“Entertainment design”, The Australian, May 1995.

Entertaining Design

For close to forty years now, the world’s been entertained by a smiley- faced imaginary empire situated smack bang in the middle of Southern Californian suburbia.


You just have to say the word to know that it’s still one of the most ubiquitous icons of twentieth-century American culture. Spectacular, involving, amusing, a distracting simulation or just plain hideous, it has become a permanent fixture in the ephemeral pop landscape. Since it opened its doors in July 1955, visitors have discovered that Mickey Mouse is every bit as real as Annette Funicello.

But at the end of a trip to the ersatz kingdom, everybody left knowing the difference between Fantasyland and the real world they drove or flew back to.

Not any more. Disneyland is no longer bound by its Californian borders. The Disney invention of “entertainment architecture” is Walt’s gift to the entire world.

More than that, the gulf that once separated the quintessential amusement park from the rest of contemporary architecture and design has disappeared. The look and themes of amusement parks have become part and parcel of our postmodern vernacular. Even the architects and designers who once stood on the other side of the high- low cultural chasm are not so sure whether that divide even exists any more.

The list of prominent architectural names now associated with entertainment architecture is astonishing. And even though respectable architects have always worked for “unenlightened” clients, to some critics the “Disneyfication” of design is simply too much. Personally, I’m not so sure.

It all started a few years back with the eminent American architect, Robert Stern (who visited Australia last year). Professor at New York’s Columbia University and author of authoritative books on such academic subjects as the evolution of New York, Stern has completed two hotels for Disney’s flailing European venture. He also serves on Disney’s board.

He built his Hotel Cheyanne like a live-in stage set from “High Noon”, while his Newport Bay Club is a pastiche of the traditional Shingle style typical of northeastern American architecture. Visitors to the theme park can take their pick.

According to Stern, “You could not find a western town that looks like the Hotel Cheyenne. It bears a closer relationship to movie sets. It’s very literal, but it doesn’t resemble the real world so much as American western movies.”

Though not well known for his film criticism, Stern is a vocal critic of modernist and conservative ideologies, preferring to advocate stylistic freedom in architecture: “There are no rules, only choices and inventions.”

I must confess his buildings are pretty good evidence of such views A couple of months ago, he finished his latest building for Mickey, Minnie and the rest of the gang, this time housing the company’s animation facilities in Burbank, California. Commissioned by Disney executive Michael Eisner, it’s a stunning example of how form illustrates function in this the era of infotainment.

Eisner is seen by many as the driving force behind this newly found architectural enlightenment (if that’s what we should call it). Though he clearly wants to bolster Disney’s reputation as a cultural benefactor, he’s put a distinctively Hollywood spin on it all. As he’s fond of saying, “the difference between a movie and architecture is that you go to a movie for 90 minutes and its over, but the architecture is there forever.” He has a point.

No wonder he’s recruited some of the most preeminent architects in the world to be his new “imagineers”. Like the infamous Los Angeles deconstructionist, Frank O. Gehry. His shopping mall style Festival Disney for the French theme park juxtaposes space and materials in order to create a kind of disintegrating theatre backdrop. All aluminium flash and bright candy-stripes, Gehry’s usually difficult architecture here seems the epitome of popular accessibility. The same might not be said of his more recent American Centre in Paris.

It’s a weird feeling though, seeing his signature use of chain link fencing, corrugated aluminium, exposed pipes and oxidised stainless steel panels used here as the main visual thread for the entrance to Euro Disney’s hotel complex. Right in the middle of a theme park for godsake.

No wonder he thinks his boss is great: “Eisner is a joy to work with. He’s brilliant. He’s a businessman, but he gets in there. He values architecture.”

But first and foremost he’s a businessman, let’s not forget. Since he started with Disney in 1984 (he was previously Paramount studio’s chief executive) Eisner has recorded one record profit statement after another, to say nothing of the megabucks he earns for himself. But Disney is more than a company with a high-flying chief. It’s a vast capitalist enterprise with a history of coming to understand and adapt to the changing conditions of twentieth-century commerce and culture. And the Walt Disney Company of Eisner’s day is definitely changing with the times.

So are the designers. But let’s not forget that it was the architects who found pop before pop found them. For the most part.

Michael Graves is a case in point, having done work for Disney in Paris and in Florida. It’s no surprise that his playful public service building in Portland came to stand for everything good and bad about postmodernism. It was on the cover of Charles Jencks’ influential book “Postmodern Architecture”, and Time magazine actually labelled that particular building “dangerous Pop surrealism”. That was years before going to work for Disney.

Of course Graves continues to design “dangerous” buildings, often by substituting stage-set design for architecture. Why not put the fantasies of Disneyland in the same league as the most serious-minded architecture of our times?

For one thing, “it upsets a lot of people,” says Graves. His Dolphin and Swan Hotels for Walt Disney World in Florida, and the company’s corporate HQ in California have drawn plenty of flak from critics. But one gets the sense he likes crossing the imaginary critical divide: “My seven dwarves supporting the pediment of Disney corporate headquarters in California make some architects and critics go nuts. They consider that to be stepping over the line.”

