A Cinema in the Park

Lewes, county town of East Sussex, is known for its vernacular and historic built environment. The same cannot be said for its contemporary architecture. But, with the opening of the Depot, a community cinema, which marries the local flint vernacular with modernity, by specialist cinema architects BurrellFoleyFisher, is all this changing, asks Ian McKay.

The culture of buying a ticket to sit in a dark room in the company of popcorn munching strangers and watch a projected motion picture on a big screen appears to be alive and kicking which in many ways seems against the tide of social and technological change. Going to the cinema and being a 'filmgoer', is still a thing people do. It has survived the onslaught of the VHS cassettes of the late 1970's and the trade of watch-at-home movie rentals it subsequently germinated. Next it was the turn of subscription cable and satellite broadcasting with dedicated movie channels and now into the Twenty-First Century the film-goer is weathering internet-based content providers such as Netflix. Testimony to this stubborn longevity, a new community cinema has recently opened in Lewes the small county town of East Sussex in southern England. The new arrival has been locally well received and has almost overnight become a favourite social spot and an interesting early example of a major new building conceived and built within the newly formed auspices of the South Downs National Park.
Lewes nestles in the South Downs, with Mount Caburn (right) looming above its eastern edge.

Approach to the Depot – Photo Ian McKay

The new cinema takes on a range of challenging agendas in response to the brief and context. For instance, the need to identify a sustainable economic model of operation in a small town with a limited customer base. There was the challenge of occupying a gateway position for those visiting Lewes from the train station. The response had to grapple with a confusing and compromised means of approaching the site with a large station car park and hectically narrow circulation routes. It had the opportunity to create a bit of 'public realm' and a sun-catching piazza, something which Lewes did not previously possess. Then there was the overarching setting of the historic backdrop of Lewes, the town that became the largest conurbation of any national park in the United Kingdom back in 2011 when the boundaries of the South Downs National Park were introduced. The challenge of addressing this diverse range of agendas was given to the veteran architects of cinema projects, the London-based practice, Burrell Foley Fischer.  

The Depot Cinema gets its name from its host building that has been greatly altered and extended out of a local brewery's disused vehicle servicing depot. The plot lies to the north of Lewes Station and is bounded on the south side by a veritable sea of commuter car parking and beyond by the station itself with its blend of painted iron and timber platform structures. To its west is the station approach viaduct with bricked-in vaults and the very narrow Pinwell Road. This leads up to the northwest corner where an unfortunate confluence of old roads makes for a stressful interchange of vehicles and pedestrians. Together with a significant amount of topography this all makes for an uncomfortable approach to the cinema. Immediately north are the rear elevations of terraced houses and shops of Lansdowne Place. On show are some of the many cladding materials traditionally gleaned from Lewes' diverse hinterland including shiplap timber cladding, brick and clay tile, flint and even slate cladding (brought in as ballast on returning vessels which exported lime and iron on their outgoing journeys). Both the station building and the terrace to the north are Grade II listed buildings.

As was and as new (on a cloudy day) – the original and all new Harvey's Brewery Depot

Looking out on the cinema's entrance  

The Depot is an independent cinema and started by a group of people passionate about the creation of a new purpose-designed cinema for the town. Setting aside the ability of cinema going's ability to survive technological and sociological change, it does seem remarkable that a small county town like Lewes, with less than eighteen thousand inhabitants, should get a new cinema. Lewes did have a cinema but it closed in the 1960's. Then in 1986 a film club was started at the converted community centre of the former All Saints Church. So there was already a known customer base of sorts for a new community-based cinema. It was not until two local film enthusiasts, Carmen Slijpen and Robert Senior got together and realised that a purpose-designed cinema just might be possible on this site around 2012. Initially it was going to piggyback onto a proposal for the site being pushed by developers for a budget hotel but then the opportunity arose to make an offer directly to the Harveys Brewery to buy the whole site with a strong emphasis on creating a social enterprise for the wider benefit of Lewes. Harveys liked the idea.

Amazingly enough an incredibly similar story unfolded in the small town of Ilanz in Switzerland and the creation of Cinema Sil Plaz. Like Lewes, Illanz also had a cinema that closed and subsequently local people started a film club (in 1989). The club eventually occupied a former Nineteenth Century forge to present screenings of films. In time, Film club Ilanz wanted to improve its makeshift facilities and drew from a talent pool of designers and makers within its own membership. This included architects CapaulBlumenthal and Martin Rauch, a specialist in rammed earth and concrete who would go on to form the rammed earth walls within the old forge. Other artisan members of the club took part in the build, including the fabrication of the sheepskin upholstered seating.  Ilanz has barely more than two thousand inhabitants but Cinema Sil Plaz (as it is now called) does draw much of its patronage from the villages up the surrounding mountain valleys. The new facility was completed in 2010.

