolished in order to eliminate it from this dominant position in the area and replace it with a cultural site of a new type. The cinema was built using a standard design made by the Moscow design institute specialised in theatre buildings (Mosghiproteatr, architect N. Kurenoi), hence its name. The inauguration took place on 29 April 1965; at that time, the “Moscova” was one of the largest in the city, having 940 seats, part of them located on a large balcony. The “Moscova” had a wide screen, with the capability of showing cinemascope films, projected using three projectors at once, thus creating the feeling of immersion in the movie action. The exterior architecture was dominated by the opaque and massive volume of the audience hall and of the tall lobby, due to the way access to the balcony from the lobby was organised. The interior was wide, generous, with light coming in through the main façade, consisting of glass panes. The “Moscova” cinema was rebuilt after the year 2000, and its structure was adapted to the requirements of the “Eugene Ionesco” theatre; the main façade was modified (architect N. Ischimji), but remains dominated by its glass surfaces.
In the Râşcani district, the “Şipca” cinema was built close to the field where the troops consisting of Bulgarian, Moldovan and Russian volunteers were reviewed before going into battle in the Russia-Turkish War in Bulgaria, an event that was marked through the construction of a chapel and of an obelisk. The name of the cinema fitted the memorial quality of the area, this being the name of the mountain where many battles were waged in that war and thus a symbol of the camaraderie and arms brotherhood with the Bulgarian people. The exterior architecture is a visual illustration of the simple functional organisation of the cinema, developed in the spirit of socialist modernism. In terms of composition, the building consists of a dominant opaque volume, corresponding to the audience hall, with a showcased, much lower lobby, pushed very far out front and placed asymmetrically on one corner of the façade, contrasting with the stone body of the building through its glass walls. One decoration solution that makes the “Şipca” stand out was the inclusion of glazed bricks, tinted green, in a chessboard pattern. After the building became a house of prayer, the architecture was changed in postmodernist spirit.
The Botanica district has the “Iskra” (“Spark”) cinema, at 2, Trandafirilor St., in the immediate vicinity of the Valea Trandafirilor Park, occupying the corner between , Decebal and Trandafirilor. The building was built according to a standard design adapted to the site (architect R. Bechesevici), which showcases the architecture of the building from all angles; it is dominated by the opaque and massive volume of the audience hall, built out of stone. The connection between the interior and the exterior was made by the glass-only surfaces of the ample lobby, used for many purposes, but mainly for entertaining children. The construction work was finished in April 1970, and the name “Iskra” marked the 100-year jubilee from the birth of V.I. Lenin – it had been the title of the first Leninist propaganda newspaper. After Moldova gained its independence, the cinema was renamed “Columna” (“The Column”). Currently, what is left of the cinema is the audience hall, all the other rooms have been demolished in order to be included in a commercial and leisure complex which was never built.
The “Flacăra” (“Flame”) cinema was built in the Buiucani district; it was finished in 1976, having been built on a standard design developed by architect V. Zaharov. It has a capacity of 500 seats and the films are projected on a wide screen. The architecture of this cinema is in line with those of other modernist cinemas characteristic of the 1970s era.
After state independence was proclaimed, the cinemas in the city of Chişinău, like those in other former USSR cities, underwent significant changes. Just one cinema, the oldest in the city – “Patria”, currently “Emil Loteanu” – preserved its old purpose. Most of them were closed down, others were adapted to new functions. The “Biruinţa” cinema has one hall that is used as a film theatre, the other being taken over by the “Eugen Ionesco” theatre, the “Andrieş” was transformed into a disco called “La Victor”, and later replaced by a pub selling German beer. The “summer cinema” has been completely dismantled, the “Iskra” only partially, with the intention of having its interior repurposed as a commercial and leisure centre.
The advent of new options of visual presentation of virtual reality such as “3-D” and “4-D” movies etc., and the still-unknown technologies of tomorrow have revitalised the interest for the cinema – special theatres have been built in many leisure centres, such as “Malldova”, “Atrium”. This makes us hope, although not wholeheartedly, that the tradition of viewing movies as a group, which has been going on for little over a century, will not disappear, becoming again an opportunity to go out and have fun with the family.
Text by dr. arch. Tamara Nesterov