The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1856] Rewriting Cinematic Space

United States

Whither thou goest, America, in thy shiny car in the night?

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957

Perhaps it is time that we pull over, and ask who is driving— the gas tank is almost empty. The upsurge of the collective environmental consciousness in the United States is a highly anticipated and fundamental debut in reforming devastating, neglectful practices, especially considering that the statistics have been out for quite some time. Americans constitute only 5% of the world's population, but consume 24% of the world’s energy. At this rate, there is no green technology that can uphold these wasteful habits. Sustainability appears to be more about sustaining our lifestyle than maintaining global systems and resources. Lamentably, this is the direction that sustainable architecture has taken—a piecemeal technological approach to compensate for our gluttonous inclinations. Despite our effort to curb this appetite, little progress has been made. The rehabilitation process has proven onerous, a vacillating inner struggle. It seems that ecological salvation comes at a price, chiefly, the renunciation of our core cultural tenet: mass-consumption. To be green and to be American are incompatible; we want our corn based ethanol and to eat it too.

Luckily there is hope, a guiding light, a flickering screen just off the road. The drive-in theater, an iconic expression of cinematic heritage, projects blueprints of a greener America. The endangered cultural artifact recalls a popular historic past through a unifying recreational experience in communal space. Most crucially, the drive-in integrates both environmental and social sustainability, simultaneously celebrating an undeniably unique cultural heritage.

The drive-in theater operates in conjunction with its surroundings, natural and urban, to create a mutually dependent and harmonious system. The outdoor setting posed numerous viewing constraints necessitating a highly site-specific architecture. Traditionally, lots were acquired at a city’s fringe; the land was affordable and abundant. Urban sites were unsuitable due to the light pollution that could dull the movie screen. Projections could only occur after sunset to ensure a luminous image. The back of the screen was oriented towards the road to avoid glare and to serve as an advertisement; the architecture announced its function without the construction of a secondary signage infrastructure. Often times, the owner would build his or her home into the cavity of the screen in order to maximize spatial efficiency. This exceptional housing solution epitomizes an entrepreneurial ingenuity to reduce waste. To produce extra revenue, the drive-in often doubled as a swap meet during daylight hours. The adaptability of the expansive lot to changing environmental conditions embodies a naturalistic sensitivity, undoubtedly imparted upon the user.

This unique multi-use infrastructure allowed for the exhaustive exploitation of a site’s architectural potential. The seemingly uncomplicated structure is completely saturated with function and meaning; no positive or negative space is left unused. The theaters were primarily active during the summer months, often closing due to cold temperatures in the winter. These conditions forced a certain consciousness of the climatic and temporal context upon the viewer. The familiar disorientation of exposure to the blinding sunlight upon exiting the enclosed theater was erased from the moviegoing experience. Instead, the user is entirely aware of his or her surroundings, living in harmony with nature. The functioning of the drive-in corresponds with human biological rhythms and celebrates the pastoral landscape, unifying the user with the environment.

In addition to the experiential benefit, there is also a more tangible ecological advantage. Firstly the minimal infrastructure and lack of building enclosure results in an enormous conservation of resources. To optimize the viewing angle, sites are often graded and paved, however this can be avoided with the selection of a sloped site and the use of tire blocks. The drive-in is a sustainable achievement through the creation of architectural space independent of a complex and wasteful architectural form. One of the greatest barriers to sustainable development is building itself. New construction uses five to fifteen gallons of oil per square foot and consumes 40% of the raw materials that enter our economy every year. According to a Brookings Institution study, if current building trends continue, we will have exhausted one-third of our existing building stock by the year 2030. These estimates suggest that despite all green building practices, we need to cut down on building itself.