Ilanz Cinema de Plaz interior rammed earth walls and sheep skin seating
Photos CapaulBlumenthal

Inside - Photo Hufton & Crow/BFF

Photo – Carlotta Luke

There is something experientially rewarding about the combination of hand-made and wonderfully unprocessed natural materials used in the refurbishment of Cinema Sil Plaz. The presence of a commercial contractor's palette of universally available building systems and products is beautifully absent. Materials have been used very directly and minimally processed and in many instances there are repurposed and found elements incorporated into the design. The result draws out the elemental qualities of the materials, which brings haptic and visual delight and instils a wonderful aura of authenticity.

The briefing process of The Depot seems to have set its stall out as an understated and thoughtful place to enjoy the culture of cinema with a bar and foyer space, three small screen rooms and a lecture/studio space. The programme is well supportive of a rich community-based events calendar. One can also see the bar and courtyard becoming a favourite social spot and a powerful additional source of income for the cinema. The Depot has clearly rejected the more mainstream and corporate typology epitomised by the smell of sticky popcorn, lurid coloured foyer carpet and in your face film advertising. That said The Depot looks to have nearly half of its floor area either as event space/restaurant and bar or food preparation space. A significant amount of outdoor space extends the seating area, thus even if the patronage of the screenings is underperforming, the retail food and drink element seems like an economic safety net for the business plan. Carmen Siljpen, who is now the Director & Programmer at The Depot, spent a lot of time researching other community cinemas and all of them are heavily reliant on the economic partnering of retail food and drink. She also has plans for a film-editing suite for budding film makers. There was a number of opportunities to consult with the community who were very articulate about what kind of facility it should be. One idea of it doubling as a cinema and theatre was rejected as the two functions are not compatible.

Cinema 1 – Photo Carlotta Luke (left) and Ian McKay (right)

The bones of the old depot building are still there. The original building had an 'L' shaped plan and this format has been retained either as refurbished shell, rebuild or extension. The two storey brick-built former office building of the depot fronts onto the southern arm of Pinwell Road. This has been kept and continues its role of housing administrative accommodation but within its domestic scaled tiled roof the mechanical engineers have stowed the air handling plant of the screening rooms. The depot shed itself has largely been kept and within its flat roofed volume the three cinema spaces have been squeezed in. The old shed roof was notable for its deep steel trusses, which kept the roof spanning clear of the large commercial vehicles that were serviced in the original space. Some of the trusses have been appropriated and used to form a giant square pergola at the southwest corner of the site. The capacities of the screen rooms are 142, 128 and 38. Along the northern boundary and indeed into the courtyard side of the depot building, the architects introduced new build elements to create the foyer space and even a small lecture space.

Photo – Ian McKay
Photo – The Depot

One of the more successful moves carried off by the architects was to create one continuous 'L'- shaped volume to serve as the circulation to the screen rooms and double up as the social space which can open out onto the courtyard. Like many English towns, Lewes never really acquired that convivial continental formula of a public space with cafés lining the periphery of a town square. There is a bit of a pedestrianised high street but you could not describe it as an 'urban living room'. Whereas at the Depot, the north and east wings are continued around on the west side with enough landscaped topography and the viaduct beyond to create a horseshoe-shaped courtyard. Thus the whole space is wind protected from three sides of the compass and only open to the south where even winter sun angles can be enjoyed. It undoubtedly will bring cosmopolitan outdoor urban life to East Sussex, essentially a new cultural idiom for local people to get used to.

Photo – BurrelFisherFoley Architects

Another enjoyable result of the project is the sense of well being the building affords to those who use it. It seems to be imbued inside and out with that rare architectural formula of making one feel good. In simple terms it is just providing good environmental conditions for human comfort but its actually a bit more than that. It is an optimised place for convivial social interaction. How is it done? It revels in the enjoyment of effulgent light and creates micro-climatic defensive layering with each architectural device taking a little more edge off the weather. It starts with its context and disposition with its courtyard creating a caressing shape with the building's form. The external space is held and defined. It is an outdoor room in effect. The sun is well received but wind is deflected away. Then there are environmental devices embedded into the skin of the building. In summer, this solar concentration is too much but there are shading elements in the form of a gorgeously deep canopy (and big sun umbrellas) as well as full height hinging timber shutters. Thus in winter the sun is invited in under the canopy and passive solar gains can be enjoyed.

The net effect of all this feel good urban architecture is that within just a few months of opening, it has become a favourite place for locals to hang out. One person noted that there has been an exodus from one of the big chain coffee shops on the high street to The Depot and there is a rush for a particular table close to a power point. This is all part of the flexibility of use foreseen by Slijpen and her team with a multitude of ways to dip into their offerings of film, food, drinks and urban living room.

Whilst the areas immediately outside of the new building are modelled on the 'continental' typology of an urban square, the site's south western corner has been handled in a more ambiguous manner, as a walled garden. It has to be said, one is left wondering how the space was intended to be utilised. In the planning application, the area is described as a 'wild flower meadow' and 'community orchard'. John Burrell of Burrell Foley Fischer explained that they had observed from ancient maps that this site had once been an orchard and divided into four. Thus the courtyard is arranged in four distinct zones as a reference to its historic format.

