EuroDisney Takes Center Stage

It’s worth remembering that Mickey and his crew are children of the Depression and will seem out of place and under-dressed in Euro Disneyland’s hotel area, an environment decorated with the hyper-sophisticated ironies of Post-Modern design. What distinguishes some of these hotels is their gawking obeisance to the monied world of Newport, New York City of the 1920s, and the beaches of Rio, with the slums wished away. By taking the facades of wealth and attaching them to conventional Ramada-like hotels, Eisner’s architects have made gawking at the rich a new Disney attraction. Stay a night in a mock-exclusive hotel, the way American teenagers, for a high price, go to a mock-exclusive club like the Hard Rock Cafe. Disney invention is overwhelmed by the generic.

The American sense of inferiority before European culture also emerges in Euro Disneyland’s hotels. Why are we dressing up again in the way Daniel Burnham, a hundred years ago, clad Chicago as the White City to impress visiting Europeans? Euro Disneyland’s use of architecture is more a version of American boosterism than enlightened corporate patronage, in the way it existed in Renaissance Florence or in recent decades in Columbus, Indiana. Disney’s effect on real building may be negligible, but its influence on marketing will be great. Serious architects are being used chiefly for their celebrity and market value, to sell a product just as “uncompromising” Lillian Hellman modeled a mink coat. How else can we explain the choice of architects as diverse as Robert Stern, whose hotels are frankly historicist, and Frank Gehry, whose relatively modest Entertainment Center resists revivalism. Culture here is being commodified, sold, and traded, the way Disney’s intricate, hand-colored drawings for animated cartoons, once thrown out by the truckload, are now offered for thousands of dollars at international auction houses. The actual experience of Disney as a retreat or place apart is compromised and treated as a brand name.

Disney’s social climbing has been part of a prudent business strategy carried out over a number of years. Under Michael Eisner, whose leadership resuscitated a corporation without direction, Mickey has consistently gone upscale. The Mouse, who 30 years ago lent his ears to a high-spirited but goofy television show for kids, has them now appropriated for a doorway in a flashy new building at Disney World by Arata Isozaki. Mickey has proved to be big business, and not just for kids.

Walt Disney made a reputation and fortune by drawing flat cartoon images and setting them into motion. Slightly altering the details of each image, he flipped them under bright lights and recorded the results. He animated the static world of newspaper comics and managed to create a universe of characters who have provided great pleasure and won remarkable devotion. In the Mid-1950s, when he first built a town to transform his cartoon creations three-dimensionally, he carefully chose a neutral site that would have little competition from tawdry Hollywood or Los Angeles’s small and already derelict downtown.

Orange County presented no dissonance for Disney’s brilliant blend of the fantastic, like Tomorrowland, and the nostalgic, like Main Street. Architecture wasn’t needed for the skin-thin backlot illusions. All who entered willingly suspended disbelief if only to keep eyes fixed forward so as not to see the incongruous gas station signs and palm trees behind the Matterhorn. Disney peopled a series of improbable landscapes with the happy characters of his own imagination, a classless, racially homogenized America as inoffensive as a Jimmy Stewart movie. His formula owes its success, in large part, to the fact that it came as close as sprawling Los Angeles had ever come to the density and excitement of a real city: It did not have to compete with Paris down the road.

Unlike the international architects hired to build Euro Disneyland, Walt Disney did not use irony. He seemed to understand intuitively that it would undermine the fragile balance between illusion and realism, which kept his operation going. Midwestern in its compactness and fetish for order, Disneyland met the public’s appetite for escape, community, and an unthreatening sense of place. Disney provided a displaced urban setting for a suburban generation threatened by the disorder and violence of the post-war city. His buildings and streets had the reduced scale of movie sets, not to accommodate the camera, but to satisfy the visitor’s eye. The careful manipulations of scale made certain that visitors would not take on too much too fast or be overwhelmed. Everything was happily mechanized. Visitors did not map their own path through the park as they might on a walk in a real city or a visit to the zoo or museum. Experience itself was predigested and then parceled out in easily swallowed doses. No one was threatened or permitted to escape the system. Even litter was abolished. Drop a gum wrapper and a smiling uniformed worker snatched it from the dean street with the snapping jaws of his butler’s helper. The total environment with its passion for order made adults as pliable as children. Walt Disney also seemed to intuit the potentially suffocating nature of his enterprise. In compensation for the totalitarian control that he felt was necessary to make the place function, he planned for disorder. Disney replaced the chanciness of modern urban life with futuristic rides and funhouse boat trips. All surprises occurred in the dark. Experiences were safe, coming predictably, one at a time, like the steady crawl of celluloid between the sprockets of a projector.

