Tom de Paor reveals his concrete arthouse cinema

We speak to celebrated architect Tom de Paor about his latest project in the heart of Galway, the monolithic Pálás Cinema.

After over ten years of planning and a few jumped hurdles, the highly anticipated Palas (Palace) Cinema has finally opened its doors in the Irish city of Galway. Managed by film production company Element Pictures, the cinema has been designed by renowned architect, Tom de Paor.  Intrigued by this new concrete monolith, we spoke to de Paor to find out more about this contemporary ‘castle’ cinema, in the heart of Galway’s Latin Quarter.

Conversation begins with where the idea behind the Palas cinema came from. “It began, I suppose, with an idea by bunch of societies that are very interested in film,” de Paor explains. “There’s a rather developed film culture in Galway - with the Film Fleadh and so on – and there was a great interest in creating an arthouse cinema and building it in the town. The idea was that it would act as a gatehouse to the old town, and as a bridge from the old town to the docks.”

With this in mind, de Paor began to think about the structure of a cinema. “Going to the pictures can be a journey,” he says, “[and I thought,] perhaps I can develop this into a complexity that is pleasurable. When you come out of theatres after a show, you often end up in staircases that you didn’t quite expect; you’re thrown back onto the street in a place that’s not necessarily the entrance. I had to deal with that, but I also found that this became the project, in a way.”

The cinema’s monolithic concrete exterior reveals no hint of what’s inside; a remarkable, rabbit hole interior with criss-crossing concrete stairs, various nooks and crannies – and a restaurant, bar, and three auditoriums. It is difficult to imagine that all these spaces rest in what was previously the garden of a 1820s merchant house. The house, de Paor mentions, had been abandoned for a long time, but his team decided that they would keep the façade. “I had a site that was essentially very, very tight – very, very small – for the amount of accommodation that had to go on it,” says de Paor. “It meant that the driver of the project really was to maximise the auditoria and squeeze all the rest of the specifications in the remains of the plot.”

De Paor decided that to maximise the space, the 'outside' areas – corridors and walkways – wouldn’t be tempered or insulated. “It’s just raw concrete and raw surfaces,” he says. “You get a completely different atmosphere until you actually enter the [auditorium], or the bar - which is a traditional Irish bar - or the restaurant. You’ve got these rooms but then on the edges and the outer walls, it gets very theatrical as you manage your way around the site.”

But the process of taking the Palas Cinema from idea to conception, and finally to opening to Galway’s waiting public, has been a long and difficult road. The building was bought for use as a cinema by Galway City Council, but de Paor was commissioned by “a charity, basically, that was formed to develop the arthouse cinema. I did all the feasibility studies up until that point - we knew all the numbers and that kind of thing - and then at that point the council contributed by buying the building.”

“We developed the design, got the permits and so on, and then it became the beneficiary of government funding,” continues de Paor. “It was a very slow process, and then [the site] had to manage its way through a recession, three sets of phases, other commercial interest... it has been on the boards for over 10 years.” Although de Paor admits that it’s not unusual for architectural projects to take some time, he has two opposing thoughts on the length of time it took for the Pa´la´s Cinema to finally open.  

“In a way it can be frustrating, but it can also be very good for a project [to progress slowly],” he says. “In one way they become enriched, and in another way they can actually be interrogated. I did all the lighting, we did the signage and designed the type face, we designed the neon lights – we tried to design every piece of product that we could. We did all the grills, the weather-vane… In other words, it was about trying to make a total thing, a complete thing in itself – [and the long process meant] we had the time to put it into the specification and work it out.”

De Paor explains that within his studio, the Palas Cinema design was interrogated several times. “We did draw it a lot, and we made cardboard models of it a lot," he mentions. "The spaces are at a domestic scale so there’s not much tolerance to get it wrong, especially when you’re working in three dimensions. It’s just trying to get the feel right.” Describing the journey that visitors to the Palas will take, de Paor says that everything begins with the merchant house’s façade – where an archway has been build, signalling the entrance to the cinema.

“You go up some steps and you’re still outside, but you’re covered, and the box office is there,” he explains. "You’ve still got your coat on when you’re buying your ticket. [Inside the building,] you can go up the stairs into the bar, or right into the main stairs, or left into the restaurant. There’s no normal hierarchy between front and back [of house], so you kind of have to know it – as you would if you were a Galwegian and it was part of the town. It doesn’t really have the manners of a modernist building.”

The cinema’s three auditoriums have been dressed with luxurious red velvet over the walls and ceilings, with comfortable seating by historic French manufacturer, Quinette Gallay. The first floor bar is lined and floored with a sleek timber; on the group floor, the restaurant features leather seating, marble topped tables and a stainless steel, elongated chandelier that was created by de Poar.

As well as these features, there is another special addition to the Palas Cinema, in the form of the building’s windows – which were designed by the late, great Irish artist, Patrick Scott. “We’ve used colour resin windows throughout; Patrick Scott’s stained windows,” de Paor says. “They’re conjugated around three different spaces: the bar which is amber and yellow; the front stairs which is red, orange and pink; and the back stairs, which is blue and green. Like the way you would put gels on a camera, we were treating the windows as a light source going in. At night-time, [the cinema] becomes kind of a magic lantern.”

Since its reveal, the Palas has been nominated for two awards at the International Architecture Festival Awards, within the Culture – Completed Buildings and Use of Colour categories. “I think it’s really nice that it’s very particular; it’s a very particular response to a small particular place,” de Paor mentions when asked about the nominations. “It’s really nice to see it up among much bigger projects. I think it has its own language, a certain kind of intensity about it; it’s very nice to see it in the world, and see what the experts will make of it.”

So what’s next for the Palas Cinema, now that it has finally opened? “It’s been very busy,” de Paor beams. “I think there have been some great directors talking about their work, and great audiences for it. I think that’s the challenge now – it has to become part of the town, and that means that people take ownership of it. People have to realise that it’s a public house. They don’t have to go to the pictures; it’s also got a very nice bar and a very nice restaurant. There are rooms that could take stand-up comedy and all sorts of things; I think it just has to become normalised.”

“I think that [if] people haven’t been inside a building like [the Palas] before, it’s a really intense architectural experience," continues de Paor. "It really does a lot of work in quite a short space of time to get you around. But [architecture] can have that role - it can question the notion of comfort. It’s provocative like that.” Gazing up at de Paor's monolithic 'castle', it seems that 'provocative' really is the perfect world for the Palas Cinema - but only time will tell if this concrete masterpiece will become part of Galway's film-centric heart.

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