Book Project by the Goethe-Institut Modern architecture in the tropics

Great cinema not just on the inside: Cine Estúdio in Namibe
Great cinema not just on the inside: Cine Estúdio in Namibe | Photo: Walter Fernandes

Futuristic cinemas that adapt to their tropical surroundings and are both a meeting place and cultural commemoration: Angola’s movie houses survived both the colonial era and wartime. Now the book project Angola Cinemas advocates their preservation. We spoke with editor Miguel Hurst.

The building on the cover looks like a spaceship that has landed in the desert. How did this kind of architecture come to be for a cinema in southern Angola?

The architecture of the Cine Estúdio in Namibe imitates the Welwitschia, a true desert plant that needs little water. Our cinemas were built to suit the south of our country, where it is very hot and dry: open and permeable, adapted to our tropical climate. Many of the cinemas built in the 1960s and 1970s were open-air cinemas with terrace bars. Most of the architects who designed cinemas in Angola came from Portugal. They had fled from the ideological rigidity of the Salazar regime and were adherents of ideas of modern social building. They were able to experiment unimpeded in the colonies, in particular also with new materials such as reinforced concrete, which they tested to the very limits of the possible and apparently also the laws of engineering.

Angola has a 27-year civil war behind it. Why is it important the document the cinemas, of all things, in photographs?

Miguel Hurst: “We have to preserve our history in order to shape our present and our future” Miguel Hurst: “We have to preserve our history in order to shape our present and our future” | Photo: Walter Fernandes A picture can tell a story without words. Angola is presently in a phase of reconstruction. New buildings are being put up everywhere. Creating a modern Angolan identity is an important subject for us. We can’t simply ignore our past during this process. As the author of our book, Paula Nascimento, says: In a young society that has a war behind it during which many structures were completely or partially destroyed, part of establishing a national identity necessarily involves giving some thought to what should be restored of the cultural heritage and what should be pulled down.
The cinemas reflect Angola’s social and political development very directly. And they were very, very popular. People did not merely go to the cinemas to see films. Entire families could go out together, meet friends, show off their new clothes, learn the latest news, meet their beloved, fall in love. Going to the cinema was a social event.

Were there no restrictions, for example concerning admission to the cinemas or the choice of films? Angola was a Portuguese colony until 1975.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the first cinemas were architecturally enclosed structures and the audience was also a rather closed group: white and privileged. Not until 1961 did the doors of the cinema open to all of the population. They showed everything that came from Hollywood: Ben Hur, Casablanca, The Three Musketeers . But they also showed films from Portugal and Brazil.
In the 1960s, cinema and debate clubs were founded and many of the cinemas were used to stage entertainments. Concerts, shows and plays were held here. Ray Charles and Charles Aznavour performed in Angola, beauty contests were organized, beverages and ice cream were sold. In the 1970s Angolan films were made, too. Following Angola’s independence in 1975 our government was very left leaning and films imported from the USA were banned. From then on we saw films from Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Eastern bloc.

What is the meaning behind the book’s subtitle “A Fiction of Freedom”?

The 1960s in particular were a time of new beginnings in Angola, of growing resistance to the colonial regime. Many African states gained their independence about this time. This desire for freedom is also evident in the architecture.

Many of the cinemas have fallen into disrepair; their future is uncertain Many of the cinemas have fallen into disrepair; their future is uncertain | Photo: Walter Fernandes What do these cinemas stand for in a broader context, particularly in the disparities between Western and African culture and aesthetics?
All architecture in Angola has a Portuguese or Western influence. Many of the immigrant architects like Francisco Castro Rodrigues and Vasco Vieira da Costa pursued social ideas, strove for better living conditions for the working people. In the mid-twentieth century, the Portuguese regime began planning the construction of cities in the colonies. Many designs were influenced by native building methods: Africa needed buildings adapted to the climate and the local conditions.
It was the birth of tropical architecture. Although there are strong influences of modernism from Brazil, I’d say that our architecture, Angolan modernism, developed a unique Angolan architectural language.

How did the idea for the book come about?

In 2004 I was the director of the Angolan Film Institute. We organized a screening of three films for Cine Kalunga in the southern province of Benguela. I was there for the first time. Seen from the air, Cine Kalunga looks like an old movie camera. The openness and beauty of this building was so strong and fascinating that I decided to document the treasures of Angola’s architectural and cinema culture. The newly founded Goethe-Institut in Angola was open to this idea and here’s the book.

In area, Angola is three times larger than Germany and has eighteen provinces. How did you organize this mammoth project?

It was a great adventure! We not only needed to list and get permissions to photograph all of the cinemas, but we also had to compile detailed information about them. We journeyed through a huge country with no motorways in thirty months. Sometimes the weather threw hail on entire photography days. Sometimes other events were being held in the cinemas and we couldn’t even get in. We had to improvise quite often.

Many of the photos in the book reveal the decay of the movie houses. What will their future be?

We went through a long war. Five or ten percent of Angolans want to get our cinemas back or preserve them. There have been first initiatives by the government to preserve the historic buildings and reopen them for events. The rest of the population doesn’t care. There is not enough electricity or water in Angola. People walk to work; most don’t have cars. People have so many problems to deal with every day that they don’t have time for historical issues. Nevertheless, the book is extremely important for us Angolans: We have to preserve our ideas, our soul and our history in order to shape our present and our future.

What is the future of the project?

Many of the cinema architects are still unknown today. There are hardly any documents, plans or drawings about how they were built. A website aims to help. We are constantly compiling new information at www.cineafrica.net. We hope to make the website a continental database of cinema halls in Africa. We are also producing an exhibition about the book that will be shown in Luanda in September 2015 and then go on tour.

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