Walt keeps rockin'!
Ever since the 19th Century, when educational planners divided the study of architecture into the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the polytechniques, sundering design from function, architects have been prone to mistake image for substance. Making historical facades at Euro Disneyland, in the form of images from the wild West or the monied East, divorces plan from program and breaks with the founder’s original intention to create a compelling alternate city. What Euro Disneyland calls its “scenographic” organization for the hotels is unfortunately just a self-aggrandizing metaphor. Its strong associations with the making of movies serves as slick cover for yet another ad hoc development of another anonymous exurban property. Skimming America for its regional identities to serve as elevations for grand hotels that remain pedestrian in section has nothing of the back-lot wonder of the less grand and less self-conscious amusement park. By nourishing the imagination without pandering to the avariciousness of people who see pleasure only in terms of the images of power and exclusivity, Walt Disney created his own kind of authenticity. Euro Disneyland’s hotels and their architects might do well to try to imitate that model. Ross Miller

American Exotica

Disney has attracted some of the deans of High Architecture Robert A.M. Stem, Michael Graves, Antoine Predock, and Frank 0. Gehry, for example to the world’s most ambitious amusement park, where they’ll provide Europe’s version of the Magic Kingdom with a resort of 4688 hotel rooms and assorted nightspots. The French architect Antoine Grumbach has also been hired by Disney to design the Sequoia Lodge, inspired by America’s national parks, but it is not illustrated here). These hotels show the challenges of building for the mass tourist market: Here, there’s little salvation for mediocre designs, but on the other hand, the setting helps strong schemes become more dynamic.

Stern, Graves, Gehry, along with Tigerman McCurry, and Venturi Scott Brown Associates, developed the resort site plan in accordance with Disney’s value system: Functional efficiency and the entertainment quotient are equally important. The hotels are to be at once whimsical and profitable; the resort will be both a playground and a commodity to be marketed to the entire Continent.

In some ways, Disney’s hotels validate the design-by-packaging method the company has always pursued: Disney asked the architects to give their hotels themes inspired by American places, namely Newport, Rhode Island, New York City, the Western Frontier, and the Southwest. Given their tight budgets and the rigid functional issues of hotel design, some of the architects relied on associative images to furnish a veneer of architectural quality. Others told Disney they had no interest in representative architecture and instead relied on landscape design or abstract forms for impact. In both cases, Disney’s bottom line calls for visual dramatics. During these video-saturated times, people associate entertainment with a surfeit of images and special effects. In a couple of projects, we find innovative spatial sequences or structures of impressive ingenuity. But otherwise, Euro Disneyland’s resort is not a resounding chapter in the annals of architectural patronage.

Robert A.M. Stem’s Newport Bay Club (1, 2) and Michael Graves’s Hotel New York (3), sited at opposite ends of Lake America, show the difficulties of reconciling associative images with large modern hotels. The Shingle Style, one of Stern’s most favored architectural resources, inspired a structure with a monumental colonnade in front and a rambling lakefront modulated by gambrel roofs. While Stem’s architectural allusions are gracious, the scale of his facades seem forced – an 1100-room hotel does not readily accommodate domestic motifs.

When Michael Graves designed the Hotel New York, he knew that it would be futile to recreate a fragment of Manhattan on his open site. Instead, he interpreted several of the city’s buildings in a hotel of three parts, each of which recalls a different aspect of Manhattan. The eight-story core emulates five midtown high rises; three adjacent wings represent Gramercy Park, and the low-rise wing opposite “Central Park” evokes the brownstones that pervade the city. Meanwhile, the pos system setup is truly exemplary – it enables superior business management for all parts of the retail environment. It succeeds in breaking the large structure into more manageable components, but with its minimal detailing and park-like setting, the hotel’s allusions to Manhattan seem rather vague. It may succeed as a lyrical collage of buildings, but its “New York” traits are literally nominal.

Stern describes his second hotel at Euro Disneyland, the Cheyenne (4, 5), as a place where “the building not the vessel for entertainment; instead the building is the entertainment.” It recreates the film set of a Western: Hotel rooms will be distributed among buildings that line pedestrian streets. Though it is probably not Stern’s intention, this hotel could be the most sardonic work of architecture at the resort – an implication that place-making amounts to nothing more than installing programmed space behind false fronts. On the other hand, stage-set architecture may be the ultimate Disney hotel – a place where people can conjure their own Wild West fantasies.

It seems at once appropriate and ironic for Disney to ask Antoine Predock to design the Santa Fe Hotel 6): While he is one of the leading architects of the Southwest, Predock is also one of our most site-specific designers. Paradoxically, he had to consider his hotel site a tabula rasa, and interpret a landscape that exists in another hemisphere. He responded thoughtfully, h five Discovery Trails, where plantings, sculpture, and artifacts (including an “abandoned” car) create a series of thematic courtyards. These lyrical vignettes of the Southwest are inspired by the films of Wim Wenders, as well as personal recall; they suggest that media images can enrich, rather than trivialize the identity of a place. The hotel, a collection of castin-place concrete buildings, Will be a neutral backdrop to the trails, with references to roadside motels of the open desert and plains. A drive-in movie screen, an icon from rural America, will be the Santa Fe’s frontispiece.