Buildings and Blocks

Disney Land

Historians have a way with words and ideas that make the arcane comprehensible and the obvious seem like laws of nature. In 1938, Swiss architecture historian Sigfried Giedion stated what today appears so clear: "However much a period may try to disguise itself, it's real nature will still show through in its architecture, whether this uses original forms of expression or attempts to copy bygone epochs." Taking cues from Giedion's theory, one need only get in a car and start driving, looking and listening for society to reveal itself. What we see is an eclectic landscape composed of elements drawn from various sources, overlaid with a few fresh ideas, but one that explains the social, economic, political and technological condition of our time.

Technology, though, has given us an edge in being able to mimic styles of other eras in a way that the Romans, for example, could not. Where that empire found economies in the use of concrete and stone cladding and new ways of spanning distance and enclosing space with the arch and vault, we are able to recreate the past with sticks, staples and stucco. When our re-creations are no longer needed - or are needed in another place - we can disassemble them, dump them in a landfill, or roll them down the highway to a new site.

The concept of style-as-commodity, long understood by the auto industry, was refined by Walt Disney, the cartoonist turned theme-park entrepreneur who discovered that consumers hungry for a bit of the past would pay to spend a day on a recreated Main Street of distorted scale and questionable authenticity. The Disney version of the world was based on the Hollywood studio model, sets built to last the few weeks of the shoot, convincing enough to survive the scrutiny of the camera lens and reconstitute themselves on a flat screen somewhere on a real Main Street. It is this model, developed for Disneyland in Anaheim, California and Disney World in Orlando, Florida (the brand also has parks in Paris and Tokyo), that stylistically legitimized the late-20th-century trend in the suburbs, a mongrel historicism superficially recalling American small towns of a hundred years ago. With the active approval and participation of historians, post-modernist architects and New Urbanist planners, a new eclectic wave swept over the residential, then commercial and retail markets.

That was until the Disney family decided to fund, with a $50 million gift, a new performing arts center in downtown Los Angeles. Following a 1988 international competition, a radical design by architect Frank Gehry was chosen. Construction began in 1992 but was suspended three years later amidst budget and design concerns. With funding back on track, and stainless steel substituted for stone, the $274 million project was completed in 2003 to rave reviews of architecture and music critics. As different from Disneyland in style and substance as can be, it's a reminder that county government, in partnership with the private sector, can do wonderful things.

The experience of visiting the Walt Disney Concert Hall begins, as do many architectural odysseys in Los Angeles, in a vast underground parking garage. A long escalator ride, a journey from the center of the earth, takes you into the lobby where geometry as we know it ceases to exist. The usual functions of ticket booths, gift shop, café, toilets and elevators are tucked under and between curved staircases, cantilevered balconies, and sculptural wooden "trees" that house air conditioning supply and return ducts. The volume of the lobby is enclosed by the curved steel surfaces that have become the signature of Gehry's recent work. The 2,265 seat auditorium is basically a box with a front-facing seating configuration that is far more conventional than, say, Hans Scharoun's subtly asymmetric Philharmonie in Berlin or Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer's surround Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver. Obviously, Gehry and his consultants opted for aural certainty over the more daring (and ultimately more satisfying) approach of Scharoun or HHPA. There are some surprises, though. Natural light enters the hall through skylights in its corners, and a spectacular organ built by Glatter-Götz in Germany is located just behind the orchestra platform. Its 6,134 pipes, an array of pick-up-sticks, become the room's visual focal point.

The fun really begins when you leave the building and start exploring the outdoor public spaces. There hasn't been anything quite like this since the Milan Cathedral, built over a period of a hundred years and completed in around 1485. Of a size and volume comparable to the Disney, the cathedral's primary function as a religious edifice is augmented by the accessibility of its roof and lace-like sculptural ornament. Similarly, it's possible to trace your way upward through the steel petals of the Disney facade (influenced, according to Gehry, by Baroque wall surface manipulation) to a series of public spaces concealed and protected from the noise and frenzy of downtown. An amphitheater, winding stairs, Japanese gardens, places to rest and snack - all several stories above street level - transform an already unique building into an elevated urban park, a gesture that provides a compelling rationale for the complexity and expense of the building's metal skin.

In his long and varied career as artist, developer and philanthropist, Walt Disney's greatest gift to society may be a small piece of work in the genre/medium he elevated to an art form, the animated film. In 1940, he created the full-length feature Fantasia, an innovative visual rendition of great works of classical music. Included was a 9-minute sequence based on The Sorcerer's Apprentice by French composer Paul Dukas. Disney cast the role of apprentice to none other than his animated superstar Mickey Mouse, whose performance transformed the story into a stunning morality tale that appealed to children and adults alike. Mickey, trying to lessen his work load as apprentice, appropriates the magical powers of his boss by wearing the Sorcerer's hat. It's a familiar story of greed and power corrupted, leading to a disaster that can only to be corrected by the personal assumption of shame and repentance. Disney found the message worth sharing with his audience at the very time war clouds were gathering on the horizon and the nation's moral backbone needed strengthening. Fantasia, Disneyland and the Concert Hall tell us something about the true nature of the period in which each was created. Assembling the disparate parts into a cohesive whole, making sense of it all, might best be left to the historians.

2008 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.
Photo: Walt Disney Concert Hall in construction, 2000