Friday, May 14, 2010

Postmodern Thoughts: Disneyland and Disney World

For my Contemporary Architecture class this semester, every two weeks I write a response to our readings and the topics in class.  I've found the assignments interesting, so I'm sharing my writings with you.

Although during childhood I was always envious of my classmates who got to leave our hometown for Disney World—and possibly even skip school to do so—I did not visit it until I was 16 years old.  At that point in my life, I wasn't particularly thrilled to make the trip, but I did so as it was seen as a sort of rite of passage in American culture.  I have a few memories of experiences upon which to relate postmodern theory and our readings.

Michael Sorkin's “See You in Disneyland” discusses the importance of “getting there” rather than “being there.”  I remember traveling by automobile from the airport to the park, feeling the anxiety of being in transit, and seeing a hotel towering out of the Florida treeline.  The signs affixed to it said it was only a Sheraton hotel, but it gave me the feeling of awe I expected from the Disney Castle.  I wondered who might stay there and if its presence showed that we were in the park or close to the park.  That hotel presents an interesting problem of postmodernity.  What happens when the real (the ubitquitous Sheraton Hotel) attempts to simulate the experience of the simulation (the Disney Castle)?  This problem is further complicated by the fact that people live in a real castle, but no one really lives in the simulation Disney Castle, but then people stay in the hotel conglomerate's simulation of the simulation. 

Sorkin notes that Walt Disney became extremely frustrated with the sleazy, unregulated periphery of Disneyland.  Is the Sheraton Hotel on Disney property?  I remember seeing a “tangle of low commerce” some distance from the park, but with the huge area of the park Disney World has a significant buffer.  Isn't the Sheraton Hotel a Disneyfied (clean, neat) version of the area surrounding the original, Disneyland?  The inquisitive child in the back seat of the car asks if that big building out the window is Disney, to which the parent replies that it's not, that we're not there yet, and adds that not everyone can stay in the park.  Very much like the experience of driving to Disneyland in Los Angeles, but controlled.  Add to the confusion the fact that the postmodern hotel where I stayed, the Walt Disney World Swan by architect Michael Graves, is operated by Starwood Hotels Worldwide, who controls the Sheraton brand. 

More interested in traveling to foreign countries than to the end of a tunnel, Epcot was my favorite part of Disney World.  At the Canadian Pavilion at the World Showcase, I bought a 2004 Canadian Olympic Team sweatshirt.  I still wear it, and will never tell that I bought it at Disney rather than in Canada.  There have been times when I have lied about its origins and actually had to remind myself afterward that I did not in fact buy it in Canada.  Having learned from the readings that these sites are sponsored by the nations represented, I now view them in a new fashion—as the most successful embassies ever devised.  Embassies are technically located on the property of the country whose government officials work on the site, but we have to remind ourselves of that fact, it does not come naturally.  Through architecture, costume, and other imagery, the public makes a much easier transition from the United States into Canada, Morocco, or China.  The actual ownership of the land is insignificant in a consumer-driven, postmodern world.  With a corporate-like sponsorship, some images and trinkets, the Canada Pavilion might as well be Canada.

Finally, it is worrying that future urban planners like me have visited Disney's Main Street, USA but never a real 19th century Main Street.  I ascribe to the theory of New Urbanism, which embraces many of the characteristics of Disney's Main Street, and this theory will likely play an important role in redeveloping the sprawl-torn America my generation decries.  The problem is that because we have never visited the real thing, our instincts are to replicate Disney's idealized simulation.  We desire perfection in urban design and many of the built examples (Seaside, FL and Kentlands, MD) are well-removed from urban problems, just like Disney's Main Street.  Considering the huge portion of the population who has visited Disney World, the public's expectations of New Urbanism will be no more realistic than the planners' and the architects'.  In seeking to throw off the problems of auto-dominated modernism, even by reaching to what is perceived as a stable theory originating in real history, we fall into the postmodern trap.

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