No cinema paradiso for Leicester Square

Poor Rowan Moore. He is very upset in his latest Observer column about the proposed replacement of the Odeon West End by a bland hotel with a squinchy little cinema tacked on the side.

Many people who don’t live in London may think ‘so what’? After all, this is only one cinema in one square in the capital. But actually most people who have been to London will have passed through Leicester Square, simply because of its position. And that includes most film stars, as Leicester Square is the home of the film premiere. Which means that even if you have never been there, you have probably seen it on television, as the backdrop to an actor trying not to shiver in too few clothes. 

But premieres apart, the cinemas of Leicester Square tend to be overpriced and show very standard fare. Rowan Moore does not strike me as a typical Leicester Square cinema-goer. I bet he prefers somewhere a little more arthouse. And he probably hasn’t hung out a lot in Leicester Square either, which is home to some very tacky fast food.It also, until recently, had a rather unsavoury reputation, with lots of street drinkers and petty crime.

This has improved dramatically however with a radical but considered makeover by landscape architect Burns + Nice. It netted numerous prizes, including the top award from the Landscape Institute, for a transformation that effectively turned the central garden inside out, putting a sinuous stone bench around the edge, allowing visitors to animate the square in a new way.

Still, nobody thinks of Leicester Square as a heritage gem, despite its considerable history. But that is fine. Cities are places to inhabit and use, and if we can do that successfully it is at least as important as jaw-dropping admiration.

Moore seems as upset by the loss of the Hand & Racquet pub, already vacated, as by the proposed demolition of the cinema. Perhaps he has necked a few pints there? Again, it looks nothing special, but if it has associations, then those are important. Organisations like SAVE have recognised that the associations we have with buildings may be as vital as their architectural significance – and that is particularly important as chain outlets come to dominate.

The other odd idea about the Leicester Square proposal is that it would replace a big cinema with a small one. Surely those obligatory multiplex shoeboxes should be becoming less relevant as home screens grow to match them in size? What we need are places where large numbers of people can come together to celebrate spectacle in the way that they do for sport and music. 

Rowan Moore may have over-reacted a little, but it does seem that the proposals for Leicester Square will lead to a loss of character (even if it is not always the most exalted character) in favour of a homogenising blandness. Which we should resist. 

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