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A graphic collage of prominent Disney buildings including The Swan, Walt Disney Concert Hall, and Disney Headquarters Burbank and Orlando. Shutterstock (2), Getty (2), Alamy

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The magical (postmodern) world of Disney

How major architects of the 1980s and early 1990s brought a new fantastic point of view to the Walt Disney Company’s buildings

It was 1991 and Michael Eisner was on the brink of changing everything.

After becoming the CEO of the Walt Disney Company in 1984, Eisner, a native New Yorker, set out to turn the old-fashioned Disney brand into one that would speak not just to the present moment but also, crucially, to the future. During his tenure, the company would eventually acquire the television network ABC and the sports behemoth ESPN and produce films that would come to define the Disney Renaissance—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin, among others.

An amateur architecture and design buff, Eisner also understood that a company like Disney ought to have a real presence—theme parks, of course, but also office buildings, studios, and hotels. What if, his design philosophy seemed to suggest, people could look up at Disney headquarters in Burbank or Orlando and feel the same awe and delight they must’ve felt on Disneyland’s opening day?

the Orlando headquarters of Disney, a building with a bright and colorful facade
The Orlando headquarters of Disney, designed by 2019 Pritzker Prize winner Arata Isozaki
Alamy Stock Photo

Eisner, like many heads of global corporations, had a motive that wasn’t so much ulterior as it was explicitly shouted from every rooftop the Walt Disney Company owned (and it owned a lot of them). “George Lucas will see Michael Graves’s hotel and he’ll want to do movies for us,” Eisner told the New York Times. Lucas, Spielberg—the best and brightest of film and TV and music and art would, if Eisner’s plan worked, see the Walt Disney Company in business with the most impressive architects of the day and want to go into business with the Walt Disney Company themselves.

Nearly 20 years later, Disney owns the intellectual property rights to the Star Wars universe Lucas created, and this summer, millions of tourists will descend upon Disneyland to experience the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a $1 billion dollar addition to the ur-theme park boasting rides that integrate storylines from the new Star Wars movies and a cantina where, for the first time in Disneyland’s half-century, guests will be allowed—even encouraged!—to consume alcohol.

It’s Disney’s theme parks and outdoor shopping malls that garner the most attention today, but its collection of buildings by Michael Graves, Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, Aldo Rossi, Arata Isozaki, Charles Moore, and other champions of postmodern design deserve to be recognized as more than just great works of corporate architecture. For a brief moment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Eisner was Disney’s Medici, enthusiastically commissioning (and bankrolling) monuments not just to the Mouse, but to postmodernism itself.

It seemed like everyone wanted to go to Disneyland.

From its opening in July 1955, Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom was at capacity virtually every day—freeway traffic and endless lines couldn’t keep people away. In 1959, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited Los Angeles, keen to see Disneyland above almost all else. When it became clear that security concerns would keep him from the park, Khrushchev was outraged: “And I say, I would very much like to go and see Disneyland,” he declared. “But then, we cannot guarantee your security, they say. Then what must I do? Commit suicide? What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me?”

There were no infectious diseases or underworld syndicates lurking around Fantasyland, but immediately after Disneyland’s opening, the company (Walt in particular) realized its crucial error—Disneyland was too small to support visitor needs while maintaining a cohesive Disney feeling.

At 85 acres, the theme park is still more than even a fast walker can take in on a single day. But by the early 1960s, ‘Disneyland adjacent’ had become its own category—just outside the gates sprung up a village of motels and fast-casual dining that to Disney tarnished the Magic Kingdom brand. In 1963 Disney purchased the land that would eventually hold the Orlando resorts, not making the same mistake twice—in Florida, Walt Disney’s initial land purchase came to nearly 7,000 acres. This zeal for control over Disney’s built environment is one that would come to define the Eisner building era, too—if a building is going to hold Disney offices, house Disney guests, or sell Disney products, it ought to feel not like a separate workspace or hotel or shop but like an extension of Disney itself.

It wasn’t just tourists and communist dictators enchanted by Disneyland—architects and critical theorists understood that the park’s opening (and wild success) signified a real shift in American design. In 1963, city planner James Rouse, in a commencement speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, insisted that “the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland. It took an area of activity—the amusement park—and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, in its functioning for people, that it really became a brand new thing.”

