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Of all the striking examples of modern architecture that sprung up across the British Isles during the 1930s, the cinema must surely be considered to have had the greatest impact. No other type of building could have succeeded in imposing such outlandish, extravagant and radical exteriors into the typical high street. Whether it was the appeal of the escapism they offered, the allure of the gorgeous charismatic stars projected on the screen, the perceived economic boost to the area or the fashionable kudos these places bestowed on the locality, they won over both town planners and moviegoers alike, springing up in their hundreds throughout the decade. A network of local and national operators flooded the country with brand new, purpose-built picture palaces, all competing to outdo each other both in picture & sound quality, and the sheer theatrics of the venue. Of all these operators though (and there were many), Odeon is surely the chain whose legacy is most enviable. A chain that not only managed to tick all the boxes required for a great cinema, but which (in many cases) commissioned some of the most unbelievably modern, daring, and unusual structures ever seen in this country.
In 1935 a young photographer named John Maltby gained a commission to document the existing Odeon estate, and capture each new cinema as it was completed. Maltby’s eye for composition, combined with the startling subject matter helped kick start his career, ultimately becoming one of the most important English architectural photographers of the Twentieth Century. Now held in the National Archive, his atmospheric monochrome portfolio gives priceless window into the how the pioneering architecture of the period looked when new, free from alteration and years of decay.
Eighty years on, it was Maltby’s wonderful collection of Odeon photographs that inspired me to embark on this project, creating an updated series of images documenting the surviving buildings. ‘Surviving’ being the key word, and the major difference between the original and the new photo series. Of the 140 buildings built and opened under the Odeon banner before the outbreak of war in 1939, only 52 survive in their entirety, with a handful of others remaining in altered form.
Commencing in late 2017, I compiled a definitive list, and set out to visit each location. For the sake of simplicity and bearing in mind many of the interiors have been heavily altered I have chosen to focus purely on the exterior of each, either reproducing the angle shot by Maltby in period, or occasionally choosing a suitable alternative.
The project captures each surviving venue in its current state, from dazzling restorations to decaying shells, from sympathetic reconfigurations to careless alterations, the photographs highlight the varying fortunes of each building.
This annotated comprehensive series of photographs has been collected together in the new hard-back book Odeon Relics. An illuminating essay by architectural writer Jason Sayer (The Guardian, Architects’ Journal, Metropolis, Wallpaper*) introduces the book, looking into the birth of the Odeon empire and the creation of its iconic picture palaces. A selection of stunning period shots by legendary architectural photographer John Maltby are also featured to give a flavour of how these iconic buildings looked when new, providing a dramatic contrast to the weathered structures exhibited in the contemporary images.
Out October 2019 RRP £25
All images © Philip Butler 2019. Please do not reproduce without gaining prior permission.