Disneyland and the Art of Reassurance
by, 04-27-2011 at 06:12 PM
I am frequently asked if there is a difference in the spatial design process between theme parks and the world outside the front gate. There certainly is. The guiding principles that underpin the design of the public realm are very different. Each type of environment is driven by its own distinctive organizing system. What works in one world doesn't necessarily work in the other.
The real world feels alive when there is a certain messy vitality. A theme park succeeds when there is a lack of visual contradictions. It is virtually impossible to blend these qualities without creating a space that feels uncomfortable and undesirable.
Noted author Jane Jacobs and savior of large swatches of historic Manhattan from the wrecking ball described “the city as organized complexity.” Among other factors, architect Robert Venturi came to the conclusion that successful and dynamic urban environments contain a “messy vitality over obvious unity.” Both agree that it is this quality that is necessary if a place is to feel authentic and resonate with meaning to the users. Such places are embedded with quality, variety, and surprise. As a result, the environment puts you slightly on edge and you feel more alert and alive in a delightful way. However, too much of this messy vitality and you will only encourage fear. There is a delicate balance.
When asked about this difference, Imagineer John Hench said, “Most urban environments are basically chaotic places, as architectural and graphic information scream at the citizen for attention. This competition results in disharmonies and contradictions that…cancel each other [out].” He warns, “A journey down almost any urban street will quickly place the visitor into visual overload as all of the competing messages merge into a kind of information gridlock.”
John Hench should know. Imagineer Tom Morris described him as “the Philosopher of Imagineering.” Hench grew up in Southern California. He started at the Disney studios in 1939 as a sketch artist on Fantasia. In 1954, after a career in animation, Walt Disney selected him to become one of the first Imagineers. Hench considered himself the “color guru” for the Disney parks. His theories on how color can be used as a storytelling element, how color welcomes guests and help them make decisions, and how color establishes the mood. He is the one who figured out how color “encourages the suspension of disbelief” and creates the illusion of reality.
John Hench was a master teacher and influenced a generation of Imagineers. This was especially true after Walt’s death in 1966. In 1998, Hench was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Themed Entertainment Association.
In 2003, he released Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show. This book is required reading for those interested in theme park design and he defines, in terms understandable to the layperson, how visual storytelling, character, and color come together to create a sense of place and harmony. He would go on to influence every park and resort since Disneyland. Hench had very high standards. At the opening of Disney’s California Adventure in 2001, he reportedly said, “I liked it better as a parking lot.” He stayed at Disney until his death at the age of ninety-five in 2004.
Hench suggested that the only way to design a successful themed environment is to eliminate any visual contradictions. He defined a visual contradiction as “the active clutter that you see in the real world, which creates mixed messages, sets up conflicts, creates tension, and may even feeling threatening.” Hench taught his team, “If visual details disagree, guests experience active clutter, which has the same effect on the eye as a cacophony of noises has on the ear.”
“Walt wanted all the details to be correct,” Hench said. “What it amounted to was a kind of visual literacy.” He suggested that each space is like a “bead or charm in a necklace. The same thing was applied as you walk around the park. Continuity was the same. Whether you’re slow or fast, what you look at it the same.”
This never-ending aspiration to eliminate every visual contradiction comes straight from Walt Disney. One day, early in the park’s history, while Walt was making his usual rounds, he spotted a guy dressed in a spacesuit walking from the backstage area near Frontierland on his way to Tomorrowland. In Walt’s mind, it destroyed the theme and he felt this was unacceptable.
By eliminating the visual contradictions, Walt had created a world that was safe, clean, and could not exist outside of the earthen berm that surrounded his park. What he created was a place that is not about fantasy but is about a sense of reassurance.
“Physically, Disneyland would be a small world in itself – it would encompass the essence of the things that were good and true in American life,” Walt said. “It would reflect the faith and challenge of the future, the entertainment, the interest in intelligently presented facts, the stimulation of the imagination, the standards of health and achievement, and above all, a sense of strength, contentment, and well-being.”
John Hench said that Disneyland, “Tried to present an undilutedly rosy view of the world; contradiction or confusion were qualities the planners of Disneyland associated with the defective, poorly planned, conventional amusement park.” He added, “That Disneyland offered an enriched version of the real world, but not an escapist or an unreal version. We program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements. We’ve taken and purified the statement so it says what it was intended to.”
Make no mistake. The spaces within the park are not representative of reality but become a hyper reality – stylized and tightly edited versions of the real thing. The buildings are shrunk and edited to meet the needs of the story that binds everything together.
Disneyland is a legible urban environment. The park is made up of a series of spaces that unfold before you. Hench said, “You begin with the first scene and move through. You don’t throw people into the fifth scene, where they cannot make sense of what is happening.” The payoff is a sense of welcoming, worth, value, and security.
When somebody suggested the only reason people go to Disneyland was escapism, John Hench took offense and disagreed. He said, “There was never a Main Street like this. But it reminds you of some things about yourself.” He added, “What we are selling is not escapism, but reassurance.” A visit to Disneyland reassures us that things will be okay. Here, everything works, places can be clean, people can be nice, and the pace of the world feels right. Marty Sklar and John Hench have described the urban design for Disneyland as the “architecture of reassurance.”
This quality is achieved by removing visual cues with messages that do not embellish the narrative. In a concept drawing of Main Street USA from 1953, artist Dale Hennesy included a church. Such a civic building would have been common and historically correct. However, this is not reality. It is Disneyland and Walt decided it did not support the story and there is no church at the edge of the commercial district.
