People Profile: Senior Architect Anthony Abouzeid on creating world-class Middle East cinemas

Chapman Taylor Senior Architect Anthony Abouzeid joined Chapman Taylor in 2016 to help expand our presence in the MENA region. Based at our Dubai studio, he specializes in the design and delivery of cutting-edge cinema projects throughout the Middle East. In this profile piece, Anthony tells us about how he came to work in cinema design and construction, the dedication needed to see a world-class cinema project through and how Chapman Taylor has become a go-to name for clients in the region.

Tell us about your route to architecture as a career.

I was born in Lebanon, where I grew up sketching and playing with wood – my grandfather is a carpenter, and I enjoyed carving and joining things together from wood as a child. I studied for a Master’s degree in Interior Architecture (which is different from Interior Design), and then began my career as a design consultant in Beirut, working on high-end villas, offices and other buildings.

From there, I decided that I wanted to experience the construction side of the industry to gain an understanding of what happened after the drawing stages finished, and I became a consultant working on the construction of a VOX Cinema in Beirut. That was the start of my specialisation in cinema projects.

Cinema design and construction involves a very niche skill-set – you have to really love cinema, or theatre, to make a success of it, because it can be exhausting and very hectic. But the joy gained from delivering a finished cinema project can be enormous – being able to watch people arriving with their children, or on a date, and creating memorable life experiences in an environment that you designed, is a great honour.

How did you come to join Chapman Taylor?

I was working as Architect Coordinator on the VOX Cinema project, in charge of all the drawings, but the project manager from a civil engineering background and did not understand how complex cinema construction was, so I decided to look at it myself. It was then, in 2013, that I first met (Chapman Taylor Leisure Director) David Wallace, during the construction of the VOX cinema, prior to his joining Chapman Taylor. We started working together on site – he gave me hand-drawn sketches and I developed them to the final building in which people now go and see movies.

A few years later, by when I was working in Oman, David messaged me on LinkedIn to ask if I would join Chapman Taylor to help build the best cinema complex in the world – Reel Cinemas at The Dubai Mall – which was an opportunity too good to turn down. I joined Chapman Taylor in 2016.

Reel Cinemas at The Dubai Mall

Tell us about your experience working on The Reel Cinemas at The Dubai Mall.

It was the most complex and challenging project I have worked on. The scheme involved renovating an existing shopping centre cinema for the client, Emaar Entertainment, with a brief to create the best and most technologically advanced cinema in the region, if not the world. Emaar wanted to add more theatres, bring in state-of-the-art technology and change the way in which purchases happened to eliminate long queues for tickets, food and drink. Dubai Mall was, and is, one of the busiest shopping centres in the world, receiving more than 80 million visitors annually, so eliminating congestion was a major challenge.

The scheme required deep thought about how to create bespoke design solutions to fit everything within the existing space and coordinate the provisions with existing height restraints, MEP services and so on.

An example of the challenges we faced lies in the extensive use of LED screens throughout the complex, including a large twitter wall in the lobby and stunning curved LED corridor which surrounds moviegoers as they walk to their theatres. It took a month to properly coordinate all the pipework, ducts, etc. in the curved LED corridor because there was less than 10cm behind and above the screens to work with – the point at which the screens curve where the walls meet the ceiling granted us a little more space to work with, so we used that as efficiently as possible to accommodate the various services. It was also a challenge to minimise disruption from the delivery of materials and the removal of waste, given that we working in an operationally live environment – one of the world’s busiest malls. We therefore manufactured everything off-site – for example, we could not bring in beams more than six metres in length, so we would bring in beams of three metres in length and join them together there and hoist them into place seven metres in the air.

Reel Cinemas at The Dubai Mall - L-R: Social Media wall, Guy Fieri diner

What has been the response to the finished development?

The finished scheme is world-class, and has been extremely popular. It’s the world’s first cinema with all screens using laser RGB projectors and Dolby Atmos sound and it adopts the world’s first fully automated sales process. The previously complex layout and circulation routes, which led to crowding and wayfinding difficulties, were massively simplified, while self-service swipe screens at the four entrance points allow all ticket and food purchases to occur at the same time.

