Portraiture: ‘Movie Theaters’ and ‘Churches’

By reading into the cultural environment of the sixties and seventies, and the rise of a range of affinities in architecture that emerged in the wake of Independence in India, two pictorial essays by Stefanie Zoche and Sabine Haubitz document a part of a larger cultural zeitgeist. The essays focusing on the essentialised photographs of facades of single screen movie theatres and churches in South India propose a common ground – an enquiry into what they refer to as ‘Hybrid Modernism’. 

In India, architecture evolves in a palimpsestic disposition, especially in the rurban areas. Historical, provincial, aspirational layers exist in this pluralistic built landscape. The development of modern architecture in India succeeding the influences of international style made a gradual headway from 1920s and -30s and pronouncedly was acknowledged with Le Corbusier’s vision for Chandigarh. While post-independence architecture in India is largely attributed to modern architecture, it belongs to perhaps only a fraction of the built landscape. Architecture in the remaining paradigm is countered by a gentler transition, more self-conscious and self-referential, consolidated socially and culturally. Familiar and immediate frames of references are appropriated and contextualised at a local level. Moreover, it is not homogeneous across the country but exists in complex crossovers.

At an institutional level, local places of mass congregations, churches and theatres (single screen cinemas, colloquially known as ‘talkies’) reside in public imagination as ‘landmarks’, not of the ‘iconic’ kind as peddled in the real estate market, but as real denominators of aspirations. In his note, ‘The nation under one roof’, S V Srinivas explains ‘The movie theatre was thus a space for social mixing, albeit of a regulated kind. The early 20th century movie theatre was among a small number of spaces and technologies that transformed — indeed modernised — the very conception of public spaces in this part of the world.’ With similar accessibility, churches share a kindred status as a genre of a truly public space. In this domain, the architecture expands on its capacity of expression of the everyday vernacular, renegotiates expectations and beliefs, and reshapes for itself an identity of its own. Representing the imagination and position of architecture in society, this space emerges through a collective consensus.

This photographic survey by Stefanie Zoche and Sabine Haubitz focuses on an architecture of this consciousness. In an undertaking of an assignation over the course of four journeys between 2010 and 2016, they authored two collections – one titled ‘Movie Theaters’, the other, ‘Churches’. Their collaboration as an artist duo extending from 1998 to 2014, as they profiled, ‘deliberated on architecture, public space and ecological issues. Sabine suffered a fatal accident in 2014. Since then Stefanie pursues her art on her own with a wide range , Stefanie pursues her art with a wide range of media, including photography, video, installation and sculpture based out of Munich, Germany.’

In 2005, their interest was sparked when they were researching a project on the transformation that the Indian cities were witnessing – ‘an apparent change full of striking contrasts between old and new buildings, traditional and modernist or post-modernist styles.’ In their pursuit, they photographed many public spaces, of which were some cinemas and churches from the 1960s-70s. The first church that attracted their attention was St Joseph, in Kochi – a church of ‘unusual shape and colour’. Intrigued, they decided to return for more specific research in 2011.

The scope of the two essays, one on churches and on movie screens reveals a sui generis by itself. While the title ‘Hybrid Modernism’ is presumably intended to trigger associations with a specific style they were seeking,  seems to contribute as the most striking aspect of architecture captured in these photographs. In an interview with the Frankie magazine, Stefanie Zoche remarks that, “There are different influences such as modernism and local architectural styles overlapping. But the way Modernism is reinterpreted here can only be seen as anti-Modernistic. The phrase “form follows function” – the shape of a building shall be a consequence of its function – coined by the American architect Louis Sullivan is completely ignored. Most of the churches that we photographed do not follow this principle. They display a fanciful façade that is in front of a functional construction, often a simple kind of cube hidden behind.” The beauty lies in these vagaries.

Stylistically there are no precedents, but the architecture is fairly quotidian in nature. In their curatorial statements, the artists allude to a certain post-colonial inclination, of post-independence architecture in India. A point corroborated by Rohan Shivkumar in a note titled ‘ARCHIVING THE DUSK OF THE PUBLIC REALM ‘ with reference to the photographs of the cinema halls. He writes,

“Modernism, and its conceit that it can live outside history, and instead refer to universal phenomena was often seen as the landscape where this new public would live and thrive. It was this modernism and its imagination of modernity that was embraced in the architecture of the cinema hall as it eschewed historical references allowing us to step outside our pasts into a new future.