Every aspect of the public realm came under scrutiny from Walt. For example, when Bill Martin showed Walt drawings of Main Street he said, “[Walt] went over my plans with a fine-tooth comb. I’d drawn sidewalks on the blueprints with square corners and Walt said: ‘Bill, people aren’t soldiers! They don’t turn in at sharp angles! Curve the sidewalks! Make the corners round!’”
Evangelist Billy Graham once told Walt that Disneyland was “a nice fantasy.” This did not sit well with Walt. He replied, “You know the fantasy isn’t here. This is very real…The Park is reality. The people are natural here; they’re having a good time; they’re communicating. This is what people really are. The fantasy is – out there, outside the gates of Disneyland, where people have hatreds and people have prejudices. It’s not really real!”
In Designing the Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance, Karal Ann Marling suggests, “One of the consistent hallmarks of Disney architecture is its refusal to be avant-garde: reassurance, on the contrary, means using the familiar conventions of real-world architecture – and then ‘plussing’ them until the audience has to smile.”
Although he was no fan, Robert Venturi does concede, “Disney is nearer to what people really want than anything architects have ever given them.
In Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Yi-Fu Tuan compared the Chinese concept of utopia to the American version. He said the Chinese aspire to promote contentment. Walt insisted that Disneyland represents the best of the United States and our aspiration is to promote happiness. Yi-Fu Tuan says, “Contentment is a more passive word than happiness, and one might see in this a significant differences between the Chinese dream and the American dream. But whether ‘contentment’ or ‘happiness,’ that which is feared is disorder, chaos, violence.”
John Hench said the architecture, colors, background sounds, music, and smells create an environment where it “gives one the permission to talk with strangers.” Michael Broggie added, “[Walt] also thought the Park’s atmosphere could be sophisticated yet relaxed enough that adults would feel comfortable allowing their ‘inner child’ to play, without feeling embarrassed.”
David Zanolla of Western Illinois University noted that the physical experience of passing through the portal of Disneyland communicates a concept he calls “emotional separation” when guests are forced to separate the experience of paying and the experience of entering the park.
After a visit to Disneyland, Aubrey Menen said she, “spent the morning riding through dreams that lay somewhere at the bottom of my mind.” Matthew Arnold said, “Every aspect of the Magic Kingdom, from trash collection to efficient transportation to the providing of near-constant stimuli, works to achieve this same end: freedom from worries, from toils, from the feelings of insecurity that define the average person’s workaday life.”
For many guests, there is a sense of timelessness inside the earthen berm that surrounds Disneyland. In Disneyland Through the Decades, Jeff Kurtti said that frequently visiting the park “is revelatory in the drastic change you will see – and the almost complete lack of change you will see.” If you want to get a sense of the tremendous change that has occurred over the years, there is a model of Disneyland on opening day in 1955 tucked into a wall in the Opera House on Main Street.
For me, it was Imagineer Bruce Gordon who provided one of the best descriptions as to why Disneyland works. He said, “Walt was hands-on with everything at Disneyland. This was his park, his dream. I always believed the reason Walt built Disneyland was that he wanted one.” Bruce adds, “He wanted the biggest train layout; he wanted a place for all his toys. In the park he had an apartment above the fire station. Walt would get up early in the morning, before the park opened, and he’d drive his fire truck around Disneyland. People would think he was crazy, but he was only playing with his toy.”
Well, readers, what say you? Is Disneyland a place of reassurance? Is it the world the way you wish it was?
We invite you to join Sam and MiceChat at the Huntington Gardens in July
“LOS ANGELES: INVENTED SPACES OR AUTHENTIC PLACES?”
Saturday, July 9, 2011 at the Huntington Library and Gardens
Presented by the Los Angeles Region Planning History Group in cooperation with the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West Huntington Library and Gardens, Friends’ Hall Saturday, July 9, 2011 Coffee & Pastries: 9:30 a.m. Colloquium and Lunch: 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
The Los Angeles region has evolved as much from out-sized dreams and inventions as from traditional rules for establishing human settlements. Carey McWilliams called Los Angeles an “improbable” place not destined to succeed, but determined to do so. As Southern California developed, the visionaries who built this region knew it was less about location and more about destination. The enormous popularity of “invented” or themed destinations – Venice of America, Olvera Street, Disneyland, Third Street Promenade, CityWalk, The Grove and many others – has provided planners, designers and developers with inspiration and lessons on both success and failure. What is the difference between those places that have a “unifying vision” and those that celebrate a “messy vitality”? Where do “invented”
places end and “authentic” places begin? In a land where set designers build houses, architects design movie sets, and many of our most cherished “public” spaces are privately owned and operated, anything is possible. A distinguished panel, moderated by author and planner Sam Gennawey, will address these questions.
- David Sloane, Professor, USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development
- Hassan Haghani, Community Development Director, City of Glendale
- Vaughan Davies, Principal and Director of Urban Design, AECOM
- Tim O’Day, O’Day and Associates
- Neal Payton, Principal, Torti Gallas and Partners
Cost is $40; for students with valid student ID, $20
Fee includes coffee and pastries, lunch, parking, and day pass to the Huntington
Seating is limited; please RSVP to:
Alice Lepis, Secretary
[email protected] (preferred) or at 818.769.4179 no later than
Tuesday, July 5, 2011