DISNEY THEME PARKS

Walt Disney’s theme parks personify many of the trends that appeared in the mediasaturated
culture of postwar America, concentrated as entertainment centers for the
leisure society. At Disneyland in California and its younger and larger sibling, Walt
Disney World in Florida, Disney’s genius for authoring modern, cinematic fables was
brought to life in an amalgamation of hightech paraphernalia and scenographic artistry.
Visitors to the parks are able to live for a time in something like a movie set or, better yet,
a compact sequence of numerous movie fantasies. The principle behind Disney’s success
was an uncanny ability to re-create the concept of place in Postmodern terms, as realms
of inhabitable simulations and imagery that resonated well with a public raised on
nostalgia and the vicarious thrills of the movies and who yearned for a more benign form
of urbanism than the one confronting them daily. Combining aspects of amusement parks
and world fairs, they purified America’s public life in a new form of recreational spaces
whose spectacular popularity made them an architectural metaphor for America’s
consumer culture.
Disney had set out his intentions in a plaque located at the entrance to Disneyland
when it opened in 1955 on a site in Anaheim, California, a suburb of Los Angeles: “Here
you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.” Disneyland’s
popularity was instantaneous. Designed largely by the in-house “Imagineers,” a talented
group of artists, artisans, and technicians who became the anonymous midwives of Walt
Disney’s vision, the park was shaped around explicit narrative concepts in which
buildings played the roles of symbolic characters in a landscape of picturesque settings
and sequenced storybook relationships. The plan for Disneyland was based on a simple,
almost classical diagram of axially joined thematic precincts: Main Street, a stage-set
reconstruction of a small 19th-century American town, began at the entrance and
terminated in a central hub in front of the towering fantasy figure of Sleeping Beauty’s
Castle. From there paths led off like the spokes of a wheel to Frontierland,
Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.
The structure of the plan was filled out with lavish figural architectural settings that
replicated images drawn largely from popular culture, many of them planted by Disney’s
own animated films. The Disney strategy was to invert the formfollows-function formula
of modern architecture: by wrapping the attractions and their elaborate supporting
technology in scenographic costumes, the park was constructed like a stage set. Most of
the elaborate machinery that made the park work and the vast network of underground
tunnels and utilities that served and serviced the surface imagery were made invisible to
create the illusion that the purified simulations were operating independently, effortlessly,
and without distractions.
Entries A–F 691
Disney’s vision of delight was filled with unabashed sentimentality and nostalgia;
Disneyland took the form of a small town of the kind that was rapidly disappearing from
the American scene. However, the town that was being portrayed was a denatured one, a
deliberate contrivance built of images that were idealized and mythical. The architecture
at Disneyland was designed to look right in ensembles of well-proportioned spaces,
formal relationships, and illusionary scale that were achieved, for example, by reducing
the buildings on Main Street to five-eighths scale to make them appear more toylike and
friendly. However, the park was also technically sophisticated and well planned and
engineered: As noted by many observers, Disney had produced something that had
eluded real cities, a truly integrated system of multilevel mass-movement systems that
included people movers, nonpolluting vehicles, monorails, pedestrian concourses, and
vast urban infrastructure.
Disneyland was hemmed in by uncontrolled peripheral growth that limited its size and
left it marooned in Los Angeles’s sprawl. When Disney began scouting sites for a second
park, his plans were far more expansive and ambitious. He had begun to think in Utopian
terms, imagining a vast urban plan that included not simply a single park but a series of
them as well as an industrial park and residential community. Where Disneyland is a day
trip, Walt Disney World becomes a weeklong expedition consisting of the Magic
Kingdom as well as EPCOT, Disney MGM Studios, Pleasure Island, several water parks,
two shopping centers, and dozens of hotels, all organized into an interconnected unit
more than 180 times larger than Disneyland.
Disney’s principle interests focused on EPCOT, an acronym for “Experimental
Prototype Community of Tomorrow.” He envisioned an idealized city based on modern
planning principles that, in one of its iterations, was contained under a vast glass bubble
to ensure a perfect climate. The plan reflected some of the ideas of the 19th-century
English planner Ebenezer Howard’s radial garden cities, rendered here in sleek, futuristic
architecture. Commerce was located in a dense cluster of modern towers at the center
surrounded by a series of expanding rings containing apartments, a green belt, and finally
low-density, suburban-style neighborhoods. Reflecting Disney’s interest in transportation
technology, the city was to be linked by a monorail and a network of people movers.
Disney imagined the city as a demonstration of the potentials for a modern city built
along scientific principles as an alternative to the degradation he saw in the environments
of America’s cities. He described EPCOT as “a planned, controlled community, a
showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational
opportunities. In EPCOT there will be no slum areas because we won’t let them
develop.”
However, the EPCOT that was built in 1982 after Walt Disney’s death resembled
nothing so much as a world’s fair. The World Showcase, a collection of nationality
pavilions designed to show typical architecture or familiar landmarks of the represented
countries, was arranged in a loop around a man-made lagoon. Future World, the other
part of the park, featured giant corporate-sponsored pavilions, including General Motors
(“motion”), Exxon (“energy”), and Kodak (“imagination”). The two parts of the park are
separate realms, each with different architectural treatments. Where the Future World
pavilions are huge, nondescript sheds with little exterior detail or figuration beyond their
lumpy shapes, the buildings in World Showcase are elaborately crafted inside and out,
