Let’s at least hold on to the Scala

opinion May 11, 2016 01:00

By The Nation

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Might education be the key in stopping Chulalongkorn University from demolishing the venerable movie theatre?



Thailand’s terrible track record on preserving its historic buildings, a factor not lost on foreign tourists or caring citizens, should be incentive enough to put a halt to the destruction of valued structures as well as venerable communities. Thankfully a groundswell of support has arisen in recent years for saving what’s deemed precious, whether for historic or even sentimental reasons, and the government and private developers are often being urged to take a more thoughtful approach to planning.
Currently there is a “Keep Scala” campaign underway on the petition website Change.org, aimed at pressuring the administration of Chulalongkorn University into maintaining the four-decade-old Scala movie theatre as it redevelops the vicinity.
The university, which owns the commercial area fronting on Rama I Road, including Siam Square, reportedly wants to develop a high-rise retail complex on the site of Bangkok’s last surviving stand-alone cinema. In less than a month nearly 5,000 people have signed the petition at Change, asking Chula to consider preserving the theatre, at least for the sake of architectural heritage. The number thus far might not be impressive but, judging from the swirl of comments on the social media, the Scala’s admirers are legion.
The 1,000-seat Scala screened its first film on December 31, 1969. It is now part of the Apex theatre chain, but the lease will expire next year and the expectation is that it will be demolished. 
The loss of the neighbouring Siam theatre in a 2010 fire left the Scala as Thailand’s sole surviving single-screen, standalone movie house. Such theatres of this or older vintage and this level of grandeur are now rare everywhere in the world. The financial burden involved in maintaining them invariably outpaces the revenues generated. Commercially, such large edifices are simply not cost-effective, and when they stand on valuable land, the smart solution is to replace them with outlets that can earn more.
What is lost in doing so, however, is often a marvel of architecture and design. In the case of the Scala, with its wonderful Art Deco styling, we are about to lose a grand old lady, a living testament to a bygone era. Taken from us will be that picturesque façade above the bustling sidewalk with its marquee announcing the latest fare in films. The Scala and the much younger Lido are Bangkok’s only remaining cinemas where the staff still changes the marquee lettering by hand, a practice that has a certain charm of its own. 
As well, if the Scala were to be torn down, we would be losing more of our sense of community. The theatre has over the years fostered its own community of die-hard film buffs. They know that the only way to fully appreciate a movie is on the big screen amid evocative surroundings, not squeezed up against one of a dozen mini-screens in a multiplex or peering at a computer or television screen at home.
The Scala – the sort of cinema that most other countries would covet, no doubt even highly developed Singapore – is about to be destroyed in Thailand. Here, the notion has taken root that history can always be replaced in cement or plastic or digital replicas – on less valuable property elsewhere. 
Can the management at Chulalongkorn be persuaded to let the Scala live on once the lease lapses? Legally, of course, they’re under no obligation to even take public opinion into account. Given the enormous price attached to land in the area, yielding part of it to the Scala would strike economists as naïve. And yet, by demolishing it, the university would certainly be doing itself no favours in the eyes of the theatre community or the larger community.
Chula has been criticised before over its commercial developments in Siam Square and around the old Sam Yan Market, where whole neighbourhoods disappeared in the quest for financial profit. Perhaps this time its directors could instead invoke the cause of education. 
Imagine the Scala – while still welcoming the public for movie screenings – becoming a classroom for Chulalongkorn students, not just those pursuing architecture, design and the visual arts but also those in economics and business administration. Surely the university – which celebrates its centenary next year – could first tap the talents of its alumni in setting up a viable business and place of business and then give its students a hand in running the place.
Imagine, rather than giving Bangkok another mall, letting its residents hold on to a cherished part of the city’s history, a gift for many generations to come.