"Disneyland, it appears, is enormously important and successful just because it recreates all the chances to respond to a public environment, which Los Angeles particularly no longer has. It allows play-acting, both to be watched and to be participated in, in a public sphere. In as unlikely a place as could be conceived, just off the Santa Ana Freeway, a little over an hour from the Los Angeles City Hall, in an unchartable sea of suburbia, Disney has created a place, indeed a whole public world, full of sequential occurrences, of big and little drama, full of hierarchies of importance and excitement, with opportunities to respond at the speed of rocketing bobsleds (or rocketing rockets, for all that) or of horse-drawn streetcars. An American Main Street of about 1910 is the principal theme, against which play fairy-tale fantasies, frontier adventure situations, jungles, and the world of tomorrow. And all this diversity, with unerring sensitivity, is keyed to the kind of participation without embarrassment which apparently at this point in our history we crave. [...]No raw edges spoil the picture at Disneyland; everything is as immaculate as in the musical comedy villages that Hollywood has provided for our viewing pleasure for the last three generations. Nice looking, handsomely costumed young people sweep away the gum wrappers almost before they fall to the spotless pavement. Everything works, the way it doesn’t seem to any more in the world outside.
As I write this, Berkeley, which was the proud recipient not long ago of a set of fountains in the middle of its main street, where interurbans once had run and cars since had Disneyland parked, has announced that the fountains are soon being turned off for good, since the chief public use developed for them so far has been to put detergent in them, and the city cannot afford constantly to clean the pipes. Life is not like that in Disneyland; it is much more real: fountains play, waterfalls splash, tiny bulbs light the trees at night, and everything is clean.
The Haunted Mansion is a badly flawed ride, if only for the smug and supercilious treatment it bestows on ghosts, just because they are dead. Even so, it is surely one of the most skillful, sophisticated and engrossing spatial sequences on the planet. It is useful to see the ride as a progression from outside the event, where the observer and the observed are at some distance, to the inside, where the observer, mind and body, has entered into the observed, so that it finally envelops him and even at the end makes an attempt to enter him.
Primarily, Walt was dissatisfied with Los Angeles and with other American cities of his era, the 1940s and 1950s. He was dissatisfied because the American city, it seemed to him, had become an utterly chaotic environment: cars rocketing here and there, unplanned suburbs, no sense of visual coherence, no sense of safety and reassurance. Walt Disney was also interested, however, in theming. Specifically, he was interested in what the American city had been in the past, the frontier West, the life of the small town as he remembered it at the turning of the century. He was interested finally, I think, in creating a place where people could feel safe and reassured.We call this exhibition “The Architecture of Reassurance” because at every point in the design of Disney’s theme parks you feel safe, secure—you feel as though you know where you are in space.
Although “Main Street” is just one attraction of many in the theme parks, it was closest to Disney’s heart—it was based not on a Disney product but on Disney’s personal history and memories. It is also the attraction that most embodies “the architecture of reassurance”: all those architectural and environmental touches, ranging from harmonious color schemes to the absence of garbage (a Main Street “newspaper” was discontinued early on because the discarded copies were thought to clutter to the street) to the famous 5/8 building scale (which “made the street a toy,” as Disney put it), which work together to offer an accessible landscape where Disney and visitors alike could feel instantly “at home.” More Frank Capra than Frank Lloyd Wright, Disney’s Main Street is a populist paradise designed to make vacationers feel comfortable, not awed by the achievements of would-be fountainheads. [...][...] “Main Street was aesthetically unthreatening,” writes Marling, “different, in that respect, from strip malls and real streets where every store battled with its neighbor in a disquieting cacophony of visual stimuli.” [...] Disney was so wedded to his Main Street memory that he first tried to populate the place with the kinds of retailers one finds in a small town, rather than with the trinket vendors and fast-food outlets typical of amusement parks. “Disneyland struggled to maintain a tenant list of shoe stores and other specialized apparel shops not because people came to the park to buy loafers and underwear but because the Main Street Walt remembered used to have them,” Marling writes. But apparently visitors’ fantasies did not include buying goods available at home (and more and more in shopping malls, not on Main Street), so eventually the stores sold just Disney merchandise. [...]
One of the lasting impressions from The Architecture of Reassurance is of how little is actually needed to create a sense of place—a realization apparently lost upon a generation of suburban builders. The comforting buildings of Disney’s Main Street disguise a ’50s strip-mall shell, Marling points out, while a structure like the Contemporary Hotel—a prefabricated hotel similar to the roadside chains—seemed progressive simply because a monorail passed through its lobby. The ingenious use of color, light, trompe l’oeil, and a bit of imagination go much further than do the much-hyped “utilidors,” monorails, and other grand infrastructural schemes in Disney’s parks. As in cities, the larger monuments of the park (Disney called them “wienies”) were located to orient and draw visitors—and most tourists, after all, behave much the same way in Disneyland as they do in cities: taking photos, buying things, seeking out attractions, orienting themselves by landmarks. Of course, in Walt’s parks, no maps were needed; the architecture was its own narrative. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once wrote, and it comes as little surprise that the childhood stories lived out in real time and space in Disneyland should have endured in the adult minds of those who seek to recreate places whose true aspects were as dimly and fondly remembered as fairy tales.