Photo Carlotta Luke

There is ambiguity too in the ownership of the space. Alas The Depot's external spaces are not truly 'public realm' but neither are they that type of corporate plaza one sees at the base of bank towers, with security guards and umpteen CCTV cameras instilling an unsettling sense of barely tolerated trespass. In a way it makes for a convivial blend of pseudo public realm, a bit like an English pub where the communal living room actively seeks your presence and of course your custom. Also like a pub it has entry points it can close and open and in this case it is the form of two large sliding gates, which control access points off the southern and western boundaries.

Another not immediately obvious feature of the project was how the whole courtyard needed to be raised up about eighty centimetres to avoid the periodic floods that this part of Lewes are subjected to. This had the added benefit of improving wheelchair access to the site. According to Slijpen, excellence in accessibility was a key objective of the design. The ground also plays a part in providing around 110KW of heating and 80KW of cooling in the form of a ground source heat pump with twelve two hundred metre deep bore holes (for technical overview see here.)

The architectural handling of The Depot is easy to read with new build elements being very open and transparent using glass curtain wall and dark grey polyester powder coated metal elements and set off against the brick and in situ cast concrete of the original building with its language of punctured picture windows. Though not visible from the street, the main flat roof has been finished as a chalk grassland meadow, bringing a bit of indigenous habitat to the site as well something pleasing to the eye for the onlookers from the existing higher buildings to the north.

Caught napping – detail of Flintman's Depot work – Photo Ian McKay
Flint House by architects Skene Catling de la Pena – Photo SCDLP

To announce the main entrance and one panel of solid wall to the outside of the lecture space, flint has been used as the cladding material. The flint work is exceptionally well done and shows the integrity and authenticity you only really get where true craftsmanship is at play. A local contractor to Lewes, The Flint Man was responsible for the flint work at the Depot. Their work was recently celebrated on the RIBA award winning, The Flint House by Skene Catling de la Pena.

In the modern era, architects and builders have from time to time incorporated flint work into contemporary buildings as a less than convincing nod to the vernacular. This is usually done with flints laid in mortar as a precast block, which characteristically uses virtually as much mortar as flint. The flint work at The Depot though is every bit as good and authentic as some of Lewes' finest ancient flint-clad buildings. The minimal use of mortar is testament to a lot of careful and knowledgeable napping where individual flints are shaped to interlink to the next.

Another detail of Depot flintwork - Photo - Ian McKay

Flint is an ancient building material. In Lewes its extraordinary qualities are perhaps a little overlooked with the always-been-there nature of its ancient buildings. However at The Depot it is used with fresh eyes and consummate skill, so that the result delights and surprises. If you look carefully, you can see that the entrance porch has roughly napped flints on the outward facing walls but as they return on the inside face, where the new glass entrance doors are held, the flints have been worked to near perfect squares. The glossy black translucence of the flint has a watery quality. Another wonderful play with the materials is on a small section of flat roof at the extreme western end where, from an adjacent bit of high ground, one can glimpse a pattern of flat-faced flints interspersed with concentric bands of chalk coated flint cobbles which protrude in their various weird nodular shapes above the adjacent bands of napped flints. Pevsner would surely have waxed lyrical on this feature and as such this building should surely rank alongside other notable flint buildings in the town like Lewes Old Grammar School and St. Michael's Church.

With the exception of the flint work and possibly also some neatly detailed timber shutters on the overtly glazed facade, The Depot's architectural handling does not have the same feel of material authenticity and craftsmanship as Cinema Sil Plaz. It has to be said; The Depot's architectural handling has more in common with the swanky refurbishment work around Kings Cross than the vernacular traditions of East Sussex. The comparison is slightly unfair, as The Depot has created significant new volume around the original building with this modern vocabulary whereas at Sil Plaz the work was carried out within the shell of the old forge. Perhaps too people in Lewes crave for a local spot of cosmopolitan chic, but is it what the relatively new custodians of the South Downs National Park planning department were hoping for when they became involved and tuned its proposition?

Lewes Flint – St Michael's Church
and Lewes Old Grammar School

The SDNP have been formulating what the 'special qualities' of the Park are in relation to its landscape, its material resource, and its architectural manifestations and in deed how contemporary development should respond. The Depot is one of the first major building projects conceived and built under the auspices of the new planning authority. Well done for them not requiring pastiche vernacular but might they have wanted a more holistic effort towards critical regionalism? Is it, as Kenneth Frampton set out in his essays on the subject, a “return to sources”, where the spirit of place might be captured through universal techniques of detailing and fabrication and the trappings of the commercial supply chains? To a degree, the answer is 'yes'.

So perhaps there are glimpses of what a contemporary building of significant stature can be within the South Downs National Park within The Depot. This essence lies more within the playful and authentic use of flint craftsmanship than in the well-trodden path of its glass curtain wall and polyester powder coated trims. There is here too a rare example of feel-good architecture where the building goes beyond creating fine human comfort conditions. Perhaps most successful of all are the ideas behind its creation where courage and vision have combined with great judgement. Half cinema and half restaurant with a touch of urban living room to boot, the project's revenue engine seems well tuned for the rapidly changing trends of the Twenty-First Century.

Ian McKay is a founder-director of the Lewes based BBM Sustainable Design and is long time resident of the town.

Photo BFF