The Riviera as Art

Local architects and others respond to the new downtown theater's controversial design

City Beat

After nearly a decade of false starts and Herculean feats of financing by the Haslam administration, most people seem happy about the fact that there is finally a movie theater downtown. Some downtown developers expected it to be done five years ago, or as part of a restoration of the S&W; it's been planned as part of a transit center, it has been conceived to be built across the street in Krutch Park. But now it's generally where people think it should be: on the site of the old Riviera, the big jazz-age cinema that closed 30 years ago. It's even called the Riviera. People seem nearly rapturous with all that.

There's less joy about the looks of it. Months before it was finished, some wags were calling it the New Taco Bell. We polled several architects, and found lots of opinions, few that the opiners wanted to see in print. Most architects don't like the Regal Riviera, but still want to see it succeedâ"and want to stay on good terms with the people who made it happen.

A few are at least ready to tolerate it. â“It's okay, I think,â” says Randall DeFord, the preservationist architect who was part of the effort to save the adjacent historic buildings like the S&W, which were doomed in some earlier plans. â“It's a good compromise between a suburban movie-theater developer and a historic downtown.â” He likes the horizontal lines that conform to the adjacent buildings.

â“I really like the sign,â” he adds, of the 20-foot tall 1920s-style Riviera sign. â“I wish it was more visible.â” Because the new building follows the five-foot setback from the sidewalk, the sign is not legible from much distance; its even obscured from either end of the cinema's own block. A downtown developer remarks that the theater probably could have gotten a variance to bring the façade up to the sidewalk, thereby improving the sign's visibility.

Buzz Goss, a preservationist architect who has been perhaps better known recently as a downtown developer, was one of the leaders of the effort to preserve the adjacent art-deco cafeteria the S&W in the â‘90s. He defends the synthetic stucco as practical, and the design of the building, which he speaks of as just another odd building on a street than never had strictly coherent standards. He thinks it's consistent with the â“corporate cultureâ” of Regal, and on that level is a success.

â“No, it's not a world-class piece of architecture,â” Goss says. â“You can't have great architecture without great clients. Sure, I'd like to see a world-class Frank Gehry building. But that's not what the culture wanted. Certainly not what people will pay for.â”

Dale Smith, head of the Public Building Authority, which oversaw the theater's construction, attended the opening-night gala. â“I'm not unhappy with it,â” he says. â“I'm not thrilled with it.â”

Several non-architects who visited the theater at the VIP opening Monday night like the theater fine, especially the interior. Prominent preservationist Dorothy Stair thinks it's fun. â“It looks like a Roman Baroque movie palace,â” she remarked at the lobby reception, where there was little grumbling from anyone.

â“I'm pleased that the scale is in keeping with the other buildings on the block,â” says Kim Trent, of Knox Heritage. That was an issue, earlier on. â“I'm pleased that the city and Regal worked with Knox Heritage, and worked to revise the original planâ” which called for demolition of the S&W and other buildings, and a front plaza that seemed, to some, out of keeping with Gay Street's function and heritage.  

The lobby has a lofty ceiling, partly sunlit via the high front windows. The interior includes some festive tile work and large mural-sized black-and-white photographs of Gay Street scenes showing the original Riviera in 1923, 1932, and 1946. It looks like a smaller version of Regal's Turkey Creek lobby.

Kelly Headden of the venerable firm Barber McMurryâ"he worked on the design of the last major new construction on Gay Street, the much-praised marble-faced history-center extension, which is near the Rivieraâ"leavens his criticism with praise.

â“I'm awfully grateful for the leap of faith involvedâ"it will be a great facility to have downtown,â” Headden says. â“I wish that same level of diligence and effort had been made in making sure it fit in our downtown.â” He says he would prefer to have a building that â“looks less like it belongs in the suburbs and more in a downtown.â” He says the materials and fenestrationâ"the windows and baysâ"give it a suburban feel. â“The materials, in particular, don't have a sense of permanence to them.â”  

Most architects we spoke to offered their remarks strictly off the record, and those remarks tended to include the words â“suburban,â” â“cartoonish,â” â“temporary,â” and â“phony.â”

Several architects remark that the façade's gestures toward historyâ"the corbelling, spaced brickwork across the pediment, which is obviously a reference to a couple of the Victorian buildings on the blockâ"seem superficial. â“It's not very responsive to the site,â” one says. â“It would almost be better if they'd do a contemporary building, rather than trying to respond to the site, and doing it badly,â” says another.