Swan and Dolphin hotel in Orlando Florida, a colorful building with giant swans on the roof
Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando, designed by Michael Graves
Getty Images

By the early 1980s, it became clear that Disneyland would be central to the development of postmodern philosophy. In 1981’s Simulacra and Simulation, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard suggests that Disneyland is our best example of the hyperreal. “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real,” he says, “whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.” In Travels in Hyperreality, Italian theorist Umberto Eco asserts that Disneyland, having not just perfected the art of a fully-staged world, “can give us more reality than nature can.”

We’re close to the 50-year mark of postmodern architecture, and the question of its legacy is one preservationists will surely debate hotly for the next decade. Questions about how we’ll think about Disney and the built environment, too, have shifted—a series of reports in the Los Angeles Times uncovered the sobering fact that most of the people who work at Disneyland can’t afford to live anywhere near it. While Disney spaces themselves might be hyperreal, it is impossible to discount the fact that the many people who keep them running must be paid real money they can use to pay real rents.

The postmodern Disney buildings of the later 20th century weren’t just happy accidents—it’s not a coincidence that in searching for a group of architects to bring the ethos of Disneyland to the streets of Los Angeles and Orlando, Michael Eisner landed on the ones most famous for their postmodern masterpieces. He wanted the best of the best, but also those architects who, however subconsciously, spoke the language of Disney.

Eisner turned to architect Robert A.M. Stern, whom he’d met years earlier when Stern worked on a renovation of Eisner’s parents’ Manhattan apartment, and Stern connected Eisner with postmodern architect Michael Graves, fresh off the triumph of Portland Building, largely considered one of the significant works of early postmodern architecture.

It was a smart match—Graves was developing a reputation for audacious, colorful, witty structures that touched upon histories real and invented, and Disney was in the market for some historical monuments of its own.

Eisner proved to be a remarkable study on the ethos of late-1980s postmodern architecture. “The best design, like the best of any art, needs to be challenging and provocative, even a little threatening at first,” he wrote in his memoir Work in Progress: Risking Failure and Surviving Success. “At the same time, we tried to never take ourselves too seriously. As important as it was to design buildings that were aesthetically pleasing, they also had to be fun and entertaining.”

The Disney Corporation Headquarters building in California, a building which features giant sculptures of the seven dwarfs supporting the roof
The Michael Graves-designed Disney Corporation Headquarters building in California, with sculptures of the seven dwarfs supporting the roof.
Getty Images

Eisner’s building spree was underway, and between 1989 and 1991, three Graves-designed Disney structures were unveiled to the public: In Burbank, the Team Disney headquarters was a Greek Temple dedicated to the Gods of Walt, complete with 19-foot-high columns in the shape of the Seven Dwarfs, and in Orlando, the Swan and Dolphin Resort, two Disney World hotels stylistically a marriage of classic Miami modern and the Enchanted Tiki Room. Eisner, for one, couldn’t rhapsodize enough on either project. Upon the opening of the Swan and Dolphin, Patricia Leigh Brown, writing in the New York Times, painted a picture of a patron enchanted by the portrait he’d commissioned:

’’It works,’’ Michael D. Eisner, chairman and chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company, was saying the night the Swan Hotel opened in Orlando, Fla. He was referring, among other things, to the lobby, where guests are greeted by Graves’s two-dimensional potted palms and cutouts of parrots on perches holding light fixtures in their beaks.

In Work in Progress, Eisner suggests that far from Disney turning Graves into a glorified Imagineer, the architect intuitively understood what a Disney building ought to be. He added, to make each hotel dominate the Epcot-area skyline, ”two huge swans for one and two dolphins for the other. The idea of using these creatures—icons that had classical antecedents but were also lighthearted and accessible—it seemed a perfect solution for a Disney hotel.”

Eisner seemed especially proud of Team Disney Burbank, both the building itself and his own enjoyment of it: ‘The fact is, we’re the only company who can get away with it,” he told Brown. “If you saw seven dwarfs holding up a building anywhere else in the world, you’d think it was like plastic reindeers or something.”

