Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Taking Apart World Showcase

Modes of Representation

Although as I have demonstrated previously all of EPCOT Center, including World Showcase, exhibits principles of the aesthetic mode I call Presentationalism, it is World Showcase which has resisted the business end of the account's axe much more successfully than her sister area Future World because of the Showcase's retention of aspects of Stratification - the mode of the castle parks - in a manner simultaneously traditional and unique. It is
traditional in that each pavilion is essentially a self contained "land" with a consistent aesthetic at work in each, but it is unique that, being in the Presentational mode, there is no effort to blend one pavilion with the next.

But an early version of World Showcase, International Street at Disneyland, would have worked this way - flowing freely from one country to the next - and the result would have likely been an incoherent muddle as obliquely "foreign" as the bulk of Adventureland. EPCOT Center's Future World did things the same way World Showcase does, letting each aesthetically unique pavilion stand all on its' own in a sea of futuristic green lawn - but those pavilions fell prey to their non-obligation to present an "objective reality" and thus would stylize themselves in any way they saw fit. As a result of this stylization the concepts behind their futuristic design templates would fall out of style and thus make them likely targets for strip-mining. The bulwark of World Showcase betrays similar design concepts but because it functions, at least on the surface, in Stratificationalist modes and because it claims to represent a specific material time or location, the trickery becomes submerged into the mire of "representation" and ceases to be visible to the spectator as being identifiably dated.

The form of the EPCOT Center country pavilions essentially breaks down into two categories: courtyards and streets. On the courtyard end we have Norway, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Those pavilions which take the form of streets or passageways include China, Morocco, France, United Kingdom and Canada. The three outliers are: Africa - more of a McDonald's stand than a pavilion and thus disqualified - Mexico - which is basically a courtyard with a complex setup and payoff preshow which I have described here - and The American Adventure. American Adventure is the total outlier in World Showcase, more designed after the patterns of Future World pavilions like Horizons and Universe of Energy (ie single attraction pavilions) in both presentation and scope. It's massive bulk betrays the massive show building sitting behind it, and it is the only "monumental structure" in all of World Showcase. Its' facilities are arranged in a straight east-west row, and there is no sense of traveling through or back when the pavilion is explored which is one of the key traits of the Showcase installations. It is essentially a massive structure which hides a single attraction, and it does it sloppily. Suffice to say that WED could hardly have failed to adhere to their own rules more had they built Space Mountain at the west end of Frontierland back in 1975.

Guiding the Spectator

One of the forms to take into consideration when forming an appraisal of the pavilions is their functionalities in hiding their infastructure. Although France and Morocco especially take the form of streets which leads back to a large building, most of the countries in this financially overrun theme park hedge their bets and those which require travel back in space are usually doing so in an effort to hide their show buildings. Indeed the Canada pavilion, essentially a courtyard in design, becomes a passage by dint of its' desire to hide its' massive circle vision theater. The chiefly brilliant design stroke in Canada is to enclose this building in a big faux rock mountain range and then force the spectator to walk her walk all the way to the back of the pavilion to enter: the mountain is the only artificial landscape feature in all of World Showcase and its' effect is singular. That you can enter through the elevated courtyard which originally held a number of gift shops or through a narrow lantern-lit gorge far below to get to the mine shaft where the travelouge film plays is another brilliant design touch, allowing a freedom of exploration essentially unknown to EPCOT Center's Presentationalist mode. It's nearly as good as any of WED's better moments in traditional theme design.

Similar in layout is the China pavilion, but the burrowing back and then emerging back out where you came is inverted to the more traditional entering at the front and leaving at the back, which allows the exit, not the entrance, to be the exploration experience. Whereas you feel as if you are going
to a location to enter the Canada circlevision film, you see the China film and then work your way back out towards the lagoon. It is the difference between an experience which takes the form of a prelude or a postshow, and the attention to detail in China's Street of Good Fortune emphatically states "you've seen the beauty of China, now live it!" Even better is France's two streets taking you towards the Impressions de France theater at the very back; although it is more of a destination, the pavilion isn't hiding anything but shops between its' public spaces and as such a sense of depth and possibility - Stratification in effect - is more fully conveyed than in the Canada pavilion, where the faux landscape is pierced occasionally with a standalone structure. The "back of the pavilion destination" model is best represented by France, but Germany, Norway, Mexico, Morocco and even Japan share this trait as well. Although the attractions meant for Japan and Germany never materialized, their architecture and layout thrusts the spectator back to the intended entryways. Although it is just one function all of these pavilions hope to accomplish - hide their anchoring attractions - the sheer variety and complexity of the ways which they go about doing this is testament to the myriad variations possible on Walt Disney's "weenie".