Another local architect criticizes the large but almost featureless State Street rear of the cineplex. â“One has to admit that there was probably not enough money in the budget to do an adequate gussying-up of what are of course blank wallsââ”

He adds, â“Why the city fathers were not sufficiently alarmed to impose some sort of design review on the project, given the utter disaster design-wise that the Regal cineplex at Turkey Creek turned out to be, is a mystery.â”

UT architecture professor George Dodds says movie theaters can work well in an urban environment: â“Some as background buildings, some as foreground buildings,â” he says. â“This building is neither.â”

He adds the materials and colors both clash: the â“brick and appliqué to look like stuccoâ” looks incoherent, and the colors are â“misaligned.â”   

Frank Sparkman is one local veteran architect who doesn't mind letting us know what he thinks. â“It's not architecture,â” he says of the Regal Riviera. â“It's a copy of architecture, and a poor copy.â” He refers to its â“lack of integrity,â” and calls the theater's design â“despicable.â”

â“It does the city and Gay Street in particular a disservice in lowering the standard of architecture. It's frustrating to think that we can't do better.â” He compares it to the Tennessee Theatre, built 80 years ago for the same purpose. â“Have we sunk this low?â” he says. â“Is this all we require of our developers and business owners? What a shame, that Regal, with its wealth of talent, couldn't have come up with something better.â”

He thinks it will be successful as a functional cineplex, but Sparkman says the city would have been better served by a local architect who had a notion of the history of Gay Street and an investment in downtown's future. Of the out-of-town designers, he says, â“they're not going to be living with it, looking at it every day.

â“One side of me is angry at this cartoon building. But I also saw how Mayor Haslam struggled to make it happen.â”

The cineplex, which once seemed unlikely, has been one of Bill Haslam's priorities since he arrived in office. It became, at times, an acrobatic feat of keeping once-reluctant cinema operator Regal in play; saving the S&W, as preservationists demanded (Haslam says that alone may have added $1 million to the project cost); and financing the whole thing realistically through a variety of sources. â“At the time, we were not sure we could do any of that,â” Haslam says. â“We had to deal within the limits of reality.â”

â“I don't remember a large amount of discussion of design,â” Haslam says. â“From my side, we just had to take what we were given to get this built.â”

One of Regal's terms was the option to hire its own architects and make the calls on its own designs. Regal chose the firm TK Architects, International, a Kansas City-based firm of 25 architects and interior designers that specializes in movie theaters, and has designed more than 100 of them all over the world. Its website displays 14 current or recent projects from Gulfport, Miss., to Kuwait City. Regal is one of TK's chief clients, but the cinema company's Knoxville projects are not among those the architectural firm shows off on its website.

The lead architect on the project was Mike Cummings, who says he was part of the same team that designed the Regal Pinnacle at Turkey Creek; he says the Riviera shares some of the â“bright and boldâ” characteristics of the Pinnacle.

Reached by phone in Kansas Cityâ"he didn't come to Knoxville for the opening-day festivitiesâ"Cummings admits what he sees as limitations of the site, with the Gay Street elevation 18 feet higher than the State Street elevationâ"not a typical problem in Kansas City, perhapsâ"and the preservation of historic buildings in the vicinity.

â“We took a lot of our cues from the old Riviera,â” he says. The front looks very different from the original Riviera's arch-free façade, though it also had three parts, the largest one on the center.

He says the broad space demanded by most cineplexes is unusual for Gay Street, where even the taller buildings are pretty narrow. The cavernous Tennessee is artfully hidden behind conventional street-front buildings.

â“It's a little frustrating, but also realistic, that you're not going to get everything that you want,â” Cummings says. At one time, Regal and TK wanted a larger-scale building, backed away from the street.

â“We used more modern materials than would have been used in the 1930s,â” says Cummings. â“But it's honest. We're not trying to fool anybody that it was built then.â”

Whatever the architects' sins, nobody we talked to said they intended to avoid seeing movies at the theater, and some local architects suggest the Riviera's problems may be remediable.

The off-the-record architect who had criticized the oppressive blankness of the rear proposes, â“one possibility could be to â‘green' part of that big wall; there are grid and mesh systems that support vine- and other plant materials. There's an old saw that doctors bury their mistakes and architects cover theirs with ivy.â”

As for the façade, its temporariness may turn out to be a blessing. â“It looks as if it could be changed over seasonally,â” says Sparkman.

â“It's a 20-year building at best,â” says Goss, one of the most upbeat of the architects we spoke to. â“I hope we'll live to see it redone, maybe two or three times.â” â" Jack Neely

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