For a century, Stratford has had a theatre - but no cinema. The new Picture House was worth waiting for, says Lilian Pizzichini
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The Independent Culture
In 1884, the rapidly expanding suburb of Stratford in east London witnessed the grand opening night of its new Theatre Royal. The play was Lord Lytton's Richelieu, and the Stratford Express was impressed. "With the large population around it, and the far greater population which can easily reach it by rail, the theatre has a very good chance of becoming a success." The building was one of Stratford's few public amenities to survive the Luftwaffe's bombing campaign, and until recently its burgundy- and-gold facade stood alone on a desolate square, surrounded by wasteland and overshadowed by a flyover. Then the City Challenge scheme decided that Stratford was in need of "urban regeneration" - so now the Jubilee line is snaking its way there, an international rail terminus to Paris is on the cards, and the venerable old theatre has been joined by a new, pounds 2.8m cinema.

Dank underground tunnels and a bewildering traffic gyratory system do nothing to prepare passers-by for the dazzling glass-and-steel construction that houses the Stratford Picture House's four auditoriums. The motorists who roar along the Great Eastern Road are given a bigger hint. The gloss- white cement boxes that encase the screens jut on to the road, indicating what's going on inside. On the ground, the cinema's elegant, colonnaded facade shines in the bleakness around Gerry Raffles Square, The readergraph announcing the programme flies high, like a huge neon flag. A 28-metre tower will accompany it, signposting the square (which will soon have a performing arts centre) as London's latest cultural quarter.

The dominant feature of the Picture House is its projection room. This three-storey-high cylindrical drum, suspended by metal rods from the glass ceiling and running the length of the building, was designed to resemble an aeroplane's fuselage. The architects, Burrell Foley Fischer - who did the Portsmouth Picture House - promise it will take the viewer on an intellectual voyage via film. Before their transportation, filmgoers can saunter along the corridor underneath it, gathering at galleries which break out from steel frames, to look out over dockyards and housing estates.

The aeronautical theme starts in the diagonally slanted box office, which funnels punters into a long, skylit gangway - look up and you can see clouds floating across the sky. Then you climb metalwork stairs and enter a bright, airy balcony that would look at home in California - as painted by David Hockney. In the bar, powder blue and lilac walls, primary-coloured furniture and luxuriant palm trees are a reminder that cinema is a social event. (The ice cream comes from an Italian gelateria; the pick'n'mix is straight out of Woolworth's.) But the real business of the building takes place in the four black-walled boxes that contain the screens. Deep, cushioned seats sweep down in tiers, enclosing the audience in a back- to-the-womb experience. Nothing gets in the way of the viewer's absorption in the flickering screen - the smallest of which is for repertory films, the largest, with its George Lucas-recommended THX acoustic, for blockbusters. The contrast between the pitch-black cocoons and the brightly-lit meeting- place outside means that a night out at the pictures becomes a seriously sensual event.

The overwhelming sensation is one of optimism triumphing over dreary town-planning. When the Theatre Royal was first built, the local vicar was afraid "the place could become the resort of the lowest characters of the neighbourhood"; but there need be no such worry about the Stratford Picture House. Populism for the technologically sophisticated, it has "a very good chance of becoming a success".

A few miles away, in the more obviously trendy Hoxton Square, there's another new picture house. The Lux Centre, largely designed by MacCreanor Lavington, comprises offices, an art gallery - and a cinema, also by Burrell Foley Fischer. Externally it's more discreet than its Stratford counterpart - it had to be artisanal in character - but in design it's just as radical. At night, the two-way projector casts images onto the screen as well as into the square outside. Slate floor-tiles spill onto the pavement, and video pits on the floor of the foyer show obscure one- minute films by local multimedia artists. Still in the foyer, a glass- panelled alcove flows down from the ceiling like a waterfall. Engraved on the panes is a photographic image of the ruched curtains that used to adorn traditional cinema screens. The seat in the middle is reserved for the proverbial kissing couple in the back row.

The Lux has a different audience in mind. Not just an arthouse cinema, it's also intended as a cut-price centre for experimental film-makers. The auditorium has a flat wooden floor with removable seats for multimedia performances; acoustic panels along the walls rotate 180 degrees, to reveal frosted glass windows in case natural light is required. Editing suites and hi-tech equipment are on hire, and the gargantuan windows of the gallery on the first floor expose the interior. True to the tradition of this working-class area, it's a state-of-the-art cinema that serves a functional purpose. And, like a well-crafted video game, it is truly interactive.

Stratford Picture House, E15 (0181 555 3366); Lux Cinema, N1 (0171 684 0201).