Graves wasn’t the only postmodern architect tapped by Eisner to work for Disney, but his buildings got the most attention—and took the brunt of criticism.

Pritzker Prize-winning architect James Stirling cast aspersions on the idea of designing for Disney at all. “We’re not very sympathetic to the theme idea,’’ he explains to Brown in the New York Times. “To me, it seems demeaning and trivial and somehow not profound or important. It’s overly commercial. In England, we’re subjected to it in a gross way—the parading of the guards, the dressing up at the Tower of London, and Madame Tussaud’s. Maybe we invented the bloody thing.” Critic Paul Goldberger, in his own assessment of the Graves Team Disney building, wondered if the columns were “less an instance of true wit than an architectural joke ordered from on high -- a gesture given mock solemnity that, by virtue of its scale and placement, becomes in the end truly solemn, which was not the idea at all.”

And then, of course, there was Walt Disney’s brother Roy, whose objection was more an indictment of Eisner himself than philosophical critique: “Though the monumental facade was leavened by bas-reliefs of the Seven Dwarfs in the pediment,” writes James B. Stewart in Disney War, “Roy felt the building represented everything that was bloated and pretentious in the company that Eisner had created.”

Ada Louise Huxtable, in an essay published in the New York Review of Books, suggested that the Disney building boom was a perversion of the postmodern project. “It has instantly recognizable characteristics—an emphasis on surface gloss, on pastiche, on the use of familiar but bowdlerized elements from the history of design…” she wrote. “…these attributes provide a dubious replacement for the rigorous and elegant synthesis of expression and utility that has always defined and enriched the best of the building art. This change in vision and values has brought irreversible changes in the understanding and practice of architecture today. The art of architecture as packaging or play-acting is a notion whose time, alas, seems to have come.”

The fate of postmodern architecture in the United States is inextricably bound up with Disney: The genre certainly had its critics before Graves et. al. joined the employ of the company, but the specific charges laid at the feet of buildings like Team Disney Burbank and the Swan and Dolphin Resort are ones that persist, and ones that are echoed by critics of Disney itself. Both are accused of a certain flash disguising shallowness. All form, one might say, and no function.

The Dolphin Hotel at Walt Disney World, a building with a giant sculpture of a dolphin on the roof
The Dolphin Hotel, designed by Michael Graves, at Walt Disney World
LightRocket via Getty Images

But to discount the Disney-sponsored architecture of the Eisner era as the folly of a Neo-Gilded Age captain of industry or the excesses of artists blinded by money is to forget that some of the works immediately transcended both genre and benefactor.

Team Disney’s Florida counterpart, known as Team Disney Orlando, was helmed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, in the late 1980s fresh off his triumphant design of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Isozaki expressed, in various interviews, bemusement at having been counseled against working for Disney—his reputation as a designer of museums, people said, ought to set him above the kinds of buildings that have themes, and yet his childhood interest in Disney, coupled with the relative creative freedom Eisner offered, convinced him to do the project.

The town hall in the town of Celebration, Florida, a building with white columns and an exterior white staircase
The town hall in Celebration, Florida, designed by Philip Johnson
Alamy Stock Photo

And the theme of Team Disney Orlando is perhaps the theme of postmodernism itself: time. “The huge, open drum in the middle of the building turns out to be not just an ornamental tower but a vast sundial—Disney officials claim it is the world’s largest—that functions as both a meditative central court and a way of observing the passage of time,” writes Paul Goldberger in his 1992 review. If postmodernism takes as its thesis that a building ought not to be timeless but instead a reflection of all times past, present, and future, Isozaki’s Team Disney Orlando is an elegantly rendered interpretation of the idea—complete with Mickey Mouse ears Goldberger calls “not just a logo but a true architectural element, so abstracted that they fit in comfortably with the rest of the architecture.”

