Sunday, August 24, 2008


Walt Disney World - Magic Kingdom

In the past whenever I heard the term ‘Disneyfication’ I always assumed it was used to describe negative transformational processes—particularly when it comes to the city. It connotes such thoughts as triviality, immaturity, and the giving up of authenticity to the onslaught of pure market-driven city building. We all remember what happened to 42nd Street, right? There used to be a darn good strip club where that Lion King theatre now stands!!

But I was reading Reyner Banham’s wonderful book on Los Angeles recently, The Architecture of Four Ecologies, and his chapter on the architecture of the fantastic caused me to rethink my misgivings towards the process of Disneyfication. Banham makes the argument that Disneyland has created a ‘transportation fantasy’ in which almost every mode of transit known to man exists in a complex interwoven tapestry of mobility. Banham writes that

Ensconced in a sea of giant parking lots in a city devoted to the automobile, it provides transportation that does not exist outside – steam trains, monorails, people-movers, tram trains, travelators, ropeways, not to mention pure transport fantasies such as simulated space trips and submarine rides. Under-age children…enjoy the license of driving on their own freeway system and adults can step off the pavement and mingle with the buses and trams of Main Street in a manner that would lead to sudden death or prosecution outside.

'The Lake' from Reyner Banham's The Architecture of Four Ecologies

One photograph of Disneyland featured in the book shows a monorail, a rollercoaster, a funicular, and a submarine all within the space of one frame. Which leads me to wonder—what if Disney’s Imagineers – the group in charge of the planning, design, engineering, and implementation of all of the Disney corporation’s theme parks and the not-so-tiny cities of hotels, restaurants, and support areas which are developed on Disney properties – created a consulting agency to teach cities how to create better mass transit systems. For, as Banham pointed out back in 1971, “Walt Disney was the only man who could make rapid transit a success in Los Angeles.” How much more efficient and well-executed would our transit systems become? How much more fantastic would our daily commutes be?

What if…

…We took it one step further and suggest that the Imagineers create their own urban design firm and begin designing the future cities of the world. They could develop a theoretical framework for their design—it could be called ‘ImaginURBanism’—and it would be the latest fad of city design for UAE sheiks and prominent Asian businessmen to commission and endorse. ImaginURBanism would blend high-end technical wizardry with thematic kitsch in a way no other urbanist could keep up with. “But wait,” you find yourself asking, “isn’t that what they are already doing over there?” Umm…yeah…good point!

The first question an ImaginURBanist asks a new client is “What’s your pleasure—Wild Wild West, or FutureLand?” The adventurous type might go for a swashbuckling dose of Pirates of the Caribbean. The megastructuralist would wholeheartedly endorse the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse—never has Kenzo Tange’s metabolism metaphor been taken quite so literally!

Or maybe the imaginURBanists would get back to their roots. The term ‘imagineering’ was given birth in the research labs of WWII as a combination of the words imagination and engineering. Imagineering was originally defined as "the fine art of deciding where we go from here.” (Wiki) Urbanism is often described as the art of scenario making—in a way urban design can be thought of as designing a stage for the future play of life to be enacted upon. Koolhaas has described his efforts at urbanism as being a ‘scenario-ist’ and a ‘script writer’ (see this interview with Charlie Rose). When thought about in that way, Imagineering and urban design are not so different. The Imagineers could potentially represent the most capable group of multi-disciplinarians ever formulated, and therefore the ImaginURBanists would be in a unique and fertile position to imagine the future potential of cities.

Would it be so different…

Archigram's Instant City

...From some of the zany utopian projects so popular among the architecture avant-garde of the 1960’s? Two of Archigram’s projects, Ideal Circus and Instant City, for example, are essentially travelling amusement parks that would travel among small towns to create an ‘event’ that would resemble the spontaneity and choice that is a result of the polyprogrammatic city. Peter Cook writes that “the town would be a City for a week—a city in terms of Event, sophistry, and offering.” When I was growing up in a small suburb in Georgia, I fondly remember the recurring event of the McNair Fair. Once every year or so the fair would come to town greatly increasing the town’s potential. Mobility is another theme that connects Archigram to the Imagineers. Both Ideal Circus and Instant City are mobilized urbanisms intended to create a network out of previously unlinked townships. Instant City, the more ambitious of the two projects, was a complex assemblage of trucks, inflatable tents, and dirigibles—in fact the circuit itself is intended to be part of the event. Perhaps the Imagineers could bring some of these future visions from the past to fruition.

'Canal City', by Jon Jerde, Fukuoka Japan, from You Are Here

Or would a city designed by the Imagineers be so different from an entire city designed by someone like Jon Jerde, or even Frank Gehry? Most laymen would probably not be able to tell the difference between the resultant designs. All would be shiny, wonky, and look like some incredible village from the future. Maybe it’s telling that they are all from Los Angeles—there must be something in the water they drink, the air they breathe, and the dirt they play around in that makes them all turn out that way.

Collage of Frank Gehry Projects

Lest we forget…

“Disneyfication…not only provides a fictional and often nostalgiac identity, but…also is purposely designed to brek the contingency of public space that is characteristic of urban culture, replacing it with a domesticated family friendly scenography of—often commercially controlled—pseudo-public spaces.”

So says Martijn de Waal about the downside of the Disneyfication process. It can be read as a cautionary tale about one of the potential downfalls of the ImaginURBanist dogma. Every future imaginURBanist must therefore remain focused on the original conception of Imagineering and not allow it to become a mere tool of developers in their not-yet-proclaimed war on the public spaces of our urban areas. As a method of keeping themselves in check an additional tenet to the ImaginURBanists doctrine could be this quote from Koolhaas: “Cities accumulate everyone’s desires; therefore they form the richest accumulation of potential for every individual to be himself or herself.” When combined with the Imagineer’s orginal mandate--the fine art of deciding where we go from here—ImaginURBanism might become of the most fecund '–isms' of urban design’s recent history.

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