January 08 2014

Transforming Movie Palaces into Religious Temples in Lima, Peru

The crowd slowly gathering outside the former grand movie theater on a Sunday afternoon is not so different from the crowd that used to gather in this same spot a few decades ago. These people, however, are not here for a show, but to attend a religious service. In Lima, these vintage cinemas no longer show movies, but have found a myriad of new uses: as supermarkets, nightclubs and, most notably, as religious temples.

People waiting outside a former cinema, now a temple, in Lima, Peru

Instead of movies, these theaters are now gathering places for religious communities (Lima, Peru)

The first movie show in Lima took place in 1897, and the city’s first movie houses were built within a decade. One of the earliest movie palaces, the Colon, opened in 1914 and was designed in an ornate Beaux-Arts style by the architect Claude Sahut. Many mid-century theaters, from grand movie palaces to small neighborhood theaters, adopted the Art-Deco style.

A former cinema located at the intersection of two main avenues in Lima, Peru

Most of these theaters, however, closed between the 1970s and 1990s, victims of the same larger global economic and social trends that affected cinemas in many countries (television becoming the primary mode of entertainment, suburbanization, among others), but also due to some unique local situations, like terrorism. In his book Ilusiones a Oscuras (Dark Illusions), architect Victor Mejia Ticona describes some of the challenges that cinemas faced during the 1980s and early 1990s: terrorists often targeted electricity infrastructure, which caused massive blackouts that sunk the city into darkness. When these blackouts happened during a show, tickets had to be refunded, seriously cutting into theaters’ profitability in the midst of an already harsh economic and political climate.

Although many of these theaters stopped showing movies and started falling into disrepair, many became home to religious groups, particularly Evangelical churches. According to Mejia Ticona, theaters were often centrally located, easily accessible by public transportation, could hold many people comfortably seated, and had the advantage of a raised stage and good acoustics. These qualities made them ideal for the theatrical and performance-like quality of these religious services. This type of adaptive reuse became popular not only in Peru, but also in other countries including the United States, some examples being the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles, and the Central Park Theater in Chicago (although the church closed in February 2013). Although many of these churches left the theaters relatively intact, others did extensive and sometimes controversial transformations which obscured these buildings’ past as movie houses.

A former neighborhood cinema in Lima, Peru, now houses the "Charismatic Biblical Mission" church

Although a few of these old theaters, like the Pacifico Cinema (1958), are still showing movies, it can be said that most of these cinemas belong to a city that does not really exist anymore, to a city whose citizens have changed significantly. These theaters are victims of a process known as creative destruction, which is described by political scientist Douglas Rae as a capitalism which drives growth by remorselessly refusing to preserve the past. Saving these theaters, even if only because of their significance and meaning, requires finding creative new uses for them in ways that do not obscure their character and past. These are cases where preservation for preservation’s sake is not enough, and where critical conservation and adaptive reuse are more viable options.

How do we decide whether a building should be preserved as a relic and memorial of the past, allowed to go gracefully, or adapted to a new use?

Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources.

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderón

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon hails from Lima, Peru, a vibrant and noisy city with a rich history, ancient archaeological sites, Colonial churches, old art-deco cinemas, sprawling shanty towns (often decorated with posters in neon colours advertising a chicha or cumbia concert), glass skyscrapers, and a colorful public transportation systems that requires a sense of adventure, an instinct for navigation, and very short limbs to use successfully. She is a professional archaeologist who spent several years working in prehispanic and historical sites both in Lima and in northern Peru before coming to the United States, where she obtained a Master in Design Studies degree, with a focus on Critical Conservation, from Harvard University´s Graduate School of Design. She is currently based in the Boston area, where she combines her background and interest in archaeology with the study of how cities are formed and transformed, the nature and use of public spaces, adaptive and transformative reuse, and how can a city´s historical footprint, buildings and open spaces contribute to creating a sense of place and to inspire new urban design. Rosabella also enjoys exploring Boston and nearby towns on her beautiful 1975 blue folding bike and thinks of herself as “an archaeologist of the modern city”

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 8th, 2014 at 9:54 am and is filed under Architecture, History/Preservation, Urban Development/Real Estate. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


2 Responses to “Transforming Movie Palaces into Religious Temples in Lima, Peru”

  1. Constant Cap Says:

    The same thing has happened in Nairobi where many of the 20th Century Cinema’s are now evangelical churches.

  2. Rodrigo OS Says:

    Also in my hometown (Lisbon – Portugal), some emblematic cinemas and theaters are now hosting hotels (Eden), a Hard Rock Cafe (Condes) and an evangelical temple (Imperio). New cinemas tend to be integrated with shopping malls in the outskirts.

    In Basel (Switzerland), where I am living now, old churches in the city center are being transformed in concert halls.

    I think that to be able to compete with outskirt developers city centers need to be managed in a professional and integrated way, which sometimes is really difficult owing to many individual interests at stake (shopkeepers, old residents, tourism, etc).

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