But crossing over is not the same as selling out. Graves is adamant: “Bernini would have been delighted to work for Disney, because he and Michelangelo did the costumes for the Swiss guards at the Vatican.”

Whether they’d be working for Eisner or not, the entertainment designers are here to stay. According to the Disney in-house architects who started it all, their hotels are meant to be a direct extension of the Disney theme park experience, and not merely architecture for architecture’s sake. Everything should fit together, despite the jumble and head-on collision of architectural styles.

Who better to stylise such collision than the postmodern designers who have been quoting from popular culture for donkey’s years. What was once an occasional joke or a frivolous reference has grown into a full- scale assault on popular culture. Entertainment architecture is fast becoming a dominant theme in many built environments of the West.

But can design merely intended to entertain ever be great architecture? Michael Eisner certainly thinks so. But for those who remain deeply suspicious of everything associated with Disney’s lightweight “imperialist” image, the collaborating architects are seen as having swapped utopia for fantasyland. And Eisner has done little to dismiss such suspicions, being quoted as saying “I feel similar walking through Siena as I do through Disneyland.”

Regardless, this new trend is fast finding its place in the world. These days we encounter “serious” architecture where shopping meets the movies. That’s entertainment. It’s also Warner Brothers, Sony, Universal and Virgin Records. Like it or not, entertainment design is here to stay.

Warners have opened 80 new Studio stores in the US, with another 30 or so scheduled to start this year. The Manhattan store on 57th Street is styled according to precisely the same formula as the one in the Gehry designed Santa Monica Mall. The Michigan firm of Jon Greenburg and Associates have given all the shops the same behind-the-scenes feel, though each one has what they like to call a “unique flavour”. Very tasteful, very slick, and very corporate. Unlike the global branding of a MacDonalds, these stores are bright, noisy and “stylish”. No Ronald Macdonald here. It’s all Bugs, Daffy and Roadrunner.

Greenburg’s President, Ken Nich, says he wanted “people to have a sense of being behind the scenes of the quick-flash, quick-image vitality inherent in entertainment, but we also wanted a very high-quality, not mass-market, atmosphere.”

The aim is to set up a complete shopping and entertainment experience united in the design of the environment. Just like the Disney mob, Warners make a virtue of the visual cacophony characteristic of the times. These are multi-media commercial environments that have shoppers lining up in droves. No wonder everybody is jumping on the bandwagon.

Universal’s City Walk mall just outside its studios in Los Angeles is another pop essay in visual eclecticism. From the giant twelve-plex cinema at the head of the mall, through to the Sharp Panasonic store at the end, this commercial shopping district wears its identity on its sleeve. Each store along the 800 metre long “walk” has its own identity, which competes with the surroundings for attention. Just like Disneyland. Taking Pop Art to its illogical extremes, every building literalises its theme and turns it into a facade. No prizes for guessing what’s inside the giant cassette player building.

Sony have gone into entertainment retailing as well. Their first movie-set inspired mall is located in the lobby and basement of another icon of postmodern architecture” Philip Johnson’s AT&T building in New York.

Often referred to as a seriously amusing office tower, bridging neo-gothic with 18th century revivalism, the AT&T building is now in somewhat of an identity crisis. Like other iconic buildings known for the corporations that built them (these days the Pan Am building disconcertingly flashes Met Life at the top), the Sony building has become a new site of entertainment design. Part electronic demonstration centre, part corporate HQ, part public exhibition space, the Sony building is an extravagant attempt to make architectural space entertaining and profitable.

The New York company of Edwin Schlossberg responsible for the Sony Wonder Technology Lab in the foyer created something that looks like a cross between Pee Wee Herman and a cartoon TV station. Think about it.

And if you reckon these trends stop short of meddling with places of “real” cultural significance, think again.

The most recent building project at the Louvre (still in Paris) is the crowning achievement of this union between art, design and commerce. The Metro now drops visitors at the underground entrance to one of the world’s finest museums. On the way from the subway to the exhibition, one could be forgiven for not knowing where the stores end and the museum begins.

The beautifully sculpted space is finished and lit in exactly the same manner as the rest of the Louvre. But here, on the way to the museum, one passes a gigantic Virgin Megastore, a New York Metropolitan Museum Store (they’ve opened several shopfronts outside their uptown Manhattan home this year too) and a variety of other official stores, all selling bona fide Louvre souvenirs of course.

No accident, the maze of galleries, access ramps and escalators in this subterranean shopping mall were all part of Louvre architect I.M. Pei’s masterplan. His controversial glass pyramid now not only illuminates masterful artworks” it creates the space for the new cultural shoppers as well. The temptation to engage with the art you can buy competes with the temptation to view the work waiting just down the arcade.

Keep an eye out next time you take trip to the museum or the mall. Whatever way you slice it, the influence of Disney on our lives looks set to continue for at least another forty years.