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SL: Do you agree with most of the architectural press’s assertion that only your Entertainment Center escaped Disney-itis because it is the only un-themed building at EuroDisneyland?

FOG: In before-the-opening views, the building seems to have escaped, but in after-the-opening views it looks caught. I didn’t want to go to the opening because I was worried I might not like it and even when I accepted the job I knew it was going to be precarious. But I didn’t want to be holier-than-thou about what I coined “entertainment architecture,” which is not architecture, but which is also not non-architecture. Even though journalists shouldn’t be talking about it in columns devoted to Architecture with a capital “A”, if you think of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, some important things did develop from that “entertainment architecture.” In fact, initially I was very interested in the relationship between these two kinds of architecture and it gave me some hope about what the whole place might be like. I had asked the Disney people to bring in Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Peter Eisenman, Potzamparc – and some of these architects were even hired to do studies. I thought there was a growing interest in European architects, the project was in Europe, they already had all the Americans on their list, and since the whole thing could have been an experiment of sorts, I thought they should have a variety of people. When I was asked who my choices were, I suggested tough guys, not push-over postmodernists. Then they cancelled all these people who had been hired to studies – in a single meeting Disney shifted against the tough guys.

SL: How dependent did you feel your ability to be a tough guy was on not having a theme. Would you have accepted the job had it come with a theme and would you accept another Disney job even if it was un-themed?

FOG: No and never. Disney suggested I might do a huge hotel. They didn’t know what the hotel’s theme was yet. but it would have had a theme and I couldn’t do the project. In the end, however, I found that I had become guilty by association. The entertainment center, in the context of all the other stuff, became a theme building anyway. The building became a “Frank Gehry” theme building.

SL: Do you think that Frank Gehry architecture is particularly susceptible to becoming its own theme?

FOG: I think it would have happened to anybody. It might even have been worse for some others. Think what would have happened to Rem Koolhaas. Since he tends toward stylization – he plays around with the styles of the 1940s and 1950s and uses a kind of Harrison / Abramowitz language – in some ways he gets close to being themed already.

SL: What constitutes a theme?

FOG: Michael Graves was given New York or “Metropolis” as a theme and he took theming very seriously. But if no one had said anything, I can imagine that he might have evolved from nowhere the idea of a hotel with towers and turrets representing some urban downtown. If you did a huge hotel in France on the banks of a lake, a reasonable strategy would be to make towers and turrets like those at Chambord or a million other places. That strategy could develop toward an urban idea with connotations of downtown cities – it could end up looking like New York but it would not be themed by Disney and would stand some chance of being honest. The architect could have evolved his own theme without realizing that he was being themed. It’s the context of Mickey Mouse and Disneyland itself, where everything from Main Street to Magic Castles is already ersatz, that changes everything. Claes Oldenburg wouldn’t do anything there. He felt that no matter how tough something he did might be, in that context, it would be coopted by the real thing, which is the ersatz thing. The force – to sell trinkets, and rides and ersatz experience – is powerful enough to coopt anything. If Le Corbusier had built Romchamp at EuroDisneyland, it would have been a themed church. I don’t think anyone can survive. That’s the lesson of EuroDisney – you can’t win and you can’t survive. A pound of Mickey is worth a hundred pounds of everything else.

SL: What does the EuroDisneyland phenomenon have of significance to say to architecture?

FOG: In the last analysis, I don’t think EuroDisney is about architecture, even though I think we all believe that Michael Eisner is brilliant and that he is genuinely interested in architecture. In many regards, it’s thanks to Eisner that Michael Graves has done really interesting work for Disney – with about another 10 dollars a square foot, his buildings could have been really great. We believed in Eisner’s struggle to prove to his partners that they could do good architecture at even the cheapest level. But the truth is that everybody understands architecture in different ways, and I think that Eisner’s conception is closer to Robert Stern, Michael Graves and Prince Charles’s understanding than it is to my own. All during our design process there was another architect doing the same building only with a theme – he was being paid a parallel fee to do parallel work all the way through design development. If at any moment they had decided to dump us, they wouldn’t have lost any time. I was reasonably prepared for that, since it’s the way Hollywood works. Several screen writers work on the same script simultaneously. From Eisner’s standpoint, this represented a commitment to architecture. Ironically, when they finally saw the Festival hall designs, they were ecstatic – our project is pretty theatrical and we had tried to make a good shopping center. But that’s before Mickey Mouse got at it.