Among the added theatres are a Dolby Cinema, an MX4D cinema, a fully immersive ScreenX cinema, five dine-in cinemas and five Platinum Suites (with a new Platinum Suites lounge). There is also a 170-seat Guy Fieri American-style diner and a large lobby area.

Prior to this project, The Dubai Mall was second, in terms of UAE footfall, to The Mall of the Emirates (which also houses a world-class cinema complex). Since completing the Reel Cinemas project, The Dubai Mall is now top. The Platinum VIP cinemas are particularly popular – they create the most luxurious cinema experience anywhere in the region, with wide, reclining seats, table service and a private VIP lounge.

Jebel Ali Village

What other cinema projects have you been working on in the region?

We have been extremely busy in the last couple of years. At the same time as working on the project at The Dubai Mall, we have completed Dubai projects for Emaar Entertainment at Marina Mall (including the first Dolby cinema in the UAE), The Springs Souk (a six-screen neighbourhood cinema which includes a children’s cinema and party room), Rove Downtown Hotel (a trendy boutique cinema for both hotel guests and members of the public), Jebel Ali Village (the Middle East’s first standalone dine-in cinema, featuring Guy Fieri’s first restaurant outside North America) and The Pointe at The Palm Jumeirah, a boutique cinema and restaurant opposite the Atlantis Hotel).

We also have another two projects in Dubai at present – at the Al Ghurair shopping centre (a 17-screen multiplex) and Fountain Views Mall (a boutique cinema).

L-R: Dubai Marina Mall Dolby cinema, The Springs Souk, The Pointe at The Palm Jumeirah

How does the cultural, market and geographic context influence the projects?

Countries in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council – including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar) tend to have mall-based cultures – the climate is so hot for much of the year that people spend most of their time indoors in air-conditioned environments. Malls therefore serve as urban community hubs where people can meet, relax, shop and enjoy themselves. As a result, cinema auditoriums in this region tend to be large in size, and larger seating areas are installed around cinema complexes, to accommodate the larger numbers of people.

There is also a need for larger and more diverse F&B provision than you would usually get with a cinema in the UK, for example – people want to be able to eat before or afterwards without having to leave the building. So F&B is a crucial part of the offer at cinema developments in the region, and this can be seen in how our Dubai projects are designed to blend the cinema and restaurant/café formats seamlessly.

Middle East cinema operators are developing their own design styles and their own lifestyle formats – particularly in Dubai – blending local art and design (for example by including traditional Arabesque elements, but in lighter and more colourful way) with modern high-tech cinema design to create something unique to the region. Local artists have become involved, some of whom are now becoming internationally well-known for their work. That is what we are looking to do on our Saudi projects, where appropriate.

Anthony speaking at the Cinema Conference KSA, April 2019

You are now working in Saudi Arabia?

Yes – the ending of the ban on cinemas in the kingdom has led to high demand for world-class cinema designers, and our client came to us because we are industry leaders in the Middle East and they knew that we are capable of producing the highest standard of cinema design in the world. Some of our main competitors have been in a design rut for a few years, but we have been constantly innovating and striving for something amazing with every project. We also custom-design every project to suit the client’s needs in each particular case – there are no preconceptions.

Saudi Arabia is now rushing to catch up with, and surpass, Western countries in terms of the quality of its cinema offer. Our client wants us to introduce the very best cinema design in the world to the country, across a range of projects, and that is what we intend to do.

Rove Downtown Hotel Boutique Cinema

What is the future direction for Chapman Taylor’s Dubai studio?

Our Dubai studio is relatively young, compared to some of the others in the Chapman Taylor group, and we will be looking to expand our size and numbers so that we can cover as much of our ever-growing portfolio of work as possible here within the studio.

The high demand for our services, which has come about because of our track record of creating world-class projects, means that there are many exciting opportunities opening up for Chapman Taylor across the Middle East, and we intend to be able to meet those opportunities as the go-to designers for cinema projects in the region.

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