The Disney Corporation has become a prestigious client among architects. The attention being paid by the architectural press to Disney’s recent commission of several prominent architects has made much of the participation of high-profile architecture in this major cultural enterprise. Through this exchange, both parties gain validation: Disney as a high-culture patron and architecture as a popular endeavor. The buildings commissioned by Disney have been those associated with the corporate side-hotels, offices, convention centers-of the company famous for theme parks and cinematic fantasy.

The Disney projects tell us once again and even more emphatically what the status of the architectural profession is within the cultural market. Disney’s themed environments from Disneyland to EuroDisney are among the most popular and effective designed environments in the world. And their success certainly relies on the combination of architectural principles with other representational technologies. The tasks given to architects, however, seem rather to mark the profession as the necessary other to the distinctive and complex designing of theme parks. The attraction of the Imagineered theme park proper is heightened and articulated by its juxtaposition with the architect-designed support facilities. Disney Corporation calls upon architecture precisely to illustrate the banality of everyday life.

If this is how Disney makes use of architecture what then does architecture see in Disney? Disneyland’s layered complexity is taken seriously by critical professionals as an idealized environment in which the implementation of planning and design is used to form a coherent yet discontinuous whole. Its utopian spatial social and mechanical sequencing is admired for its success at drawing mass audiences and influencing them to participate in the orchestration of their pleasure. Two recent essays on Disneyland United by political ambition but separated by disciplinary boundaries, point up a dilemma confronting the architectural left. A comparison of the ways Michael Sorkin and Tom Carson construct progressive readings of Disneyland complicates our understanding of the profession’s engagement with popular culture.

Disney Urbanism

One of the latest architectural writings to address the subject of Disney is Michael Sorkin’s essay “See You in Disneyland,” from the volume Variations on a Theme Park which he also edited. This collection draws from the disciplines of architecture, urban planning, geography and political science to represent a progressive sector of urbanist analysis and criticism. As the subtitle “The New American City and the End of Public Space” suggests, the essays share a dismay and outrage at the transformations in American urban form that have increasingly displaced the traditional forms and spaces of public life. The backcover summary provides a concise formulation of the premise that unites the collection: America’s cities are being rapidly transformed by a sinister and homogeneous design. A new kind of urbanism-manipulative dispersed. And hostile to traditional public space is emerging both at the heart and the edge of town in megamalls, corporate enclaves, gentrified zones, and pseudo-historic marketplaces. Sorkin’s own assessment sets the terms for his discussion of the Disney theme parks: “The familiar spaces of traditional cities, the streets and squares courtyards and parks, are our great scenes of the civic, visible and accessible, our binding agents. By describing the alternative, this book pleads for a return to a more authentic urbanity, a city based on physical proximity and free movement and a sense that the city is our best expression of a desire for collectivity.”

The theme park is in Sorkin’s phrase, “the place that embodies it all.” The Disney environments are paradigmatic for Sorkin, of the social and spatial dimensions of the postindustrial global economy, of movement and consumption … “Disneyzone …. ” he writes, “[converts] the celebration of production into the production of celebration. The pivot on which this transformation turns is the essential alienation of the producer-turned-consumer, his or her dance to the routines of someone else’s imagining.” In his concluding paragraphs, Sorkin writes that “Visitors to Disneyzone are reduced to the status of cartoon characters …. This is a common failing in utopian subjectivity. The predication on a homogenized under-dimensioned citizenship …. In the Disney utopia, we all become involuntary flaneurs and flaneuses, global drifters holding high our lamps as we look everywhere for an honest image.”

Sorkin’s writings admirably describe the new spaces of social life. His call for a return to historical urban solutions however, fails to acknowledge that those very solutions have been rejected by the populace that crowds Disney’s streets and supports the environments of this new American city. Sorkin’s model of the ways in which Disney constructions are interpreted and consumed exposes a set of disturbing assumptions about the relationships between pleasure knowledge and participation.

