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High Commendation Building

BFI London IMAX Cinema, London SE1 Waterloo's cardboard city has been replaced by a high-tech cinema that lifts the whole approach to London's South Bank arts complex.

The brilliant glass 'gasometer' that houses London's IMAX giant screen cinema has given new life to a sunken roundabout that had become almost a no-go area, acting as a dormitory for many of the capital's homeless. Putting the screen on this unpromising site was a huge challenge, not just because of the obvious difficulties but because of the many invisible ones.

The site is surrounded by roads and a maelstrom of traffic. Just to one side is a heavily used railway viaduct. Below ground lies a mass of pipes and tunnels carrying everything from service mains feeding across Waterloo Bridge to secure deep level telecoms cables and the Waterloo & City Line railway; the 'Drain'. Foundations for the building had to be inserted with the minimum of disturbance or re-routing of this mass of services and the steel frame supporting the superstructure of the auditorium had to be totally isolated from the train vibrations.

The solution was 30m deep piles either side of the Drain linked by a 1.8m deep coffered reinforced concrete slab cast on biodegradable material so a minimum of loads would be imposed on the fragile iron tunnels.

Excellent attenuation of train induced rumbles and airborne noise was vital to ensure silence in the auditorium between bursts of 11,600W of power from the sound system. This has been achieved by isolating the superstructure on 66 Gerb oil-damped springs and surrounding the auditorium with successive rings of noise defences.

Heavy glass panels form the front line and create a gallery round the perimeter of the cinema. The glass is attached to 40 oval steel tubes and castings hung from gallows brackets at eaves level of the shallow dome forming the roof of the auditorium. Next comes a lightweight drum wall up to 1m thick. It is largely a void, faced on each side by multiple layers of plasterboard. Inside, the wall is lined with a further 150mm thickness of acoustically absorbent material.

Geometry of the rectanguloid auditorium itself was dictated by the technical specification of the IMAX projection equipment and the 20.3m by 26.2m screen - the UK's biggest ever. Despite the difficult access to the site and novel aspects of the building's design, the cinema was completed to its tight 18-month schedule and £11.5M construction budget.


British Film Institute



Principal designer

Avery Associates Architects

Structural engineer

Anthony Hunt Associates


Mace: construction manager

Other firms

Bickerdike Allen Partnership (acoustic engineers)

TME (M&E services)

DHA Design Services (lighting design)

John Medhurst (landscape)

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