Perhaps this is the condition that defines the anxiety of the post-colony; a desire to redefine its identity through a schizophrenic relationship with what it sees as its tradition, and what it sees as modernity. As these forces tend to tear it apart, it finds refuge in reconfiguring itself through performance; by acts of imitation, by deceit — by wearing the garbs of a manufactured tradition and imagined modernity. The belief is that in donning these signifiers lie some seeds for change. Acts of pretense reach out from the external garb into the self, transforming it fundamentally. The signifier is thus not only mere ornament, but is indicative of deep desires of transformation — a mask that is worn to transform the self that wears it. Architecture has always been such an instrument. We have always performed ourselves in an idealised world in the skins we wrap ourselves with. These skins carry the signs of who we want to be. The cinema hall is that unique monument in the city for our collective desire for other spaces and for other times. The architecture of the cinema hall carries upon its skin the marks of this desire. It is these marks that we see photographed in the series of images by Sabine Haubitz and Stefanie Zoche of cinema halls in South India.”

It is largely accepted that post-independence architecture in India has emerged in either contradiction or complacency to modern architecture. Rather than refute these representations, the photographs reclaim them to convey this ‘hybrid modernism’ within the specific cultural constructs. The language of the architecture is anachronistic; barely decipherable, comes from many decorative motifs, a mixture of many influences, and explorations of geometry.

Within this ambitious survey, they consolidate their scope by narrowing the focus of the study on facades. These photographs for most of India come as aggregations of a history – both as material and memory. They aggregate the changes as they have been seen, traces of representation from a past, not too distant. The facades triangulate evidently familiar features and reveals a context far more influential than what is initially perceived.

By focusing only on facades, the photographs become a projection of these larger contexts, larger shifts in history. “For me,” says Stefanie in the same interview, “ the facades of buildings are like faces of people: If you look at them carefully, you can find out a lot of what is lying behind, about the society, the intentions of those who made these buildings etc., for example in this case about complex cultural processes that took place in India after independence. With photographic means I can isolate the buildings from their surroundings and focus in such a way that these complexities become visible in the concentration on the typology. That’s why we photograph these buildings with a certain serenity and severe regard, mostly in the same light and against a clear sky.” They come to the fore more than blank facades, mute objects open to different interpretations and purporting to speak for the artist themselves. It is a reading bound together by a ‘local’ aesthetic – combination of elements, often ecclesiastical, that the narrator suggests.

Christianity in Kerala can be traced back to AD 52, its earliest known records connecting the arrival of Saint Thomas to the practice of the religion. In his book ‘The Ivory Throne’, Manu S Pillai points out that ‘the Malayali Christians adhered not to the Vatican but to the Nestorian Church headed by the Patriarch of Antioch in modern-day turkey. Their liturgical language, similarly, was not Latin but Syriac, by which virtue they were known as Syrian Christians.’ The multi-ethnic outlook and thereby, the diaspora of the Saint Thomas Christians is commonly known. Their culture descends from East Syriac, Hindu, Jewish, and West Syriac influences, amalgated with local customs and elements borrowed from indigenous Indian and European colonial networks. Perhaps, this seamless pluralism also reflects in the architecture.

These churches have been in the forefront of institution-building and in this perspective, a modernising agency for the society in Kerala. Perhaps, the modernising of this state exposed to the South, a traditional region exposed to the imagery from the world, to art deco influences, acceded to a certain identity. There exists a strange boldness, even a dose of absurdity in this quirky and unique subculture of architecture.  It may not consequentially be an artifact of a specific time – of the mid-century, the sixties and/or the seventies –; however, might have more to do with the place, the rurban, suburban areas, in this instance. It is still paramount in smaller towns and fringes of cities, observed in the transition of the ‘kaccha’ (temporary) to ‘pucca’ (permanent).

The facades have been exceptionally relevant as a study as they reflect the evolution – from the external similarity that they exhibited to the Hindu temples that Antonio Gouvea, Portuguese envoy to Malabar, mentions in his 16th century work Jornada, to the vicissitudes of the Portuguese authority who perpetuated their influence through their facades (Encyclopedia of World Art), to the neo-Gothic and neo-Baroque style that developed till 1949, to the contemporary and some chimerical, iconography of the stars, the ship, the hands, which the use of reinforced concrete eventually made possible.

As the use of materials moved beyond laterite, stone and wood to concrete, the structure evolved to allow for more flexibility and space. A feature on these essays in Quartz quotes Professor George Menachery, a historian of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, “They incorporated big rectangular or circular halls so that maximum people could be accommodated, so it was in the facade that they brought in the decorative elements. The structures started becoming more and more utilitarian and cost-effective.”

