SEPTEMBER 20, 1992; A FRIEND’S APARTMENT, PARIS: “Agriculture, c’est pas Disneyland” states a farmer in the studio of France Tele 2, during a broadcast of the ECC referendum returns. (Agriculture, c’est pas Disneyland-well, maybe, or maybe not. Both are big business, both engage in foreign trade. Both seem to incur major losses, both beg the question of controls. Of course, agri-business always depends on the weather, and we all know you can’t predict the weather. And Disney, well, Disney is in the business of good ol’ dependability, that’s for sure.) My host interrupts the thought: “There, now you have the first line of your article.” I was planning to visit EuroDisney the next day. As an American architect who for years has marvelled at how imported, Euorpean-inspired public spaces fail to take in American cities, I was determined to investigate this fantastic urban-scale implant of exported Americana. I was intrigued by the reversal, by the attempted transplant of distinctly Americanized culture onto European soil. I had read the reviews in the architectural press on the plane. Earlier that afternoon I had bought cigarettes (thanks to Gary Indiana of the Village Voice I was forewarned: at EuroDisney tobacco concessions are banned except in the official Disney hotels). I had even come up with a strategy to save paying the exorbitant entry fee-I would walk around the perimeter without going in, to see what I could see.
In 1981, Mitterand decentralized French urban planning; “projets urbains” would no longer be overseen by a single authority. Responsibility for urban development would subsequently fall to regional authorities, each department and each mayor given leave to control their local realm, to shape their immediate urban environment. Mitterand’s Paris, for example, gained the seven “Grands Projets.” In 1992, eleven years later, physical evidence of the revised legislation is easy to find a stone’s throw from the capital. Each of the municipalities just beyond the city strive to create their own “Porte de Paris.” Holding tight to the traces of the old wall and the aging Boulevard Peripherique, each mayor, each promoteur, works hard to outdo the next. Vainly, they all try to compete with Paris. None of these urban projects demonstrates the slightest interest in what stands just next door. What results resembles an urbanism concocted of mis-matched glass beads trying to imitate more expensive gems. (EuroDisney, the ultimate paste piece, is only slightly further afield.) To an American trained architect, it seems a distinctly un-European urbanspace. (But what exactly constitutes a European urbanscape in 1990, anyway? All those cities we admire so much, weren’t they all significantly shaped by forces of autocratic controls?) In fact, from the outside looking in, Paris is circumscribed by a distinctly Americanized urbanscape.
Given the obvious international trend of architectural conceit in contemporary urban scale design, one might have cause to wonder about the veracity of idealized urban models, about why we cling so strongly to old-world (European) visions of the city when new-world (Americanized) urbanscapes insist on, and succeed at, establishing themselves as the norm. When we consider the difficulties associated with recognizing other kinds of urban orders-those found in cities like Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, or LA-the sense of disdain for the peripheral urban agglomerations ringing Paris is not so difficult to explain. As we leave the urban (dis)comforts of home, it is troublesome to let go of old criteria for thinking cities. These models of once expansive urban thought, cultivated on and associated with distant ground, have long held out the promise of answers. Setting them aside is tantamount to admitting the need to rethink the way we formulate urban questions. However, in light of the multiple and necessarily conflicting forces sponsoring patterns of contemporary urban development in Europe, America, and beyond, it seems the moment to reevaluate these old values, to ponder our assumptions regarding the applicability of urban models predicated on centralized authority (however much we admire them), models that fail to accord with the circumstances of contemporary life. As traditional urban fabric heaves, cracks and reforms itself to fit the orders of the day, no mount of patching, mending, or restyling will return it to a prior state. While the power of the image of the “old city” remains tenacious, the centralized powers sponsoring that image are no longer to be found. (Except, of course, in Disney’s land!)
Yet, still today, too many American thinkers concerned with the built environment seem to harbor a penchant for that kind of centralized power, and for the image, if not the space, of its urban forms. Reading reviews of EuroDisney in the American architectural press, I am struck by the authority of the image, by the way that architectural critics confine themselves to a discussion of the few merits and many faults of seven themed hotels. It’s reassuring that all the critics seem to agree that “Disneyland, c’est pas Architecture,” but disquieting that the scope of critical discussion remains limited to stylistics. Content to assess this project on its own terms, such criticism tacitly sanctions the structure of power underwriting the project and summarily dismisses any need for more substantive examination of architecture’s position in relation to the values prescribed by a contemporary market.
Perhaps these issues are best left to those with less at stake? (Those on the outside, looking in?) While still beholden to a discussion of the buildings, at least the British Architectural Review (May, 1992) points out, “Only Gehry has resisted the temptation to compromise, to such an extent that one of the outlying volumes of his part bears an uncanny resemblance to a white Klu Klux Klan hood, complete with eye slits. Surely Disney cannot have noticed, for it is an ironic reminder that the past is not all sweetly smiling, easily assimilable and available for dollars.” From beyond the profession, (Gary, Indiana of the Village Voice) there are signs of a broader (more urban?) vision: this visitor to EuroDisney writes about its residential neighbors nightly suffering from the noise of fireworks displays. He reminds readers that the site of large scale private developments extends beyond the surveyed boundaries of a building lot, that urban life is more than stylistic life, that architectural endeavors have more than visual effects on their immediate, and not so immediate, environment.
We all know that the economics of theme parks dictate they be sited within tightly drawn, secure boundaries. This insures the most control and hopefully, but not always, higher profits. (Even when these zones expand, this still holds true, since theme necklace park growth occurs according to the laws of the single, hard-sell organism: auto-reproduction generates like from like, more of the same split off from a self, the sufficient central command-core.) We all know that theme parks and theme park owners are self-interest lots, driven by the logic of short-term profits. But where do the interests of architecture and architectural criticism lie? When these endeavors conceptualize their growth according to similar rules, their sights seem set on remaining within known, easily assimilated territory. Rather than striving to reach beyond the boundary to explore alternative models, critics concede to the same market controls as the projects they are paid to reflect upon. Meanwhile, readerships that remain satisfied with this tack insure that these controls retain their authority and remain masked from view.
Given the vast expanse of the Disney development, the limited focus of the architectural press begs certain critical questions relating to contemporary urban-scale design. Given the economic dimensions of Disney’s endeavor, this project offers a chance to examine the increasingly complex network of relationships between architecture, power, and money. Given the high degree of control that leads to the caricature that characterizes Disney ventures (not to mention the apparent ease with which Disney’s architects adapt to these controls) fundamental – in fact, ethical – questions are raised regarding the roles and responsibilities of an architectural profession no longer beholden to (or kept in check by) singular authorities. Beginning to pursue these issues is to begin to learn to leave the image behind. Not a bad idea, since, after all, “Architecture, c’est pas Disneyland.”
Something kept me from boarding the RER train to EuroDisney. In the end I decided I might as well spend the day visiting all my favorite cafes and bakeries in Paris instead. What can I say? There was really no need to squander the time or the money. (I mean, really, I was only in Europe for one short week, and … well … “EuroDisney, c’est pas Europe. “)
Andrea Kahn is a New York architect engaged in a practice of architectural theory and criticism.