An essay describing the relationship between theme parks and modern American urbanism. This essay discusses how Reyner Banham’s autopia acts as a device for facilitating the melding of Jean Baudrillard’s hyper-reality, as embodied by themed environments such as Disneyland’s Main Street, into the true reality of urban Los Angeles.
With the opening of Disneyland in 1955, an environmental paradigm emerged which was to haunt the ecological, cultural and psychological landscapes of Southern California. By organizing his amusement park around thematic zones based on fictional environments, Walt Disney replaced the squalid ambience of the carnival with conceptual models of American mythology at two-thirds scale. Main Street equals Small Town America, Frontierland, the myth of the Western Frontier, Tomorrowland, the corporate and technological promise of the future. These myths were packaged for immediate consumption and soon made Disneyland the most visited attraction in Southern California.
In spite of its incredible success, Disneyland itself was only good for one afternoon, not for life; physically it was too limited, and its technology too complete to be directly adopted as a model for environmental planning. At the same time, its reduction of a complex and debatable reality to a single, agreed-upon theme—a theme which could be both cliché and archetype—suggested that environmental reality could be replaced by a focused thematic irreality at a larger scale.
This offered a way out of the ecological impasse facing Los Angeles in the late Fifties. Although the city had long generated fantasy commercial architecture, such as Tail o’ the Pup, a hot dog stand shaped like a hot dog, or the Brown Derby, a restaurant built as a hat, these buildings existed as isolated elements, based on limited images, in a larger environment dominated by powerful geographic features. In the early Sixties, Reyner Banham classified these into four ecologies; three natural systems—the beach, the foothills and the basin—connected by Autopia, an artificial network of roads and freeways.1 Fantasy architecture, confined to a setting of palm trees, orange groves and snow-capped mountains, had no room to expand.
By introducing the concept of the theme environment, Disneyland allowed a new system of land use to emerge, liberated from the actual physical setting of the city, and based on a landscape of the imagination. Like Disney’s “lands”, theme environments consist of controllable settings designed to convey a unified image. Based on a limited set of themes, presented with a consistency and coherence not found in everyday life, they offer a reduced experience of a more complex reality, whether historical, geographic or cultural. The underlying theme of Disneyland, of course, is consumption. Although Disneyland functions efficiently as a disguised shopping center providing thematic arenas for consumption, Disney’s most profound innovation was to transform public space and the built environment into a commodity.
The success of packaged environments at scales ranging from the reconstitution of several city blocks into South Street Seaport’s shopping and food zone to small single buildings testifies to the accuracy of Disney’s insight. Theme environments offer entertainment and escape as increasingly necessary elements of leisure time. The ultimate expansion of Disneyland beyond the boundaries of the theme park into daily life is indicated by Disney Enterprises’ most recent project—a hotel, entertainment and shopping complex to be built in Burbank which will feature a steakhouse in a boat that appears to be teetering on the edge of a waterfall, a seafood restaurant where diners will have the illusion of eating underwater, and a nightclub hosted by holographic images of celebrities of the past.2 Although it might be amusing to regard this as simply as an extreme example of kitsch, these environments represent a broader tendency toward fantasy images with important cultural implications. Theme environments can be seen as particularly visible examples of a hyper-realism increasingly present in contemporary life. As defined by the post-structuralist philosopher Jean Baudrillard, hyper-reality is a condition in which “simulation” effaces and replaces reality.3 Hyper-real representation produces an imitation that becomes more real than reality itself. One effect of the hyper-real is to impoverish reality. An actual small town can never be as perfect as Main Street in Disneyland just as Fifth avenue can never be as clean or well-organized as a shopping mall.
Theme environments are not unique to Southern California. Train restaurants made of box cars and newly-built New England fishing villages which are actually shopping malls have become a cliché of the American environment. However, only in their point of origin, Southern California, with its constant stream of immigrants, absence of conventionally perceivable history and lack of urban self-definition, have they become the dominant realm of spatial and social experience. As in Hollywood films, also clearly a significant cultural influence in the local acceptance of theme environments, fiction vanquishes the real.
The means for achieving this was the subsumption of the region’s three natural ecologies by the fourth, Autopia. The triumph of the automobile and its roadway network allowed another, latent ecology to emerge—the ecology of fantasy. Fifteen years later, Banham’s original taxonomy, still tied to natural processes, is no longer valid. The automobile severed the links between Los Angeles’ culture and its natural setting. The increasing contradiction between the automobile and the basin’s natural limitations, which produced environmental damage from smog, ruptures of urban pattern, and destruction of landscape features, was thus resolved. In the new ecology of fantasy, the car is no longer an ecological villain, but a means of liberation, providing access to an unlimited and constantly changing set of them environments.
The automobile connects individual circuits of theme environments, a coherent conceptual grid overlaid on the real economic and topographic surface of the city. Driving from one theme environment to another, the endless, nondescript blocks of the city disappear. Robbed of conceptual validity, they become neutral filler between a set of points which constructs a coherent thematic reality, physically discontinuous but conceptually integrated. Thus, although individual themes have coherence, serial themes can only become dominant in a setting of disjointed context.
Disneyland radically compressed sites remote in space and time. Looking from 19th century New Orleans across an African jungle and into the future accustomed us to accepting juxtaposition, but the automobile has made it possible to extend the principle of fragmented environments into daily life. More than just transport from one fragment to the next, the automobile functions as a medium, transforming our experience of the city we are traveling through. In the car, we move through the city without disturbing it or it disturbing us. Like television, another individualized medium, the automobile distances us from the world outside our sealed capsule while restructuring and abstracting it. The world, through a tv screen or a windshield, is reduced to a two-dimensional image, a visual event that does not invite participation.
