Porphyry and What Walt Disney knew about cities.
Walt Disney knew the impact on the senses of cobblestoned streets and plazas. In recent years Disney-urbanism has colonized authentic cities. Urban entertainment districts such as South Street Seaport in New York, Quincy Market in Boston, and Harbor Place in Baltimore are good examples. South Street Seaport conveys the impression of a once-active seafaring culture, but without the messiness of a functioning seaport – the smell of fish, working-class dockhands, clamoring fish mongers. Instead we find national retail and restaurant chains like The Gap and McDonald’s.
It is the seemingly urban and authentic character of these districts (real cobblestones, 100-year old brick facades, and a carefully displayed historic ship) that make the usual retailers feel new. Visitors are usually tourists – everyday people living inNew York, for example, recognize that something about South Street Seaport is a fiction.
Since Walt Disney opened Disneyland in 1955, it and all that followed have transformed notions of childhood, spaces of leisure, and concepts of the public, urban space. Disney’s creations feel like a comfortable old slipper. Through several professionals we will explore the design innovations that produced spaces like the Magic Kingdom, the utopian aspirations behind EPCOT, and the urban planning concepts driving Main Street and New Orleans Square, which together produce an environment of innocence, exploration, and adventure for children and adults alike.
Jennifer Gray – (PhD,Columbia University) is a historian of modern art and architecture, specializing in the relationships between progressive social politics and the built environment. She teaches and lectures at The Museum of Modern Art.
“The term ‘architecture of reassurance’ belongs to Karal Ann Marling. The meaning relates to Disney’s particular brand of nostalgic, comforting architecture and urbanism. Take Main Street for instance: its miniaturized scale, historical details, and clearly nostalgic design reduce the undisciplined complexities of a city to the status of a toy – believable, fun, and entirely controlled and harmless.
At a purely architectural level, Disneyland promoted a sentimental architecture. Style mattered less than the fact that buildings were stripped of any dissident, provocative architectural elements. Avant-garde modernism was carefully avoided.”
Stephen Rowley – Urban Planer and Film Critic
“Every piece of architecture, street furniture, or decoration is carefully crafted for the particular land it’s in, and all work together towards creating a space that manages to be pleasant in defiance of the overwhelming crowds. All urban planners, architects and urban designers stand to learn something from Disney’s instinct for the little things that make a place pleasant.
It would be hyperbole to say Disney was the greatest urban designer of the twentieth century (though I can’t particularly think who we should nominate instead). But he was surely the most gifted and prolific untrained urban designer. And, being a filmmaker who worked with a staff largely made up of production designers rather than trained architects, he stands as the key example of someone who attempted to blur the boundaries that exist between the places we see in films and the places we inhabit in our daily lives.”
Sam Gennawey – spends his time as an urban planner and planning historian.
“Disney (the man) was fascinated by cities, and towards the end of his life he kept only one planning book at his side, ‘The Heart of our Cities’ by Victor Gruen. Two ways to objectively measure the success of urban spaces is to use what Gruen described as ‘Appearance’ and ‘Atmosphere’. Appearance is the ‘sum total of the physical and psychological influence of an environment on human beings.’ Atmosphere is the ‘small-grained variety and diversity’ that elevates a space from acceptable to exceptional.
To measure Appearance, note the ‘degree [you] feel enabled to live undisturbed, unmolested, and free of interference.’ As you move through a space, pay attention to how comfortable you are, how you feel, and are you being inspired.
Atmosphere is about function. As noted author Jane Jacobs said, the ‘main purpose is to enliven the streets with variety and detail.’ She adds, ‘The whole point is to make the streets more surprising, more compact, more variegated and busier than before – not less so. Atmosphere does not come about because of showy architectural statements. Architect Mies van der Rohe said, ‘God is in the details’ and for many, this is what is referred to as the ‘Disney difference’.”
Much has been written about Disney’s influence on Urban Planning. It is not so much that urban planners discovered Disney, but that Disney had become involved long ago in the principal of place. This interest in urban planning did not come from nowhere: Disney’s interest had been growing for some time. From the late 1940s onwards, as his interest in animation waned, Disney’s principal creative output had become his contribution to the physical environment.Disneylandwas, of course, the most obvious example, but this interest manifested itself in numerous sphere of his life. At a small scale, in his domestic sphere, he became immersed in the construction of elaborate model railways in his home. He had also turned his mind to the effect of the physical environment on creative endeavor when he planned his new studio inBurbankin the late 1930s and then, later, through his involvement in the planning of a campus for the newly-formed California Institute of the Arts in the early 1960s. He dabbled in property development with the proposed (but never built) Mineral Kings ski resort in Southern California, and with an urban renewal project in his plans to redevelop a two block area of riverfront in St. Louis. In the immediate aftermath of the Disneyland project, he spun off the work on its attractions and people movement systems into design work on several World’s Fairs, as well as monorail and “People Mover” designs of potentially wider application.
EPCOT became a logical end-point for all those endeavors. Throughout the last years of his life he and his design team were absorbed in urban planning theory, studying various existing concepts for idealized cities. Unfortunately, the building of EPCOT came after Walt Disney had died and his vision was not there to se it through.
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