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Disneyland + Suburbia

While digging through press archives a couple months ago, I discovered something extraordinary: a file for the Walker’s 1997 presentation of The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing Disney’s Theme Parks. If only I had lived in Minnesota then, I thought. What I wouldn’t do to go back in time and walk through the Walker’s galleries, set […]

While digging through press archives a couple months ago, I discovered something extraordinary: a file for the Walker’s 1997 presentation of The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing Disney’s Theme Parks. If only I had lived in Minnesota then, I thought. What I wouldn’t do to go back in time and walk through the Walker’s galleries, set up to suggest the hub-and-spoke configuration of Disneyland. Of course, if I had lived in Minnesota at the age of 11, I would not be wishing to go back in time, because 1) I might have seen it and 2) I would not have spent many of my formative years taking car trips down to Disneyland. It’s circular logic, I know.

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I feel a kinship between myself and Karal Ann Marling, the curator of the exhibition. In the many interviews I read about this exhibition, she stands up for her area of expertise, “ pop culture,” with intelligence and wit, even with such pointed questions about Disney’s possibly “ untoward imaginative life rooted in childhood” and union labor disputes at the Disney studio in 1941. As for Disney conspiracy theorists? Insane. Television? “ If I’m away from the television for more than five minutes I get nervous.” “ Nothing human,” she declares, “ Offends me.” Her statements would have been a great reassurance to me as a pop culture-minded, aesthetically-driven first-year at a liberal, political college. “ Pop culture” is not historically a thing to be respected or studied by the “ educated.” While everybody opened up their student mailboxes to The New Yorker or The Nation, I opened up mine to Entertainment Weekly. Marling observes: “ There’s so much bashing of materialism at the university, the phrase consumer culture’ gets tossed around as though it’s the next best thing to original sin.”

So what happens when a member of that critical group decides to present these things for further observation?

On October 25, 1997, the opening day of The Architecture of Reassurance, the Northern Artists Front protested with picket signs reading Disney Kills Imagination’ and Corporate Art Still Sucks’ while little girls showed up wearing Tinker Bell outfits. The Star Tribune sarcastically described the show as “ one of those deliciously dirty-rotten-crummy jobs that somebody’s got to do” (October 24, 1997). The article in the Pulse that reported on this protest (the only one?) was titled “ Mickey at the Walker: Rodent infestation or high art?” The big D word obscured all other purpose behind the exhibition, at least in the eyes of the public. The exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes will clearly not be as well-attended or criticized, mostly because of its lack of a connection to any of the biggest corporations in the world. It will be, because of that, brushed under the umbrella art exhibition’ and that will be that.

Ten years separates The Architecture of Reassurance and Worlds Away, along with a slew of other ideological approaches as well as an active awareness of the other. What they share is surprisingly similar, and their first shared attribute is their subjects’ presence in everyday life and the everyman’s conscious, subjects art museums deal with usually only abstractly. Suburbia and Disneyland are inhabited and visited by millions of Americans, but are criticized almost across the board by the urbanite, the artist, and the academic.

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But what links them most strongly together is the problem of the suburbs. Each exhibition is about solving the problem of the suburban sprawl and creating new, thoughtful environments that will not necessarily “ get rid” of the suburb, but improve it. The answer? Control. Don’t take that word too negatively.

Walt Disney has often been described as a control freak, and there is no doubt that he did view Disneyland as his own miniature utopia blown up to be life-size. But what he wanted is the same as what many of the artists and architects in Worlds Away are trying to do fifty years later. He hated the car culture and hated that nobody walked in Los Angeles anymore. In Disneyland, he made everybody leave their cars at the gates and walk. The only way to get around was using mass transportation – the railroad and the monorail. He created a Main Street that mixed the commercial with residential (his famous apartment that he never inhabited was above the Main Street fire station) and he put porches outside businesses and patios outside restaurants, all designed to persuade people to sit down, relax, and visit. It all sounds remarkably like the proponents of New Urbanism: “ Architecture physically defines streets as places of shared use. Care for the public realm adds character, builds value, promotes security, and helps residents feel proud of their community. Plazas, squares, sidewalks, cafes, and porches provide rich settings for interaction and public life.”

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In Worlds Away, the answer is designers and architects who also propose creating new environments that will encapsulate the best of suburbia and get rid of the worst (i.e. big box store, separation of commercial and residential, roads as the only navigable thoroughfare). The exhibition points out that the majority of suburban neighborhoods are not designed by architects, but by contractors. The people who built Disneyland, likewise, were not architects, but artists, animators, and movie set designers, people whose language was aesthetics, not economics. Particularly fascinating is the architecture and design practice of Fashion Architecture Taste, whose work resembles what might have been the offspring of those “ imagineers” who designed Disneyland and todays socially and environmentally-conscious architects. Walt Disney was, in 1955, enamored with small town America in the early 20th century and suburbs were currently acting as the manifestation of the ubiquitous American Dream. The phenomenon was in its most fervent state. But imagine if Walt Disney were around today. Would he still be game for solving the “ problem” of suburbia? It is uncertain whether his ideal utopia would still resemble Main Street USA.

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Even in 1966, Disney’s ideas turned more futuristic. He designed the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, aka EPCOT:

Disney planned radial cities whose air-conditioned cores would house office buildings, stores, theaters, restaurants, hotels, and a convention center. Ringing these commercial centers would be high-density apartments; beyond them would lie greenbelts of residential suburbs, office parks, factories, parking lots, and a ring road for automobiles coming from other EPCOTs a few miles away. The 20,000 people who lived or worked in the EPCOTs would travel by monorail to and from the business core (Land Forum, Fall/Winter 1997).

EPCOT was never built (Disney died a few months after revealing these plans) as a working community, but instead as a theme park in Orlando. The idea of an encapsulated downtown’ is terrifying, but Disney’s EPCOT plans would fit right alongside LTL Architects’ New Suburbanism project or FAT’s Bere Regis project, albeit at a larger and more ambitious scale.

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One of the biggest criticisms of the Disney exhibition was its lack of connections to the “ real world,” although the exhibition’s press release advertised the idea that Disneyland’s design “ suggest[s] new approaches to the real-world’ architecture of the shopping center and the resort and subtly changing public expectations of the cityscape.” Yet in the section entitled “ Theme Park Architecture in the Real World,” the only Real World presented was that of the resort’s own hotels and a vague summary about how Disneyland’s design influenced entertainment complexes and malls. This section was clearly an afterthought, and it is disappointing that Marling, in all her wisdom, forgot about how important it was to finish off her argument for Disney as a pioneering visionary.

Worlds Away is concerned with the 21st century suburb whereas Architecture of Reassurance was set out to prove that Disneyland is more than a thrill-seeker and consumer’s paradise. The goals of each exhibition, however, while decidedly different, both speak to the public in the same way: Give this thing a chance.

(Images are from the Architecture of Reassurance exhibition catalog.)

  • Joe Hoover says:

    Even further back, the Walker did an exhibit of the “remarkable shopping developments… …including Southdale…” back in 1954.

    Here is a Walker Ad from March 3, 1954 in the Richfield Sun titled “Shopping Centers of Tomorrow.”

  • Kristi Skordahl says:

    BRAVO KRISTINA FONG! The idea that intelligent human life must distain popular culture to be worthy of the term intelligent, feeds the conservative myth that opening our eyes to the world only serves to weaken and demean us. There are miracles all around us, many of them appearing on television and at Disneyland. I am happy to find magic in places prouder human beings have dismissed.