Disney’s Place in Architecture: A Beauty or Beast?
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
Disney World in my mind will always be a fictitious place - a place where facades are merely veneers attached to frames, a place where children can see their favorite characters come to life momentarily, and a place which largely relies on movies to predefine the worlds which the amusements parks are only a small part of. In the architectural world, Disney has become synonymous with ‘pastiche’ and has now become an adjective in itself, almost always with negative connotation. Regardless of how much architects like to bash Disney, there are a few things architects should recognize from it – the power of memory in architecture, the recognition of a shared memory amongst us all, and the impact of the built environment on human psychology, particularly its ability to elicit emotions.
I always find old cities to be conflict zones. While there are so many different layers of history in these places which make it all so rich, interesting, and real, the public isn’t always interested in keeping them and relies heavily on a minority group to fight for their preservation. Additionally, new developments threaten the value of current ‘historic assets’ either through complete demolition or by creating a major shift in the environment which undermines the historic building (i.e. tall shard next to small scale half-timbered structure). In these cities, support groups are always actively trying to get the public to recognize the significance of these buildings through education, often in the form of memory – by telling a story, reenacting scenes, writing descriptions which paint a picture of the personalities and lifestyles at the time. I would like to argue that it is the loss of these memories, or interesting enough memories, which make a building lose popularity, contributing to the loss of our historic buildings. Interestingly though, the reverse happens in Disney. The memory of a place is established by the films, creating a strong identity despite being only a fictitious story. Before a concrete block is even laid, there is already credibility given to these worlds. When they are completed there is no doubt that, of course its Arendelle (Frozen) or the Kingdom of Corona (Tangled)! If memory is the key to preserving our places then I wonder if architects are doing their job to make sure that buildings contribute to sustaining these memories.
To understand the success of Disney amusement parks we have to analyze the Disney films themselves. Often Disney films have very simple themes with some version of a good vs. evil storyline. Typically the values and qualities portrayed are universally accepted such as love, friendship, greed, betrayal, and power. The use of imagery in these places do something similar. Popular pastoral or romantic imagery is often used and emphasize positive values while places generally known be dark, scary, and violent, like castles, caves, and volcanoes, are used to depict negative values. Disney uses our collective memories to formulate more convincing storylines. I sometimes find it difficult to describe to non-architects how architectural designs can be laced with symbolism and values which have an influence on the way people live and think. Buildings and spaces can send you messages and even change the way you behave without you knowing it (for example, designing against crime), but thankfully Disney offers a simplified example of what is constantly happening in real life to real places.
What I also love about Disney is how dramatic it is, like a modern age Baroque. Almost always there is a real-life precedent which gives these place an undoubtedly familiar feeling. The quintessential village, isn’t just quaint, it’s dramatically quaint with exaggerated shapes and overly (and adorably) mushroom shaped thatched roofs, with just the perfect amount of weathering and roughness, always with an ample splash of color, and the ideal number of pinnacles or balconies to a satisfactory level of charm and delight. It is this which makes Disney so enjoyable and magical to walk through, because of course, we all know in real life every third building would be this terrible CVS shop front or some uncharacteristic development which was added after the war (at least in the UK). We recognize it is perhaps an idealistic and overly romanticized version of places which would never work with modern requirements, but can appreciate it nonetheless.
So, thank you Disney, for reminding us of the importance of memory and making it acceptable for a grown ass adult to periodically turn into a gleeful kid again.