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How a New Cinema Center Could Change the Busan Film Festival

Cinema Center
Nathan Willock/Viewpictures.co.uk

Organizers hope the $150 million Busan Cinema Center, designed by Coop Himmelblau, will dazzle festgoers arriving for one of Asia's most important film events.

Destination architecture is hitting the film festival world with the opening of the Busan Cinema Center. Designed by influential contemporary architects Coop Himmelblau of Austria, the building will serve as the home of Asia's largest cinema event, the Busan International Film Festival, which opens Oct. 6 in South Korea's second-largest city after Seoul.

A key international film event now in its 16th edition, BIFF has steadily built its reputation over the years and is now an essential stop on the international festival calendar. With an increasingly robust market to attract dealmaking, Busan boasts the cream of the Asian film sector as well as Hollywood A-listers like Oliver Stone and such European art house stalwarts as Isabelle Huppert, who returns to the festival this year after first attending the third edition in 1998. 

All that BIFF was missing was a signature screening venue, but now that problem has been solved.

The $150 million Cinema Center could make having an expensive and shiny new screening venue a must-have for film festivals, much as Frank Gehry's spectacularly sculptural Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, spurred other arts institutions to build architectural marvels to lure audiences. Yet there are potential pitfalls to banking too much on "if we build it, they will come" architecture, as cultural organizations around the world have learned.

An unparalleled feat of engineering, the steel-clad Busan Cinema Center calls to mind an inverted pyramid made of building blocks. It boasts a roof — set on an enormous cone-shaped column — said to be the longest free cantilever ever constructed, clocking in at a span of 92 yards, nearly the length of a football field. "Our architectural aim is to defy gravity," Coop Himmelblau co-founder Wolf Prix said recently. Adding to the effect is an elaborate lighting system that can be tailored to events and displayed across the ceiling in full motion graphics.

The complex marks "the opening of a second chapter for the film festival," according to Hur Nam-sik, mayor of Busan and the BIFF chairman, expressing confidence that it will become "a crucial venue for leading the future growth of Asia's media culture."

The Vienna-based architecture firm, known for its bold, angular approach to design, began building the structure in 2008 after winning a 2005 competition held by Busan's municipal government. One of Coop Himmelblau's best-known works is the BMW Welt Museum in Munich, completed in 2008, which has won rapturous acclaim from the architecture world. Less warmly embraced has been the firm's striking — some might say brutalist — Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, an Los Angeles Unified School District campus that towers over the 101 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles.

The elegant Busan Cinema Center houses a 1,000-seat theater, three smaller theaters, convention halls, office spaces, creative studios and dining areas, all fluidly linked with external facilities. The structure includes a 4,000-seat outdoor cinema located four stories above ground level, which will be used for BIFF's opening and closing ceremonies. The theater's 79-by-42-foot screen covers the eastern facade of the center's nine-story main building, dubbed Cinema Mountain.

The opening of the center will transform the festivalgoing experience for visitors. BIFF was initially centered in Busan's Nampo-dong district — a diverse area of parks, a theater district and seafood market — before moving to breezy Haeundae Beach from its seventh through 15th installments. Screenings no longer will take place in Nampo-dong, limited instead to the Busan Cinema Center and four other theaters in the Haeundae area.

"Having the Busan Cinema Center is more than simply changing settings," says BIFF director Lee Yong-kwan. "This alters the framework of the festival by taking outdoor stages, guest lounge, market and other key facilities from Haeundae Beach to a different venue. It brings enormous changes to the organization and administration of the festival," says Lee.

Many festivals have spent handsomely on new centers, but it's safe to say none has resulted in world-class architecture. Cannes expanded its Palais des Festivals in 1999 to unremarkable results, and Toronto in 2010 unveiled the Bell Lightbox, a handsome though uninspiring condo tower that houses the festival on its lower floors.

"There is definitely a trend to doing film centers. If you go back to the 1920s, we had those great movie palaces. It's an interesting phenomenon now that in an era of home entertainment, film centers are becoming something that's really important," says Gail Lord, co-president of Toronto-based cultural-planning firm Lord Cultural Resources, which consulted on the Bell Lightbox launch.

But some cultural institutions have embraced "starchitecture" as a silver bullet that will draw visitors, only to find they are faced with burdensome debt once the novelty wears off. For all of the success of a Disney Concert Hall (which has helped revitalize downtown Los Angeles), or going back to the Jorn Utzon-designed Sydney Opera House (which went beyond branding that city to become a cultural landmark), there have been cases like Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, built by Rafael Vinoly, which opened in 2001 at a cost of $235 million. In April 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy protection, citing among its problems $2.5 million in rent and other fees owed to the Kimmel.

But what is now called "the Bilbao effect" — museums and other arts groups trying to replicate the way Gehry's museum has drawn more than 10 million visitors to a town of about 350,000 — still has enormous global appeal. "The idea that architecture could combine with the brand name of a cultural event or brand became amazingly appealing. 'Here's the answer: This signature building will transform us into this huge success.' It seemed like an intoxicating solution," says Arthur Cohen, CEO of cultural-marketing consultancy LaPlaca Cohen, who worked on the opening of Disney Hall. "All you had to do was hire a great architect, and he would solve your problem."

Regardless of the Cinema Center's long-term prospects, it will have an immediate effect on the opening-night gala, which will feature a number of new wrinkles. The red carpet ceremony itself  will proceed in several directions, with VIP guests proceeding through the Double Cone entrance for photo ops before moving onto the Outdoor Cinema or taking the spiraling ramps and bridges suspended from the Cinema Center's roof to upper levels of Cinema Mountain.

Coop Himmelblau
Chung Sung-Ju/Getty Images
Courtesy of BIFF
Chung Sung-Ju/Getty Images
Courtesy of Everett Collection

And thanks to the structure's lighting design, a huge attraction of the opening galas of the festival's past 16 editions might not be necessary this year: the fireworks. According to organizers, motion graphics will cover the entire overhang of the building on opening night, and BIFF organizers are apparently so confident in the display that the explosions will not be necessary. Says one BIFF organizer, "Fireworks or no fireworks, the opening ceremony will provide an atmosphere like no other edition."