It’s also impossible to talk about Disney in the ‘90s and not mention Celebration, Florida, the New Urbanist town that suggested it might be possible to market mixed-use, walkable urban planning to Disney fans. While books and articles about Celebration offered almost lurid readings of town rules and regulations (Disney-approved paint colors only, lawns manicured to a Magic Kingdom-esque standard), the town remains, without a doubt, the most impressive collection of postmodern architecture in the world. The Philip Johnson town hall, which renders the imposing columns of classical government buildings toothpick-skinny, the Cesar Pelli Googie movie theatre, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s bank rendered as 1950s diner, the Charles Moore preview center (now a Bank of America branch location) that looks, and this is meant as the utmost compliment, like the Winchester Mystery House. The homes sold to residents may be leaking and growing mold, but downtown Celebration is a marvel of postmodernism—if Disneyland’s Main Street is a hyperreal interpretation of American history, Celebration’s is a hyperreal version of the hyperreal itself.

Michael Eisner left Disney in 2005, just two years after the opening of the building that would come to define his architectural legacy, despite departing from the colorful exuberance of 1990s Disney design.

The building in question is Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, a downtown Los Angeles music venue built as the primary home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Gehry is a curious figure in the history of Disney architecture—he worked on several buildings at Disneyland Paris (originally known as Euro Disney). He was also the designer of Team Disney Anaheim, which opened in 1995 to mild amusement. “His Goofy,” the Los Angeles Times said, “the signature character for the Team Disney Anaheim building, is little more than a splash of black swirls on the searing magenta walls of the atrium.” Gehry was an obvious dream architect for Eisner’s collection, but as an architect who resisted calling himself a postmodernist, it also follows that Gehry would never fully give himself over to the new Disney style.

The Disney Concert Hall opened to rave reviews. In Slate, Christopher Hawthorne called it “a fantastic piece of architecture—assured and vibrant and worth waiting for. It has its own personality, instead of being anything close to a Bilbao rehash,” while in the Los Angeles Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that “the entire building functions as a seductive tool, luring the public into an increasingly intimate architectural experience.” Legendary critic Herbert Muschamp’s praise also came with the assertion that Gehry had been able to do what no other architect working under the Disney umbrella had yet accomplished—in this building, according to Muschamp, “a Surrealist ethos also suffuses the design: the imagineering impulse of Disney as well as of Magritte. Pumpkin into carriage, cabbage into concert hall, bippidi-bobbidi-boo.” Benefiting from its architect’s status, its function as a space for high art, and, crucially, the distance of several years (while Gehry was commissioned in 1988, design and construction delays meant it opened a solid decade after the height of Disney postmodernism), the Walt Disney Concert Hall, in the eyes of many, managed to be the rare building that was of Disney but not Disneyfied.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, a building with a facade full of sweeping metallic surfaces
Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall
Shutterstock

Earlier this spring, as I made the drive from Los Angeles to Anaheim, I remembered the specific thrill I used to get when, on trips to visit friends and relatives in Orange County and San Diego, I spied the back of the Matterhorn—a roller coaster set in a fantastical Alpine wonderland—while cruising down the 5 Freeway. An Alpine wonder rising above the hot concrete of Southern California felt delightfully incongruous and yet inexplicably right—if Southern California was a place where believing in something was enough to make it real, why shouldn’t it feel normal to catch a glimpse of a Swiss fantasia at 75 miles per hour?

As we entered the park I was reminded of the fact that this was my first visit since getting an Instagram account, and, having left most of my inhibitions at the Mickey and Friends parking garage, I eagerly strode up Main Street, hoping there wouldn’t be too much of a crowd at Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. As we moved closer, I noticed that the castle wasn’t itself, which is to say it wasn’t there at all. Instead, a massive enclosure surrounded the landmark, and a sign informed visitors that a refurbishment was underway. At first the wrap-around looked blue, melting into the April sky, but as I moved closer I noticed a full scene painted on the flimsy structure. It was the castle, rendered not in a photograph but in swirly paint, like a still from Sleeping Beauty itself. I stopped just in front of Disneyland’s bronze statue of Walt Disney, usually presiding over the castle but on this day the king of a disguised construction site.

Thirty years after the height of Disney’s investment in postmodern architecture, here it was at last: a literal decorated shed, perfectly Disneyfied.

Angela Serratore is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, Smithsonian, and more.

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