The rapid rate at which we produce, consume and dispose of buildings in the United States is the largest contributor to environmental decay. The lifecycle cost of building—a calculation of the embodied energy from cradle to grave contained in the materials, their transportation, sourcing, preparation, assembly and use—is the most accurate criterion to judge a building’s environmental performance. Although energy use during the building’s functional life is an important factor, the self-destructive cycle of construction and demolition results in a higher total cost. The first step towards material and energy conservation is to slow construction and evaluate the long-term goals of the project. Our attitude towards buildings is not unlike the way we use a plastic bottle—we manufacture it and it is practical as long as it holds its intended contents; however when it becomes empty, or unsuitable for whatever reason, we scrap it and replace it with a new one. As a result, building materials make up one quarter of landfill waste. The landscape has become littered with disposable enclosures whose occupants have long ago relocated. The lifecycle of a building in the United States is a meager 22 years, about the same as a well-maintained vehicle. As architects, we must examine our practice and ask why our buildings are planned for obsolescence and fail to anticipate future needs. The most energy-efficient building is still wasteful if it cannot adapt and endure for several generations.

The versatility of the drive-in theater with its miniscule environmental costs demonstrates its viability as a sustainable architectural solution. The opportunities for its rejuvenation largely rely upon the reuse of existing infrastructure in order to imbue the site with additional use value. The drive-in revival has occurred in a grassroots fashion, transforming vacant space into a terrain for socially relevant interaction. The do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) drive-in consists of the appropriation of parking lots unused afterhours in order to project films upon the empty and expansive blank wall. With an abundance of deserted big box retailers, warehouses, shopping malls, schools, office buildings and other exclusively diurnal architectures, the possible sites are limitless. The equipment required is minimal and inexpensive: sound is broadcast with simple radio transmitters, the image is diffused by a digital projector, and the movie played with a borrowed DVD or VCR. This theater expends a minimal amount of energy while simultaneously breathing life into inactive urban space. Although the drive-in has been criticized for its automobile dependence, the fact of the matter is that almost all transportation requires a car – whether one is going to a drive-in theater or a traditional movie house. However, many guerilla drive-ins have gone a step further, advocating their audience to leave their cars at home. The substitution of bicycles for cars reduces greenhouse emissions and fossil fuel dependency. As opposed to screening films in monstrous multiplexes, this outdoor typology conserves valuable resources. The standard movie theater requires a formidable economic and environmental expenditure. In addition to the costs of the construction, maintenance and use of the theater, the building requires a network of infrastructural support. Offices, ticket booths, concession stands, restrooms, employee and patron parking lots make up some of the hidden systems that are needed, each consuming a significant amount of resources. On the other hand, the D.I.Y. drive-in requires none of these external support systems. There are no administrative offices as the theater is non-bureaucratic and communally run. The low operating costs translate to free admission, preventing possible copyright disputes and the need for ticket booths and concession stands. Amicable building owners may even allow for patrons to access their bathrooms, creating a lasting bond between the community and surrounding businesses. The auditorium and the parking lot are one and the same. Most crucially, the energy required to construct, light, heat, cool, and demolish a colossal megaplex is reduced to zero. This model of adaptive reuse is especially relevant when considering that older movie theaters across the country are being demolished and replaced by larger, newer multiplexes within shopping centers offering state of the art sound systems and stadium seating. The waste produced by this dismal cycle of destruction and rebuilding is needless—architectural preservation is the first step towards a sustainable future.

The success of a sustainable revival of the drive-in theater hinges upon its social relevance for the American people. A collective cultural heritage has been cyclically depicted and promoted through the medium of film for the last hundred years. The evolution of representations provided by advancing technology has led to the development of distinct viewing practices. The silent movie engaged the viewer with live music and intertitles; the novelty of the moving image captivated and unified an unfamiliar audience. However, more recently, the development of home media technologies has largely produced a shift from collective experience to isolated viewership. The spectator is sequestered from the greater audience as a result of personal television sets, home theatre systems, and, most saliently, the internet. Growing detachment from the “outside world” has triggered the unfortunate interiorization of the public realm. The drive-in theater proposes to draw the viewer out of their home to share in an edifying experience. The particularity of this encounter is that this movie theater uses technology to encourage social interaction as opposed to prevent it.

