It's practically axiomatic that every cultural critic worth their salt should take a few swipes at the Disney empire from time to time - with such a huge and vulnerable target, who can resist? Articles, essays and books bashing the behemoth are legion, and to this list we can now add a travelling museum exhibition, 'The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks', organised by Karal Ann Marling, Disney expert and Professor of Art History and American Studies at the University of Minnesota. It too gets in its critical licks, yet the exhibition and its accompanying book generally present a balanced and broad assessment of the development of Disney's monuments to amusement and consumption, revealing a history so rich, so full of breakthroughs, backslides and delicious contradictions that it leaves us yearning for more.
The picture that emerges is of an immensely influential phenomenon that bridges architecture, urban planning, film, public relations, retailing, mass media and, of course, entertainment, and that's before the Michael Eisner era of total world domination. What is surprising to learn is how far ahead of the curve Walt Disney was, how innovative and brilliant so many of his schemes were (even if they have now ossified into monstrous patterns of corporate behaviour). As chronicled by Marling in her lengthy catalogue text, Disneyland evolved from several of Walt's own passionate peeves and pastimes, including a distaste for the increasingly smarmy atmosphere of travelling carnivals, and a love for Americana, miniatures and trains. Despairing at the dearth of wholesome entertainment opportunities for his family, he built a 1/8-scale railroad track in the backyard of his swanky Holmby Hills home. This 'Carolwood Pacific Line', named after the street on which he lived, was a prelude to the train-oriented kiddie park he imagined building alongside Disney's Burbank studios in 1951-52. When that failed to garner civic support from local politicians who also had an aversion to the typical 'carny atmosphere', Disney took his toys (and his money, leveraged against his life insurance policy) to Anaheim where Disneyland would eventually take shape, opening in 1955.
Disney's ideas presciently anteceded the most influential architectural and urbanist theories of the late-50s and 60s. Disneyland's Main Street USA, for example, was indeed inspired by Walt's childhood memories of Marceline, Missouri, but it was also a savvy amalgam of styles that transcended any regional particularities and came across as a generic Victorian ideal - a step back into a kinder, gentler era. The catalogue writers interpret Main Street as a counterpoint to the increasing blandness of the suburban cityscape, and, at this time, the tide was slowly beginning to turn against the cool, ahistorical rationalism of modern architecture. Charles Eames, for instance, designed a Victorian-themed train park in Los Angeles' Griffith Park in 1957; George Nelson and Gordon Chadwick spoofed McKim, Mead and White's famous 1887 Low House with their 1956 Spaeth House in Long Island, as did Robert Venturi with another historicist beach house project in 1959.
Venturi's writings and architecture from this period can be selectively read as an endorsement of Disney's fantastical cityscapes, and some of the most quoted ideas from his seminal book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (written in 1962, but published in 1966) describe Disneyland to a tee. You want the complexity and contradiction of Venturian 'both-and' architecture instead of the modernist purity of an 'either-or' approach? Take the hallucinatory jump from Main Street USA to the Bavarian Alps and Sleeping Beauty's Neuschwansteinesque castle. You want perceptual ambiguity and affective plays of scale? Try to reconcile the apparently soaring heights of the Matterhorn (which isn't really that tall) with the seemingly correct scale of Main Street. Indeed, set designers schooled in illusion, not architects, were responsible for nearly all of Disneyland's architectural attractions. That peculiar feeling of reassurance and calm one feels on Disney's Main Street, unlike the disorienting sprawl of suburbia or the inhuman scale of skyscraping city centres, was ingeniously designed with buildings 5/8 normal size, in essence turning the street into a toy. As Disney said of the effect, 'the imagination can play more freely with a toy'. In reality, the street-level proportions were close to those of normal buildings, but the forced perspective employed in the design of the upper stories tricked the eye just the same.
Walt's turn toward the social, user-friendly streetscape of yore and away from the reality of contemporary master-planned cityspaces echoes in Venturi's proclamation that 'Main Street is almost all right', and also finds correlation in the urbanist criticism of Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities decries Modernist slab housing and praises the social bonding, grounding and control afforded by neighbourhood-friendly urban spaces. Jacobs, of course, was concerned with people's daily quality of life, and Disney wanted to affect their leisure time, but similarities remain. In an era of anxiety and uncertainty, Main Street USA offered a welcome escape.
This 'architecture of reassurance' also primed people for emptying their wallets. Ronald Reagan and Art Linkletter hosted live TV coverage of the opening in 1955; it was one of the most successful media and marketing coups of all time, and catapulted Disney to the top of the heap when it came to product tie-ins. Disney animation and films still spawn TV shows and theme park rides that bolster the popularity of the films and fuel the desire for toys and memorabilia. We now get movie promotion with our burgers and fries after watching the cartoon version of the film on Saturday morning television with kids who sport Disney togs and possess vast video libraries of animated features.
What is fascinating to see is how increasingly inbred and cannibalistic the architecture of Disney theme parks has become in this culture of endless product proliferation. In the early days, it was Walt aping New Orleans, the Wild West or the Congo through an idealised realism, but now the prevailing fashion is to emulate the pre-digested, cartoon version of architecture, seen in the swollen, kooky proportions of Mickey's house or the Technicolor pastiche-o-rama of the latest Disney shops. In this hyper-mediated atmosphere, even the superstar architects who Eisner has brought in to develop Paris Disneyland or Walt Disney World have been co-opted by Disneyfication, their buildings reduced to catchy, commodified versions of their established styles. One of these architects, Frank Gehry, admits in a catalogue interview that this had unwittingly happened to him in his contribution to Paris Disneyland, and certainly Arata Isozaki, Robert A.M. Stern, and Michael Graves have come across as architectural subsidiaries of the company in their Disney buildings over the years. Robert Venturi too, has recently donned the Disney hard hat, but his peculiarly incisive and subversive sense of irony has not always been favourably received by the executors of the company legacy - at least one architect was not content simply to be reassuring.