Babylon is Burning

by Lorna Mcculloch

The trajectory for Scottish Art Deco cinema builds seems to be; opulent place of the cinematic arts, Bingo Hall, sticky floored 90’s nightclubs called Babylon and finally blocks of flats.

Greenock’s Babylon has been burned (or rather razed).  When the former Odeon BB Cinema and Babylon nightclub closed, circa 2013, the building was already on the Buildings at Risk Register (Scotland). After planning permission for flats was granted in 2016, the building was left to deteriorate, a fate sadly shared by a large number of Deco buildings across the country.  It was demolished this year.

Originally built in 1913, some sources say as an early purpose-built cinema, it was remodelled in 1935-7 by Charles James McNair and Robert Walter Elder, architects and builders who specialised in cinemas. They were responsible for some wonderful Art Deco design in Scotland including the following:

Glasgow’s The Dennistoun Palais de Danse (known locally as the Denny Pally), image above comes from the Glasgow City Archives collection Ref: D-CA8/2636, dated 1938
Goven’s Lyceum, which is still standing in Glasgow, although currently closed

The original 1913 design of Greenock’s Babylon already had components  of the Moderne Art Deco style; a monolithic angular entryway with central column windows and some unadorned columns.

Here you can see how McNair and Elder adapted the design and stripped it back to reveal and enhance the Art Deco bones, removing the shield, replacing it with a geometric tiled design and adding a sweeping curve over the entryway.  But in essence, its’s surprisingly unaltered, and provides a fascinating record of the evolution of architectural styles.  

The final picture is the sorry state the building was allowed to fall into, prior to its final destruction this year.

 It’s disheartening and for lovers of Deco, often tragic, that so often the choice is to demolish rather than try to incorporate the original fabric of the building into a development. So, I was astonished and delighted that the Leith Babylon Nightclub (which had the dubious honour of being the worst night club in Edinburgh!) has an altogether different fate than it’s doomed west coast cousin. In a rare decision, a flat development in Leith has retained and restored the original Art Deco State Cinema to a ‘modern interpretation’ of the original colour scheme and design.  It will be used as the entryway for a new block of flats built behind it. The building, looking not dissimilar to the last sad incarnation of the Greenock Babylon, was in a sorry state, despite it’s B listed status. In 2017 planning permission was granted to demolish the old auditorium and build flats. However, the plans in this case included the incorporation of the old foyer to provide a stunning new entryway into the flats.

The original press release for the State Cinema described the appearance of the building:

The facade is carried out attractively in artificial ashlar stonework, and below the square tower, its most prominent architectural feature, is the rounded canopy over the entrance. The underside of the canopy is surfaced with chromium, which reflects the neon lighting.
The entrance hall is faced with walnut panelling and plastic paint finished in gold. Its main features are the decorative columns and the pay-box and confectionary stall, the fronts of which are formed in wrought-iron. A modern design in orange and buff is formed in the terrazzo floor.

The general scheme of decoration in the auditorium is in green, silver and ivory, to provide a perfect background for the Holophane lighting for which the house was specially designed. The wood dado and base to proscenium arch are in green with black lines. Sight lines have been specially considered so as to ensure a perfect view of the screen from every seat in the house. Whatever your feelings on the approach to the build, and the interpretation and treatment of original buildings, this building certainly looks loved again, and I’m glad to see at least one Deco building that escaped the bulldozer

I’m looking forward to having a closer look at how this has been interpreted by the builders. Whatever your feelings on the approach to the build, and the interpretation and treatment of original buildings, this building certainly looks loved again, and I’m glad to see at least one Deco building that escaped the bulldozer. 

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