It's not a megaplex, it's an experience

Muvico Egyptian 24, the cluster of movie theaters in the new Arundel Mills mall, takes theming to new heights.


January 21, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Movies take us to other worlds. Why shouldn't movie theaters do the same?

That's the premise behind a new series of cinemas featuring distinctive architectural themes created by Baltimore-based designers who have set out to bring back the glamour and excitement of going to the movies.

Muvico Egyptian 24, the 5,400-seat megaplex that opened last month at Arundel Mills in Hanover, is the first example in Maryland of this theatrical approach to design.

The others, all in the South, recall a Cuban village, a train station, even the Paris Opera House.

The developer is Muvico Theaters, a Florida-based company that is expanding rapidly even as other movie chains retrench.

The architect is Development Design Group of Baltimore, a firm that specializes in the creation of themed environments for shopping and entertainment.

Their mutual goal, according to Development Design Group principal-in-charge John Clark, is to create megaplexes that provide the creature comforts that movie-goers have come to expect while evoking the ambience and opulence of the grand old movie palaces.

"We want to bring back the spectacle" associated with movie-going, Clark said. "In the old days, it was a big deal to go to the cinema -- the red carpet, the wide screen, the balcony seats. ... We wanted to take this genre and see what we could do with it."

It's the 'wow' factor

Muvico was founded in 1984 by Hamid Hashemi, a native of Iran who fled his homeland in 1978 after the shah was overthrown and the country fell under martial law. Arriving in the United States, he learned English by watching movies and television, and began investing in residential real estate. With his initial profits, he bought his first theater in 1984, a triplex in Coral Springs, Fla. Seventeen years later, he ranks as one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the country.

Hashemi believes that the key to attracting theater-goers is to offer not just a movie, but an experience. To that end, he has built his company around the idea of creating places that transport movie-goers to another time and place. He is confident that people will drive past other theaters and come to his instead, if it offers an experience the others don't.

"The idea is to make the theater a destination," he said during a recent visit to Arundel Mills. "It's the 'wow' factor we're looking for."

Hashemi and Clark were introduced to each other four years ago by a commercial leasing consultant in Florida, and they've been working together ever since. Development Design Group had been the architect for several commercial projects for Florida, including CocoWalk in Miami. Hashemi was just beginning to formulate ambitious expansion plans for Muvico, after selling all his sloped-floor multiplexes and deciding to build only megaplexes with stadium seating.

Hashemi had ideas about creating a child-care center and expanding the concessions area and improving views from the seats, Clark said. "We wanted to bring in the theming and experiential qualities that we're noted for and that we like to do. ... It's been a good collaboration."

Themed environments are hardly new to Florida, home of attractions such as Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. Hashemi asked Development Design Group to come up with a series of theater prototypes.

For Muvico's project at Arundel Mills -- the first outside Florida, and the first attached to a regional mall -- the architects selected an Egyptian theme, something they had first used in Davie, Fla.

"There's a long tradition of cinemas having an Egyptian influence," Clark said. "It's a classic concept."

In addition, he said, the Egyptian-themed architecture has a monumentality that co-exists well with the scale of the adjoining retail center.

Egyptian, inside and out

The Egyptian theme is apparent on the exterior of the 130,000-square-foot building, which anchors one end of the sprawling Arundel Mills complex at the intersection of Routes 100 and 295. Its entrance is a 45-foot-tall porte cochere supported by massive columns covered with hieroglyphics. Neon accents draw attention to a variety of motifs on the capitals of the columns, which stand like a forest of stone trees.

The columns, 35 to 45 feet high, are actually cylinders clad with glass-fiber-reinforced concrete, with synthetic capitals at the top. They were fabricated in California and shipped in sections to the construction site for assembly. Paint was applied to look as if the hieroglyphics have faded over time, as they would at the site of a ruin.

The Egyptian theme carries into the theater lobby, where the Nile River is traced in glass tile on the floor and the concessions area is flanked by statues of ancient pharaohs. Interior walls are "distressed" to convey the passage of time and covered with Egyptian-style paintings, murals and hieroglyphics, again meant to have a warm and worn look.

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