Sorkin’s disparagement of the pleasure taken in Disney and his concomitant call for a “return” to the forms of the modern city are bound up in his enactment of an avant-gardism of enlightenment, a from-the-top-down progressivism that marginalizes and contains the value of his perceptive analysis. The terms in which he describes the audience that participates in Disneyzone (as acquiescent puppets and cartoon characters) evinces a disdain for the very constituencies in whose name his progressivism makes its critique. The capacity for critical self-awareness and subjectivity is denied to Disney visitors and reserved for the critic writing from the hyperspace of the contemporary traveling intelligentsia; it is Sorkin himself who posits a homogenized and under-dimensioned citizenry for the negative utopia he sees in Disney.

Sorkin’s stance resounds disturbingly with the resentment of an intellectual position that feels betrayed by the classes it aspired to represent and to lead. The most sinister aspect of this argument is its reliance on a modernist dialectic of enlightenment and false consciousness: Sorkin’s utopianism of the traditional modern city ultimately reflects his nostalgia for a working class that conformed to avant-gardist expectations.

Park Narratives

Tom Carson’s article, “To Disneyland” [LA Weekly. v.14. n.17. March 27-April 2. 1992] also attempts a progressive reading of the theme park, but from a different set of social perspectives and literary spaces. In contrast to Sorkin’s view from above and outside the park, Carson’s text creates a fictionalized narrative from inside the park and inside the Disney characters’ suits as well as his own psyche.

Carson states near the beginning of his piece: “… I love Disneyland I know we’re wrong for each other-I’m not one of the people it was intended for” (p. 17). By contextualizing his own responses, he implicitly acknowledges that while Disneyland’s spatial experiences differ from Sorkin’s urban streets and squares, they are not for that reason any less authentic.

Carson also credits visitors to Disneyland with an awareness of its sophistication as a clever sequence in which they allow themselves to participate. Carson revels in the extent  to which the park visitors construct their own interpretations of what Sorkin sees to be manipulative spatial and social mechanisms invisible to Disneygoers. The subtlety of Carson’s approach lies in the way he draws out the tensions between his own intellectual cynicism regarding Disney’s political place in America and his appreciation for the park’s manipulative ingenuity.

In order to dramatize the interplay between critical knowledge and participatory pleasure, Carson marshals different countermyths against the spell of the magic kingdom. His rhetorical method brings the utopian countermyths of labor competition within the industry and new social movements to bear on Disneyland’s own utopian narrative. In the section “Mr. Joad’s Wild Ride,” for example, Bugs Bunny and Pepe LePew, “the latter wearing an FFI arm band and the former a silence=death T-shirt” (P.26), are insurgents in an apocalyptic attack on the park. The failure of the overthrow attempt by radicalized Warner characters, as well as the earlier co-optation of Steinbeck’s Tom Joad, serves to emphasize and confirm the greater popularity of Disneyland’s version of American cultural identity.

In his final section, “Exile on Main Street,” Carson designs his own theme park reflecting the anxieties of the post-modern intelligentsia. Here Carson intellectualizes the planning of a theme park to include lands like “The Haunted Mind” and “Guiltworld,” where the awareness of America gone awry is suffocating. Carson earlier states: “I can’t stand innocence as a fetish whether it’s childhood’s or America’s … as an ideal, it’s pernicious” (p.17). By discussing this resistance, he acknowledges the distance between Disney’s constructed innocence and the jaded analytical and political stance of much critical writing. The significance of “Fatherland,” Carson’s theme park, is to illustrate that the progressive line of critical thought seems unable to create a Disneyland that captures the popular imagination.

Patronizing Disney

The ongoing exchange between Disney and the architectural community focuses attention on the dynamics of position and participation that Sorkin and Carson outline and enact. The articulation of a progressive response to changes in the spaces of public life must address these issues if it is to avoid reinscribing the frustrating dialectics of the avant-garde. Likewise, the assumptions encoded in the analytical criteria by which we learn to design and to judge design work are often the mechanism by which architectural discourse and practice marginalize themselves from the broader audiences they seek to engage. It is in part because of Disney’s relentless attention to the business of pleasure that architecture is left to dream of doing what Disney does.


Nina B. Lesser and Jonathan Massey are students in the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning.

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