many of them using traditional crafts of the represented countries. The central figure is a
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 692
huge, silver geodesic dome symbolizing “Spaceship Earth,” reminiscent of the United
States Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal.
Scholar Alfred Heller summed up the disappointment of many who had expected a
more ambitious agenda for EPCOT. Writing in World’s Fair Quarterly, he said, “It’s not an experimental
community or a prototype community or an experimental prototype of a community. It’s
not a community at all. It may be a prototype adult amusement park for the world of
tomorrow.” Disney’s dream of creating a real residential community would have to wait
until Celebration Florida was constructed in the early 1990s. By then, however, the vision
had changed to the terms of the new urbanism. Celebration looked more like Main Street
in the Magic Kingdom than the futurist city Disney originally imagined for EPCOT.
Michael Eisner, Walt Disney’s successor as head of the Disney enterprises, developed
an enthusiasm for architecture that led to the commissioning of buildings by some of the
most distinguished architects of the day. Eisner provided a fertile ground for Postmodern
architects to push the limits of convention in a succession of flamboyant buildings that
were clearly influenced by Disney’s philosophy of playfulness, irony, and wit. Michael
Graves’s designs for the Swan and Dolphin hotels (1989 and 1990, respectively) at Walt
Disney World in Florida, the first of these large commissions, were startlingly colorful
buildings, decorated inside and out with grotesque, overscaled details and sculptures, the
most outrageous of which were the pairs of enormous swans and dolphins perched on
their roofs. The hotels seemed to push the Postmodernist tendencies then on the rise into
the realm of self-parody by subverting the well-composed facades with Disney-style
kitsch.
Confidence in the success of the theme park formula led to the packaging of plans and
technology for Tokyo Disney, which opened in 1983. However, Disney officials had set
their eyes on Europe and a site in Marne-la-Vallee, a short distance outside Paris. Euro
Disney (now Disneyland Paris) presented the designers with a number of new problems,
among them the cultural question of how to make the essentially American imagery
compelling in a country that had its own traditions and its own real castles. They decided
to intensify the American theme rather than attempting to replicate local traditions.
Convinced of the importance of creating a destination resort rather than simply a
freestanding park, Disney officials embarked on an ambitious plan that included not only
the park itself, which was in many respects simply a more refined copy of Walt Disney
World in Florida, but a surrounding village of six hotels as well. Like the international
buildings in the World Showcase, each hotel at Euro Disney was designed to evoke
scenes of America, including Michael Graves’s Art Deco urban landscape; Robert Stern’s
Newport Bay Club, modeled after a New England yacht club and the Cheyenne, a backlot,
western movie set; Antoine Grumbach’s romantic Sequoia Lodge, resembling the
rustic wood and stone hotels in America’s national parks; and Anton Predock’s haunting,
minimalist Hotel Santa Fe, which on one side evoked the vernacular architecture of the
American Southwest and on the other a drive-in movie theater complete with a billboard
“screen” picturing Clint Eastwood. A sixth and the largest of the hotels, a High Victorian
confection designed by the Disney Imagineers, served as an entrance into the park. Frank
Gehry was given the assignment of designing a shopping and dining concourse called
Festival Disney linking the hotels with the theme park that he made into a strip-center
version of main street with a promenade of abstract, metal-skinned building forms
Entries A–F 693
punctuated by aluminum-clad pylons, all heavily garnished with neon and diner-style
kitsch.
All Disney’s built projects have been the subject of considerable critical attention.
From their inception, the theme parks in particular were easy targets for social critics,
who made them into sacrificial symbols of American consumer culture. To many
architects and critics, the term “Disney” became synonymous with fakery and
disingenuousness. However, the ambience of Disney was the art of the simulation—
“masterpieces of falsification,” as semiologist Umberto Eco wrote; and as long as they
remained corralled within the precincts of the theme parks, they were the circumscribed
experiences of entertainment.
However, architecture itself was shifting away from modernist ideals and into a
romance with the ingratiating image. The proliferation of the synthetic over the natural
had invaded the whole culture; as cultural geographer Edward Soja put it, a new wave
had “carried hyperreality out of the localized enclosures and tightly bound rationality of
the old theme parks and into the geographies and biographies of everyday life, into the
fabric and fabrication of exopolis.” With certain reservations, urbanists often marveled at
the consummate skill with which the parks were put together and managed. Architectural
historian Reyner Banham praised Disneyland as “an almost faultless organization for
delivering, against cash, almost any type at all of environmental experience that human
fancy, however inflamed could ever devise” (1971). Architect Charles Moore described
the park as “the most important single piece of construction in the West in the past
several decades” (1965).
Disney was an analogical thinker; his particular kind of inventiveness was to see the
new possibilities available by investing in things already at hand or in memory. It was a
combination of nostalgia and pragmatism: building the new out of reinterpretations and
recombinations of what had become before. This also became one of the principles of the
New Urbanism, a movement that rejected the urban experiments of modernism and
sought instead to create urban models patterned on the things that worked in the past. In a
somewhat curious involution, the art and science of Disneyland were being imitated in
real-life places—in the malls, in resorts, and in the redevelopment of towns and
townscapes. The theme park and the realities of living communities were beginning to
join seamlessly together. However, to do so, as Disney demonstrated, required a
purification of the sources and a simplification of the problem and a strong measure of
central control.
Add to Technorati FavoritesTop Blogs

No comments:

Popular Posts