This advent of material and technological change and the progression is what Rohan Shivkumar also refers to. He mentions that “RCC enabled the creation of larger and larger cinema halls. These enormous boxes needed to find an appropriate language to attract its public.  The arena for the architecture to communicate its intention was in the space between the street and the inside of the cinema hall. It lay in the transition from pavement to front yard, to lobby, to inside the hall until the lights go out. It was in these spaces that the experience of the viewer needed to be choreographed, as once the lights went out the images on the screen took over.”

If examined as silos, the dynamics of spatial expressions of Religion and Cinema in India are too vast to be analysed, but together they lend an air of topicality to Habitz and Zoche’s essays. They are imbricated under the given title – ‘Hybrid Modernism’ – an exercise that historicises this reading of the architecture. For these kinds of public and institutionalised spaces of congregation, it provides a concept of spectatorship with an ideological end. It does not have a singular representation; it shifts between endless, ever-changing points aggregating an infinite image that caters to hierarchies of popular desire and imagination. Not necessarily historic, not deemed significant, but it is an important moment of transformation and context that these buildings assume their presence.

These spaces are the iconoclastic layers of a cityscape, co-existing as contradictions, manufactured by reactions to the Modern, aspirations and the commons. Their enduring influence represents a resistance. A lot of them stand like relics, some such as the churches will last in significance forever, some such as the theatres rooted in a nostalgic foray. The theatres especially within their cultural fields, serve as landmarks long after they have been demolished. Although informal landmarks of the region, they are omitted from the stereotypical rhetoric of the city skylines. Through these photographs, it experiences something of a revival and a sense of collegiality. Across India, from the theatres such as Eros, Gemini in Mumbai, Natraj of Chennai, Ahmedabad, Raj Mandir in Jaipur, Sheila in Delhi, and numerous other highly public, recreational spaces, very few have survived the purge, and yet remain as landmarks of the city.  In light of this and with the recent move of cinemas to the sterile containers of malls, the essays may convey a valedictory tone, giving a sense of archive to these distinctive spaces.

The essays engage these as subjects while simultaneously understanding their continuing historical significance. They do not come as a series of static pronouncements but as a broader study with an active history that must be depicted. The sequence is not absolutely predetermined and each essay reveals the architectural and societal underpinnings that catapult these suburban expressions.  Emancipated from simple binaries of style, colonial logic of defining spaces, the work wraps these in the larger narrative to articulate the nuances on behalf of this more indigenous, more versatile persuasions.

It does not claim to be a summarising or stereotyping of this vocation of architecture, nor a scholarly analysis, but allows one to reconcile the visually and historically transgressive relationships occurring in this time-frame in India, the aspirations, and how they are intertwined with the notion of identity. These essays reveal rich expressive constituents of an influenced aesthetic and regional manifestations of the modern – an architecture that is capable of expressing an overlap between demands of a society and variations of contemporary architecture, between the foreign and the familiar, a slow modernisation, a relaxed relationship that falls shy of cultural caricatures or pastiche. The significance of these images also lies in the issue of visibility. To make something visible is to acknowledge its existence. Within these photographic essays, open to interpretation, is visible a dialogue between the past and a future, a composition of syncretism, and a quest for identity. ♦

The Artists’ Statements:

Movie Theaters
In the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, a large number of cinemas were built in both the urban and rural areas of South India. The buildings display an unconventional mix of local building styles and Western influences. The colourful façades, suggestive of theatrical sets, provide a foretaste of the cinematic experience in the hall itself, in which extravagant shapes and ornamentation are continued and put the viewer in the right mood for the cineastic world before the screening itself.

On three journeys to India between 2010 and 2014, we documented these buildings, whose architectural language can be described as a hybrid modernism. The photographs bear witness to a rich cinematic culture that has since vanished in Europe and America, and that will soon be supplanted by multiplex cinemas in India as well.

Following independence in 1947, the Indian church sought to differentiate itself from the historicizing building style of the colonialists, and adopted modern architectural styles.

Some modernist influence can be observed in southern Indian churches, but it is punctuated by local architectural elements. The buildings often display an effusively sculptural formal language and a use of intense colours. In some churches, Christian symbols are directly transposed into a three-dimensional, monumental construction design. We are interested in highlighting the variety of western influences and their culturally influenced reinterpretation by means of a typological overview of these buildings.

All images courtesy of Stefanie Zoche and  © by HAUBITZ + ZOCHE
Text: Maanasi Hattangadi

This work was curated as an exhibition in India, France, and Germany. ‘Hybrid Modernism | Movie Theatres in South India’ is available as a book here. 

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