Southeast Asia's Disappearing Modernist Theaters

To the outsider, Southeast Asia’s regional architecture usually calls to mind ancient stone temples, ornate pagodas, or perhaps wood or bamboo homes erected on stilts. Yet a visit to almost any city reveals an architectural medley unmistakably influenced by various modernist schools of design.

One building type stands out as a symbol of 20th-century prosperity as it plunges into 21st-century obsolescence: stand-alone movie theaters which in decades past were part and parcel of the region-wide push towards modernity. Grandiosity frequently accompanied their design, a category of building designed to accommodate – and at the same time dazzle – large numbers of people.

By the middle decades of the 20th century, such theaters would have occupied prime real estate in every town with a sizable population. From Hanoi in communist North Vietnam, to Rangoon in colonial Burma and everywhere in between, the modern movie theater, with its cutting-edge amenities and Art-Deco, Bauhaus or Brutalist architectures, was an urban spectacle.

However, by century’s end, the once-glamorous movie theater had fallen on hard times throughout most of the region as socioeconomic factors ushered in their decline. Demolition has been the call of the day, taking precedence over repurposing or conservation. The result has been the rapid disappearance of this once ubiquitous entertainment.

Motivated by the frenzied pace of their demolition in Thailand, my home since 2006, I set out in 2008 to document the architecture and atmosphere of the remaining theaters. This project has taken me on a journey back in time, through dozens of the region’s cities, large and small. Here are a few of my observations.

In each country the fate of the stand-alone movie theater has differed, usually reflecting the country’s broader socio-political experience. Uncovering their histories has given space for extrapolation beyond the structures themselves. For instance, in landlocked Laos, the modern movie palaces that were built in cities like Vientiane, Savannakhet and Luang Prabang during the years of American economic “assistance,” saw their owners flee the country once the communist Pathet Lao came to power in 1975. The theaters they left behind were either partially nationalized, or otherwise abandoned.

A later batch of Laotian theaters, built as gifts of diplomatic cooperation from communist big-brother countries Vietnam and the Soviet Union, failed in conjunction with a failing communist economy.

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Meanwhile, across the border in Thailand, where free-market capitalism has reigned unfettered since the end of World War II, the stand-alone movie theater has fared little better. Once on the vanguard of modern architecture, they numbered close to a thousand in Thailand by the late 1970s.

Just a decade later, however, the era of the stand-alone movie theater had begun to taper off. Department stores, old and new, were being outfitted with their own theaters as going to the movies became wedded to mass consumerism. But the decisive blow occurred in tandem with a nationwide shopping mall boom in the late 1990s. Stand-alone theaters, be they double-feature, first-run or otherwise began to close en masse as an increasingly middle-class society opted for all-in-one convenience over the rich cultural and architectural heritage embodied in the old cinemas.

Today the Thai movie exhibition market is on the verge of being cornered by two huge conglomerates and their branded multiplex chains. Only a handful of operating stand-alones remain.

But wholesale decline has not been universal. Myanmar has had an altogether different experience with regards to its picture houses. For the most part, the Art Deco and International Style beauties of the 1940s and 1950s are still in use, little altered from the days of their inception. Take a visit to a typical Myanmar city and one will likely find a working theater supported by townsfolk who have been watching films there for generations.

But this cinematic state of affairs, far from being a conscious effort at cultural heritage preservation, is ironically the result of economic stagnation. With economic sanctions imposed upon Myanmar by the G8 countries, outside capital investment is significantly lower than elsewhere in the region.

Thus the physical form of towns and cities has changed very little in 50 years, creating a veritable time-capsule effect. Old movie theaters, and older structures in general, have been spared from the rush to build anew; an unintended kind of conservation predicated on geopolitical isolation. With reform measures already underway, however, and international capital beginning to trickle in, it’s conceivable that a population long deprived of modern-day conveniences will gladly stand aside as the bulldozer plows asunder.

The mix of architectural styles in any given city, created by serial demolition and rebuilding, is a testament to the necessity of creative destruction to keep a city vibrant. But in our haste to relieve ourselves of outmoded buildings, we often overlook the permanence of such decisions and the fact that the buildings, particularly those of social or architectural significance, can represent a city’s future competitive advantage.

While many of Southeast Asia’s cities are today in the midst of sweeping socioeconomic change, the redevelopment imperative will lead to fresh demolitions. As the quantity of old movie theaters dwindles, however, the law of scarcity states that those remaining should increase in value correspondingly; products of a 20th century modernity movement which is now part of the greater historical milieu. Through documentation, I hope to ensure that if none are preserved, that they are not altogether forgotten.

(Philip Jablon is a Chiang Mai-based photographer. His work can be viewed his web-site “The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project.” www.seatheater.blogspot.com.)