Moving through space in an automobile is a televisual experience, a succession of quick cuts and rapidly edited fragments unified by the medium of the automobile. Jean Baudrillard has observed that increasingly fluid and automated vehicles produce fluid and automated spaces in which we can let ourselves go, tuning in to them like we tune into a television set. This promotes a flattening of affect, erasing the fragmentation of time and space, homogenizing everything to the absolute present. The continuous bombardment of people, places and things, once driven past, are quickly be forgotten. Driving erases memory.4
The physical environment soon acknowledged the perceptual changes introduced by the automobile. The spread of valet parking, a central element in the ecology of fantasy, can be seen as a response to the replacement of place by image. Now offered by supermarkets, art galleries, and shops, as well as restaurants, valet parking reduces the need to physically interact with the social reality of the city to the six feet of sidewalk between the car door and the entrance. This allows an existence consisting totally of theme environments to become conceivable. So far, this degree of selectivity over one’s surroundings made possible by avoiding city streets and urban reality is unique to Los Angeles. Unlike the structural layers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which separate the workers from the owners’ skyscraper city, the automobile permits a synchronic organization, where, without physical barriers, consumers of theme environments are equally well-protected from the unwelcome realities of class and ethnic difference.
The counterpoint of the automobile’s reduction of experience is the increased need for the stimulation provided by theme environments. In order to entertain, shopping and eating have become increasingly theatricalized. Theme environments have even begun to penetrate daily activities, such as food shopping. In West Hollywood, for example, a Sushi bar, selling raw fish expertly trimmed by costumed Japanese chefs, has been inserted into an otherwise normal Safeway supermarket.
An increasingly pluralistic and eclectic selection of themes is now available. Mass consumers are limited to itineraries of shopping malls, Chinese restaurants, and purpose-built tourist attractions, but Los Angeles has also generated permutations of increasingly specialized and sophisticated theme circuits. These rely on more abstract imagery. Punk, new-wave and yuppie themes are obvious; art and gay themes less so. Even recent immigrant groups, such as Koreans and Japanese, have created distinctive theme environments along Olympic Boulevard and in Little Tokyo, with images derived from Buddhist temples and Zen gardens, now used on restaurant, hotels and shopping centers. In a city of endless atomization, infinite individual ecologies are available.
Two groups, however, are excluded from the consumption of fantasy themes. These are Hispanic immigrants and the homeless, present in increasing numbers in the city. These groups have inherited the physical city of pre-Disneyland Los Angeles. They lead urban lives familiar to the inhabitants of many cities—walking through crowded downtown streets, using public transportation and gathering in public parks. These activities are pursued in the course of lives based on a set of unchanging themes: physical and economic survival and the maintenance of the family. Their lives form a major barrier to the total incursion of the ecology of fantasy. They exist as visible reminders of irreducible reality, posing a challenge to the spread of hyper-reality.
Rather than consuming pre-packaged environments, these groups are forced to produce their own. The homeless, put on the streets by the shutdown of mental hospitals, the disappearance of family assistance programs, and the contraction of blue-collar industries, must claim whatever marginal territory is available for living space—cars, sidewalks, or vacant lots. They improvise provisional shelters from whatever materials are at hand, and gather into temporary communities for safety, for shelter, and to obtain services. Their spontaneous creation of living environments from virtually nothing calls into question the calculated construction of the theme environment. Skid row, seen from a passing car, can be read as an image, but the spread of homelessness has begun to affect many other parts of the city.
In a place devoted to the search for increasingly esoteric individual themes, Hispanic immigrants establish community against great odds. All over the city, newcomers have reclaimed public places such as streets, parks, and markets, and transformed them into functioning social spaces. Broadway, between 3rd and 8th streets, has the most intense street life in the city, with pedestrian numbers far exceeding those of vehicles. Olvera Street, the original plaza of Los Angeles, turned into an ersatz tourist attraction in the 1940s, has now come full circle, used once again as an authentic public square for a passigiata of families and couples. More and more, these realities intrude on the neutrality of the street, making it difficult to maintain an uninterrupted circuit of theme environments.
Unemployed immigrants see oranges and peanuts at stoplights and gather at designated corners for the “shape-up”, an informal labor market, where they announce their availability for any kind of manual work. When they do find employment, it is often as the service workers, waiters, busboys, and valet parkers on whom theme environments depend. As silent observers, their presence implies another, as yet unrealized ecology, presently submerged, but likely to become dominant given the fact that, according to demographic projections, Latin Americans will constitute forty percent of Los Angeles’ population by the year 2000.
What will be the result of the inevitable collision of these disparate ecologies? One possibility is suggested by the science fiction film, Blade Runner (regarded by many as an accurate projection of Los Angeles’ future), where everyone who can afford to has moved off-world, leaving the city to its third-world inhabitants. Off-world is not yet available, but outlying privately-developed new towns, such as Mission Viejo or Westlake Village, whose physical and social coherence are maintained by deed restrictions and security guards, address the same needs. Another scenario is the expansion of theme environments to include “melting-pot” content, with non-Spanish speaking second generation Mexicans happily dining in Hispanic-theme restaurants.
Less likely, given the constraints of consumer economics and class and ethnic division, is the possibility of synthesis. One can, however, still imagine a future in which environments which do not orchestrate escape from daily life would include an awareness of multiple realities. Although we cannot expect Los Angeles to become less fragmented or less decentered, or expect the private automobile to disappear, perhaps the best we can hope for is that the theme circuits we endlessly create may become inclusive rather than exclusive, expansive rather than reductive and that the principle of mobility might be used to cross boundaries rather than to construct them.