SL: Can and should an architect make a good piece of architecture that is also a successful shopping center? Is there a difference between accommodating and facilitating shopping?

FOG: In my opinion the question is not whether we can but the fact that we must be able to make shopping centers. I’ve always complained that architects like me don’t do shopping centers. That’s why I did Santa Monica Place. But, just like at EuroDisney, something got lost there too – they came in with all their stuff and it’s overwhelming. I’ve seen Roosevelt Fields. A shopping center in New York that I.M. Pei did – it’s very Miesian and it looked like IIT. Pei controlled every detail, but it failed miserably because it was too sophisticated. It was a bad shopping center. So, how do you make a good shopping center? I made Disney stronger than Santa Monica Place – its image was stronger – and the goal was not just to allow people to shop, but to actually encourage them to shop. The idea was that during the day the building would be fairly benign, but then, after 4:00 in the dull Paris sky, it would come to life and it would become irresistible. I accepted that as part of the program and I didn’t feel that I was selling out just by accepting the program. My concern was how to make architecture, instead of just building, that people would respond to and use and that would enrich their experience. Had I pushed a little harder and gotten more involved in the design of all the elements, I think it could have been different. That was my mis-calculation. I thought the strength of the building’s image could hold the stuff Disney pasted on to it, and by the time I realized it couldn’t, it was too late. In the context of Disneyland you can’t escape. But if I took this same building and put it somewhere else, including the barrage of graphics, it would be sustainable. One would have to be involved at an extreme level of detail, and avoiding Disney’s tendency to homogenize everything might even require collaboration. If Koolhaas, Eisenman, Venturi and Hollein had been building EuroDisney, I can imagine us ending up with a better thing. Not a better Disneyland. At the end of the day, I think maybe architecture and Disney don’t mix.

SL: You place a great deal of emphasis on Disney’s capacity to negate truthfulness. Is the rest of the world outside Disney so much more innocent?

FOG: There is a question of critical mass. Two Rodeo Drive is Disney outside of Disneyland. But then there’s Wilshire Boulevard which is simply more honest -there is a toughness about reality that you can’t fake. Some pieces along Wilshire Boulevard may be contrived, but Wilshire itself was not contrived in total. The whole is bigger than any of its parts. Disney is all chocolate sundaes and the whole simply overwhelming. Simply by being there you get covered in whipped cream. I believe in the difference between reality and illusion. To be overpowered by the real is one thing; to be overpowered by the ersatz is something else. Disney needs illusion to sell, and theirs is a seduction that uses nostalgia, but, in the end, they too are overpowered by their own images. Eisner really wants to be a patron of architecture – he would like to be a Medici, but since he exists as part of a corporate structure, defined by the bottom line; his engine can’t really be fueled by architecture. He can’t escape his own context any more than architecture can. But Eisner still represents a ray of hope – he’s a major client, he’s very smart and he’s already taken a long shot for which he should be congratulated. But what he could still do is take a leading role in getting the movie industry involved in city building. If you think of how important something like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis has been to our understanding of cities, think what it might be like if architects were encouraged to develop a three-dimensional Metropolis, if they were given a chance to update that image and find a new model appropriate to our own time. That could be exciting and Eisner could help get us there. As it stands now,  Disney’s job is to always look good in contrast to society’s degeneration. Given the rate of our social disintegration, maybe Disney will look even better in three hundred years. Maybe in that context, Eisner will seem like the Medici and Disney will look like Florence.

Sylvia Lavin

Back to February 1993 Newsletter