Disney has always been an easy target for urban designers and architects. Main Street USA, the main drag of its parks, can be read as a cruel joke. Its simulated urbanism and festival atmosphere may seem like a sinister, conservative knock-off of actual small-town main streets of yore, lodged deep in the American collective memory, that corporate titans like Disney helped kill with their economics of scale and squeaky-clean spectacle. Now, instead of a public realm, we have cities that are "luxury products," meant not for the stuff of life but for endless, mindless consumer fantasy. Thanks (in part) to the influence of Disney.
A similar criticism can be leveled at Celebration, Disney's model town, located near Disneyworld outside Orlando. It's not so different from Main Street USA, except it has actual residents. It's the ideal American small town of the near future--prosperous, orderly, comfortable. Its New Urbanist perfection combines the bones of the fast with the guts of the future. But then: isn't the social engineering side of it really creepy? Doesn't it feel contrived? Fake? Fascist, even? It might be densely planned and easy on the eyes, but how could there possibly be a there there?
Here's an idea. What if, instead of scoffing at the potency of the Disney fantasy as a matter of course--that would be the singular focus on the design of a totalizing experience, and how to synthesize the influences that inform said experience--we acknowledge that the company's forays into urbanism have informed how we think about our cities, our buildings, and ourselves? Could we get ourselves to acknowledge that maybe--just maybe--there are lessons to learn from this particular corporate giant about the way cities work?
Any urban designer can tell you that it's the way different components and activities in an urban ensemble play off and communicate with each other that helps generate the kind of magic, even fantasy, that is essential for placemaking (and making money). The raw material for that magic is both form and function, and deep understandings of programming and time. Disney's "imagineers" know how to manipulate that, and that is very powerful stuff.
Of course we can bemoan the idea that such magic no longer happens organically, preferring an idealized past to an imperfect present. But it would be vastly more interesting to critically engage with the work that Disney does, and see how it connects to other impulses in the planning and design world.
Times Square, NYC.
This is all meant as a lead-up to how this article about the redesign of the Disney Store, the company's chain of retail outlets in North America and Europe, caught my eye:
It’s your birthday? With the push of a button, eight 13-foot-tall Lucite trees will crackle with video-projected fireworks and sound. There will be a scent component; if a clip from Disney’s coming “A Christmas Carol” is playing in the theater, the whole store might suddenly be made to smell like a Christmas tree.
The aim is to replace the model of retail store with something that, through its interactivity, becomes more than the sum of its parts. Borrowing a page from Apple, whose CEO Steve Jobs sits on the Disney Board of Directors, it becomes an all-encompassing experience, "the best 30 minutes of a child's day:"
“The world does not need another place to sell Disney merchandise — this only works if it’s an experience,” said Jim Fielding, president of Disney Stores Worldwide....Disney will adopt Apple touches like mobile checkout (employees will carry miniature receipt printers in their aprons) and the emphasis on community (Disney’s theater idea is an extension of Apple’s lecture spaces). The focus on interactivity — parents will be able to book a Disney Cruise on touch-screen kiosks while their children play — reflects an Apple hallmark. Employees can use iPhones to control those high-tech trees.The article notes the skepticism of some mall landlords, to allow customization of Disney's retail spaces beyond the interior fit-outs and standard palettes that are customary for most retail outlets.
Now Disney is bringing in landlords, trying to pit them against one another to secure top-tier locations and favorable leases. “We will essentially be the only toy retailer left at the mall because everybody else has evaporated,” Mr. Mooney said. Mr. Fielding added, “Every mall in America is desperate for newness and freshness.”
There's a massive design problem, right there. It's one that I've covered intermittently here before. But for right now, it's most interesting to think about how such a redesign effort could ripple outward at a variety of scales. How could a broad shift toward interactivity, regardless of entertainment value, reconfigure not just our shopping centers, but the streetscape too?