Saved By Technology II

I have taught Preservation Planning for more than a dozen years and I always include a lecture called “Churches, Theaters and Other Difficult Buildings”. These buildings are “difficult” because they are functionally obsolescent: They were designed for large public assemblies in a pre-automobile era, and nowadays assemblies don’t happen so much. Vaudeville movie theaters combined live and cinematic entertainment and we don’t do that anymore either. Movie theaters today need to have lots of screens for maybe 200 people each, and even big markets like Chicago can only support a handful of live performance venues of 4,000 seats or so. Churches become obsolescent when denominations change, as they have in Chicago neighborhoods for over 40 years, and despite the lingering religiosity of Americans, many people are in exurban superchurches or use religiosity as a wedge against preserving historical features of their buildings.

The problem with “functional obsolescence,” as the Modernists learned to their chagrin, is that even obsolescence becomes obsolescent. Non-functional uses become functional again. Two things gleaned from media lately: First, Wired reported with typical overstatement that soon every movie would be made in the new three-dimensional digital technology about to premiere with Beowulf. (They’ll probably use modern English, which is a shame – I would have liked a bit of “hige sceal pe heardre, heorte pe cenre, mod sceal pe maere pe ure maegen lytlap*” action) Wired quotes some dudes sayin’ that this is as big as talkies were 80 years ago, which meant and means a big capital investment for every theater. The second item was an announcement that Block 37 (20 years vacant and most assuredly NOT MY FAULT) might host a luxury movie theater. Granted, there will be seven screens, but I see a shift here.

Movies go 3-D to compete with the latest tiny tinny box (iPod ) just as they did 60 years ago during the first 3-D craze when they were competing with tiny tinny televisions. But think about the physical plant – big investment in tech for projection might favor bigger halls and fewer screens – recall that the other 1950s industry invention was the drive-in. I’m thinking this could make big white elephants like the Uptown or New Regal useful again as 3-D theaters. The mania of 20-somethings for vinyl LPs and hookahs proves the attraction of group entertainment for a overindividualized generation raised on crappy sound and teensy images.

Now, the real questions are: does this trend play out? Is Wired just blowing smoke? Do operators rehab big old movie palaces or just build new? Sustainability and green-o-rama help us here, but it is only a hunch for now. There is always some sharpster looking to take the easy way out and fill those landfills. Still, it is intriguing and might make these buildings less difficult.

Churches are another question, although the end of the latest Great Awakening suggests that we are not in the kind of religious growth period that gave us all of the “religion don’t have to follow zoning or building codes” laws of the 1990s. And heck, they might jump on to the 3-D trend too if Mel updates his gorefest Christ. Or not. Then we would have to follow the European model: no one goes to church but no one tears down a church.

How do they do that?

* cognoscenti will recognize the Anglo-Saxon passage is from the Battle of Maldon, not Beowulf.

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