Building Strong: TK Architects celebrates its 40th anniversary

Image courtesy of TK Architects

1981, says Michael Cummings, was not the best time to be an architect. “I vividly remember a teacher telling me, ‘This is a great time to be in school. There is no architectural work to be done anywhere.

Nonetheless, 1981 was the year architect Ted Knapp took a risk and – with a combination of hard work, planning, and a little luck – co-founded (with his wife, Sue) TK Architects, still as strong in 2021 as the company turns 40.

According to Cummings, Knapp, a senior director of TK Architects, who retired from the firm in 2011 worked in several architectural firms in the Kansas City area before hitting a professional wall: “He’s 40 years old and he has nowhere to go in his career. There is no other job to aspire to. Going alone and founding TK Architects— “being in charge of [his] own destiny, ”Cummings said – may have ended in failure, given the state of the economy at the time. Fortunately, TK Architects had a weight factor in the positive column: they shared, and still do, a hometown with AMC Theaters.

The fact that AMC ended up being one of TK Architects ‘first key clients – and that the year of TK Architects’ founding saw the two companies collapse amid the boom in construction multiplexes – was the product of “really interesting foresight and thinking” on Knapp’s part, Cummings says. In a previous job, he had done design work for shopping malls, which familiarized him with AMC, which was headquartered three blocks from his office. Despite a non-compete clause, Knapp would contact movie veteran Larry Jacobson, then senior vice president at AMC Theaters, to ask him about “hot fishing tips”; that bit of entrepreneurial subterfuge led to architectural work with AMC, designed over the weekend after the chain held its Friday real estate meetings. “When I started a few years later, it was still part of the weekly routine: wait for the Friday afternoon real estate call and figure out if you’re going to have to work weekends or not to do something about it.” , says Cummings. While he admits that it was “a bit of luck” that the multiplex boom was underway during TK Architects’ early years, “it certainly wasn’t luck that AMC was a potential client. target. [The hard work] was not at all lucky. Or all the design skills needed to be able to do those layouts in a matter of hours over a weekend, to let them decide if a site made sense.

Sue and Ted Knapp. Photo courtesy of TK Architects

And it’s no luck that TK Architects followed for another four decades. In 1987, says Cummings, AMC Founder and CEO Stan Durwood claimed that every theater that was to be built in the United States had already been built, which ultimately had two major impacts on TK’s future. Architects. One: Seeking new US clients, they got involved in the wider exhibition community, attending industry events such as ShoWest (now CinemaCon), CineEurope, CineAsia and other conferences hosted by NAC and TEA, the precursor to ICTA.

Second, when AMC traveled to Europe in an attempt to establish an international presence there, TK also jumped across the ocean, establishing an office in London in 1995. Over the decades that followed , TK Architects has worked on entertainment projects in over 50 countries. They also work, in addition to cinemas, for entertainment, food and beverage and retail venues, including those in the emerging field of cinematic entertainment centers, described in detail in our August 2020 issue.

Listening to the stories of the vendors, be it seating or dealerships, technology or architecture, one gets a feel for the rich and ever-evolving history of the theatrical exhibition – and the case n ‘ is no different with TK Architects. In the company’s early years, their designs for AMC under Durwood’s leadership focused on an “efficiency rating” – basically, taking up pre-existing space (as most theaters were located in shopping malls across the street. this time) and trying to accommodate as many people as possible in each auditorium for maximum profit. Whether a movie theater business plan made sense was a simple matter of math: the cost of the lease, the size of the building, and the floor space required per seat. “I still remember today a call with Ted and Larry Jacobson – they had worked really hard on his plan to find something that fits. It was the first they did, and they were so proud. The plan was presented to Durwood, who immediately asked for the efficiency rating. When it turned out too low, he replied, “Well, that’s terrible. Don’t even show it to me unless you have a 12. ‘ Back then, that was Stan’s formula, his recipe for what he needed to sign a lease.

The era of effectiveness evaluation – or the era of sardine-like packaging, whichever you prefer – has started to pass with the arrival of stadium seating and has been completely knocked out by the enthusiastic adoption by AMC reclining seats towards the start of the 21st century. “We had a conversation with [exhibition veteran, now CEO of Classic Cinemas] Chris Johnson, “says Cummings,” and he says, “It’s counterintuitive. It just doesn’t make mathematical sense. But I see the results. I see the deal. I see the dollars come from a place before and after. It does not mean anything. But it works.

Reclining seats swept the North American market, and other changes to the cinematic status quo followed – with TK Architects in the thick of it, figuring out how design all these new trends that were settling in the industry. With dinner came the need for theaters to have kitchens. More recently, the increased adoption of contactless technologies – stimulated by Covid, but certain to remain post-pandemic according to Theresa English, director of TK Architects – has had its own impact on the design of theaters. Cinematic entertainment centers is one area where Cummings sees a place for continued design innovation, as do food and beverage and microcine theaters – or, in a more general sense, designs of “more spaces. versatile, ”says English, which make it easier for cinemas to experiment with a wider variety of content.

Photo courtesy of TK Architects

Although the design of North American cinema has tended to be warmer and more inviting in recent years – a sort of “home away from home feeling in your living room,” Cummings explains – in some overseas markets (including China), “they” we’re much more experimental and much more willing to try something and look for something that catches the eye. While Cummings would love the opportunity to provide more glitz and glamor, even something bordering on Vegas, he said, referring to some theaters he visited in India: “I don’t know which ones. the US market will react positively to this. And I am not talking about the customers. I’m talking about consumers.

“It depends on the demographics, and it depends on the market,” he continues. “I also think of the success that Alamo [Drafthouse Cinemas] or everyone [Cinemas] have had in their markets with the creation of a very unique aesthetic. … It’s really about being part of the communities in which they find themselves.

Meanwhile, TK Architects has improved its own tech game over the decades, moving from AutoCAD design software to Revit, allowing them and their clients to examine potential sightlines in 3D. “I could watch [a potential design] in curved rows with a curved screen and say [a client], ‘Yes you will be able to see the bottom of the screen’ or ‘No you will not see it’, ”says English. “We adopted this sooner than I would say our competition did. It was a unique advantage that we had, to be able to [say to] theaters, ‘Your technology has changed, and our technology has changed, and this is how we help you create a better customer experience.’ ”

“The boss’s experience” should be at the center of every cinema, which the designers at TK Architects will remind a client of if their own creative vision conflicts with a practical and effective design. Spend the money on things your customers will actually notice, says Cummings: sufficiently spacious bathroom stalls, not high-end plumbing systems. “They care if you walk into an auditorium and there’s a space to come together and figure out where you’re going to go” – versus a “not fully realized” space at the back of the auditorium ”that only half a dozen clients actually see it over the course of the film. It’s about putting the space and spending the money where the client likes it. All of this, Cummings says, while capturing “the culture and each client’s unique personality ”, whether it is a very specific brand aesthetic or, with medium-sized exhibitors, working with the client to understand their vision so that it can be expressed through design. .

TK Architects began at a time of economic precariousness, when exhibitors took risks and explored innovations that would drive the world of cinema into the next century stronger than ever. As TK celebrates its 40th anniversary, the exhibition world is once again facing deep challenges, which it takes up, as always, through creativity and entrepreneurship, all supported by a love of the movie theater.