The drive-in movie theatre stands as an American icon and a catalyst for interpersonal interaction. As opposed to the independent viewership of the darkened movie theater, the drive-in created a set of complex and interesting socio-spatial relationships. A diverse population would congregate in order to absorb the images from the screen. Young lovers and families alike enjoyed the privacy of their own vehicles, yet reveled in the encounter with a greater public. This appealed to the common desire to “be private in public,” suggesting the possibility of the chance social encounter along with the safety of a protective enclosure. The possibilities of intervehicular conversation were abundant: ticket booths, concession stands, restrooms, and neighboring vehicles. The drive-in was a complete cultural happening, including live music and stage shows as well as children’s entertainment. Frequently play equipment or carnival rides would be placed between the screen and the first row of vehicles, allowing children to play before the show. These factors created an intergenerational and diverse audience. In addition, the drive-in incorporated the critique of the film into the film itself. The smaller forum of the vehicle allowed for private discussions, which could eventually grow into larger communal discourses or even mob-like expressions through outrageous honking and flashing lights. The community formed by the drive-in spectators was extraordinarily inclusive and unique: young children, the disabled and smokers could all equally gain access to theatre. The economically disadvantaged could even watch through cracks in the fence, or hide in the trunk of a friend’s car.

The D.I.Y. drive-in offers a culturally enriching possibility, through the reestablishment of the interpersonal relationships and collective experiences that have been lost to the current trend of hermetic viewing practices. It employs technical solutions to reinforce the public realm rather than suppress it. The possibilities for a sphere of open exchange within a democratic domain are the beginnings of a cohesive urban community. Instead of commercial consumption, the guerilla drive-in advocates a cost-free opportunity for interactive and collective exchange. The Santa Cruz Guerilla drive-in uses a democratic voting system to choose film titles, allowing the users to participate in the planning of the event. By allowing users to select the film, it ensures a viewing audience. This stands in stark opposition to the Hollywood model where profit and corporate executives prescribe what films are in theaters. D.I.Y. drive-ins have also adopted nomadic screening practices. Each week, a new location is chosen and announced upon short notice to the viewing audience. The public reconvenes at the specified location spontaneously—activating new parcels of urban space. This kind of migratory pattern allows users to appreciate different surroundings, engages different portions of the population and adds a transcendental aspect to the movie going experience.

Similarly to the way in which the original manifestation of the drive-in theater integrated secondary uses, the possibilities of multi-use for the contemporary reiteration are seemingly endless. The concession stand, perhaps the most palpable source of nostalgia for seasoned spectators, promises tantalizing gastronomic and cultural exchange. Instead of the unhealthy and prosaic burger and fries, food vendors sell their products and neighbors organize potlucks. Meals cooked from organic community gardens, Vietnamese spring rolls and flan from the local taco truck replace the outmoded conception of a singular American cuisine with a richer multicultural exchange. Special celebratory events could commemorate a specific group’s heritage as they prepare a meal to accompany an important or educational cultural film. Intermissions provide for an occasion to discuss community projects and strengthen social bonds. The growth of the theater into a larger civic institution would allow for a unifying recreational event around which people could gather.

Despite its physical absence from our urban environment, the drive-in is a palimpsest invoking a nostalgic longing for a simpler past. Although we live in more complex times, the reestablishment of this fading social tradition is a feasible and revolutionary project. Its role as a both culturally and environmentally sustainable option for the future is instrumental to its viability as an architectural typology. The do-it-yourself drive-in resolves the complex tension of consumptive and environmental desires through the resuscitation of an iconic American pastime. Cinema represents a mass-consumptive, yet sustainable practice – it is hinged upon notions of collective viewership and aesthetic appreciation. It reorients the individual towards a communal and naturalistic experience by engaging him or her with the community and the environment.

With the adoption of a multi-use plan we can ensure that we utilize our buildings to their full spatial potential. By minimizing construction and reusing existing structures, the drive-in theater optimizes architectural space without waste. Current obsessions with sculptural form represent an unfortunate detour from the core of architectural practice. Architects and planners must stop and reconsider their role as agents within a world at risk and design hopeful possibilities for the future. The first step in this direction is a critical self-reflection upon the waste produced by building practices themselves. By practicing adaptive reuse, we can conserve resources, protect greenbelts and preserve our architectural heritage. Only a small fraction of once functioning drive-in theaters are still projecting films, yet through innovative and conscientious planning, we can hope to save this positively American architectural typology and promote a sustainable future for the United States.

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