The Plaza Theatre in Perth: Art deco as the foundation


In a distant past, the elegant Plaza Theatre in the centre of Perth was the fashionable heart of a fast-growing metropolis on the emerging continent of Australia. But the art-deco cinema has long since been abandoned. Could there still be a future for this orphaned heritage in the middle of the dense concrete, steel and glass jungle of high office blocks?

The Plaza Theatre is a historical gem. The art-deco cinema opened its doors in 1937 and was designed by Australian architect William G. Bennett, in cooperation with Hugh Vivian Taylor. The vertical lining gave the facade the feel of a majestic high rise. Upon arrival at the open ground floor with a futuristic cash register, film buffs made their way to the foyer via a magnificent staircase. There was one large room with a stunning art-deco interior, seating a whopping 1300 visitors. If no movie was playing, there was access to the fun shopping gallery located on the ground floor underneath this room, creating a close connection between the cinema and its habitat: the city of Perth, Australia.

Less than a century later and the municipality of Perth is having doubts about the future of the iconic building. Australia and the Netherlands have recently joined forces to find an answer to this question, hoping that it will be a learning experience for both countries. This is owing to the fact that Australia is one of the countries with which the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands cooperates in the search for strategic solutions to global issues. Based on comparable casuistry, knowledge is shared that would otherwise remain hidden. In this case with a workshop for municipal urban planners, heritage experts and students in Perth.

Interior of the cinema room of the Plaza Theatre
Image: ©Braaksma & Roos Architectenbureau / Sjoerd Marijnissen
The cinema room of the Plaza Theatre built in 1937 in Perth could be repurposed to breathe new life into the city centre of the modern Australian city

Black swans

Perth, the proud capital of the state of Western Australia, is located on the west coast of the sizable continent. The city originated in the place where the Swan River flows into the immeasurable Indian Ocean. The river was named by explorer Willem de Vlamingh of the Dutch East India Company, who encountered black swans there for the first time back in 1696. Until then, Europeans had assumed that all swans were white. Ultimately it was the British and not the Dutch who established a settlement in the area in 1829.

At the time, the British empire decided this would be a strategic location in the battle with the French over hegemony in the Indian Ocean. But although no settlement could be found for miles around, the area was not uninhabited. For 45,000 years, the Aborigines (literal meaning: original inhabitants) had led a nomadic existence here. With the expansion of Perth, their lifestyle was put under increasing pressure. This expansion happened in stages and was always connected to the mining of raw materials and minerals.

Feverish gold rush

Towards the end of the 19th century, a feverish gold rush sparked the migration of many fortune seekers to Perth, and the city grew. In the course of the 20th century, more and more sizable mine basins were developed, allowing the city to grow even larger. To this day, some of the largest mine basins in the world are managed from Perth. The city is now larger than the Dutch province of Gelderland and yet it has ‘only’ two million residents, meaning that Perth has a very low density. Every one or two storey house is located on its own plot of land.

However, the city centre dating back to the 19th century is an exception, having undergone large-scale densification in the last quarter of the 20th century, in the form of the erection of huge office blocks. Standing up to 250 metres tall, these buildings provide space for the city’s many mining companies and associated services. As a result homes have disappeared from the inner city and anyone visiting the area outside of office hours can attest to the fact that it is a draughty and desolate place. Not much remains of the eclectic British architecture from around the previous turn of the century. Exceptions are the odd extraordinary structures, protected thanks to the unrelenting efforts of enthusiastic heritage aficionados. These are, however, few and far between in a city transformed, in alien surroundings where both their right to exist and their future are uncertain.

Facade of the Plaza Theatre in Perth
Image: ©Wikimedia Commons / Samuel Wiki, CC0
Despite the fact that the facade has undergone considerable changes, the cinema is now considered a historic gem

Lost enclave

The above is also true for the Plaza Theatre and yet the cinema is still one of the icons of Hay Street Mall. A lost historical enclave in the middle of the commercial high-rise district. Back in the day, the area would be swarming with people due to the hotels, shops, restaurants and at least four cinemas, including the Plaza Theatre. Shop owners and workers lived on the floors above street level and Hay Street blended into the surrounding city. But the street was slowly abandoned by both residents and visitors with the emergence of the high-rises. Today, the upper floors are vacant and the street-level properties only hold businesses where people are in and out. Below ground and from the first floor up, the area resembles a post-apocalyptic cityscape, and the Plaza Theatre is no exception.

A series of transformations kept the cinema viable in a fast-changing world, but it was ultimately defeated by its modern competitors and their comfort, acoustics, climate-controlled rooms and improved lines of sight. On top of that, the screen was deemed too small and there was only one room in the theatre. A youth disco was considered and subsequently dismissed, and the theatre was abandoned in 1987. Both entrance staircases were removed, making way for two additional retail outlets. The theatre lost its direct connection to the street and was only accessible through an emergency exit at the back.

The Plaza Theatre in front of several modern-day office blocks
Image: ©Braaksma & Roos Architectenbureau / Sjoerd Marijnissen
Hidden among the modern-day office blocks are buildings from a bygone era


The Australian-Dutch partnership quickly revealed that the empty cinema’s future greatly depended on its environment. Here, the Dutch expertise in site-specific heritage strategies turned out to be very useful. The original question in regards to the future of the building was therefore reformulated: how can the Plaza Theatre contribute to the revitalisation of the old city centre of Perth? In order to restore the liveability of the area, it must first regain its appeal for living, working and recreation. Then, the historical characteristics will become a strategic quality.

The workshop participants noted that this quality could be used to provide the city’s youth with a location in the city they are currently lacking. This new function for Plaza Theatre could then support and promote the reluctant arrival of the new Edith Cowan University. Empty upper levels could be used as student housing, offices, a hotel or family residences. Buildings such as the Plaza Theatre have the potential to serve a young target group, with public functions such as an indoor skating rink, places to study, or both. The art-deco style combined with the spatial functioning form an important quality of the cinema.

Art-deco cinema chairs standing in the former cinema room
Image: ©Braaksma & Roos Architectenbureau / Sjoerd Marijnissen
The cinema’s art-deco style is important in making the area appealing again


The international partnership was witness to a revelation: the spatial quality of the former cinema can be retained and used by allowing the long-successful gallery below to expand into the theatre room. The slanting floor can be removed and the walls left untouched. The space will become home to learning spaces and areas for entertainment, such as workshop spaces, multimedia rooms, an arcade and seating areas. The theatre will once again be connected to the street by restoring staircases at the front. The foyer will also be repurposed. To create more daylight, the screen could be turned into a large window with a view of the university campus.

The Australian-Dutch partnership has been successful as a result of complementary expertise; because the circumstances in both countries are so different, so are their approaches. Which is exactly why the project presents such a great learning opportunity. The Dutch approach to urban planning, which begins with a solid understanding of the context, turned out to be a missing link in the revitalisation of Perth. Heritage can also serve as a catalyst in reactivating an area’s character. At the same time, our Dutch delegation learned a valuable lesson from the way in which Australian colleagues involve commercial businesses in the process. The commercial argument plays a dominant role here, but the interests of local residents are not forgotten. We can confidently say that the partnership has enriched both continents.

Jean Paul Corten, policy officer at the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, and Sjoerd Marijnissen, architect at Braaksma & Roos Architectenbureau, led the workshop and can be reached at &