Thematic Embellishments

As embellishments, the water effects and locations in World Showcase aren't distinctly different than the traditional ways in which WED had been using water since the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971. The fountains, waterfalls, and whimsical embelishments are intended to give the front of each pavilion a sense of life and of prestige, tying the harnessing of water of the various cultures. The Canada pavilion has a rushing waterfall and gushing river for adventure and nature: Japan, a peaceful koi pond for beauty and harmony. France's complex entrance fount reinforces culture and sophistication while nearby Morocco's waterwheel-fed well tells of an agrarian past. But the most exciting innovation is that all of these pavilions must be passed in order to get all the way around the lagoon: the hub concept for Disneyland, there a revolutionary gesture of convenience, here becomes a solid lake where once there was only a circular moat and links all of the civilizations to the original water from which they emerged from. The hub of Disneyland which offered both inclusion and exclusion (a spectator could visit Disneyland and never once enter Tomorrowland, for example) now is a wheel uniting all cultures in location in the geometric pattern of the globe they all share, a globe which is also the master layout of the sister area Future World and the icon of the collective entity known as EPCOT which they embody. Although it may be crassly commercial in some departments, the symbolism of the World Showcase is undoubtedly touching.

Of course one of the strongest challenges to the little country reproductions is appearing to actually be inhabited, which Disney responded to in 1982 by "inhabiting" them with actual foreign nationals - who act in theory as "ambassadors" for their country in EPCOT - which effectively takes care of the gift shops, eateries, and attractions. What of the rest? Thankfully, WED had extensive experience in turning rows of facades into Main Street USAs and World Showcase is one of the most extensive uses of a simple design trick I call the "false portal".

A false portal can be a window, door, or any opening placed in any such way to suggest that any given themed space continues beyond where in reality it will stop immediatley out of sight. Throughout Disney parks there are false doors, false windows, false caves, false skylights, false rivers, false balconies, and practically anything which can be reasonably built to suggest that regular human activity is going on in the theme park, one of the least accommodating areas for regular human activity ever devised. The spectator isn't trained to look at the theme environment as being built for the express purpose of selling an idea to them; they look at it as they would any real life environment where things are where they are because that's where they were built, and as a result the aim of Stratification is achieved subliminally.

Even the most basic Stratificationalist environments use the false portal, but the best of them use a complex pattern of false and real portals so that which is false and that which is actually present becomes intertwined. New Orleans Square and Liberty Square make extensive use of patterns of false portals, but even the more straightforward Main Street USA has little tableau and lamps and lights behind their windows to give the impression of things other than storerooms and offices back there. As such we can identify the more advanced type of false portal, more than being a phony door or window, as showing off a visible scene or prop. When these false windows are interspersed with windows or doors that lead to actual, accessible scenes and rooms, the line between actual and representational reality begins to break down completely in the mind of the spectator.

World Showcase's false portals usually contain a scene or lighting rig behind them. Most all of them are lit, the only ones not lit being the dust setting inside the Mexico pavilion where the designers wish to draw attention away from the buildings which represent the "walls" of the environment and towards the focal point forced perspective scene.Those Mexico second story false portals, by the way, are very limited, essentially having two props of a vase of flowers carved to resemble a woman and a porcelain parrot in a cage. There is little definition where one structure ends and the next begins, but it hardly matters because they are more ornate than their function of being ignored dictates. Germany also, one feels, wishes to draw attention away from its' upper levels which are among the weakest to be found. Not only are the upper areas inaccessible, physically as well as visually (Italy suggests accessible second levels by running steps up to them, the only saving grace of those false portals), but the forced perspective is strange and draws attention to the illusion. The designers of the Germany pavilion are laboring to hide a massive show building and they do it with a castle (as in Norway and Japan), and they deserve credit for making the castle a discrete element of the village square rather than just pressing the "expand" button as the designers of American Adventure did and then trying to hide the ghastly size with a massive village square. Quaintness and scale are touchstones of Disney design which is what makes World Showcase more digestible to the average spectator than Future World, but this is also yet another reason why EPCOT Center was so revolutionary.

Suggesting false space: France's Plume et Palette upper landing; a stairway to nowhere in Germany's Der Teddybar.

The most complex and effective use of False Portals is the row of pavilions from The United Kingdom, through France and on to Morocco. Morocco creates false space in two gift shops through highly effective use of a halfscale balcony running along the back wall; although the balcony is a bit too close to the spectators to fully effectively read as full scale two lighting fixtures hang just out of sight in it. Because the roof of the balcony is accented in this way it draws attention away from the extreme short distance between the ceiling and the floor of this little balcony and the effect of there being a full size passageway up there is fully convincing. The effect is compounded by being in a narrow shop where the spectator cannot get far enough away to judge the relative size of the balcony and the major killer of false perspective is eliminated. A similar effect is used in the "Fez House" courtyard next to this little shop, where sight lines are so restricted we can only see the underside of the roof and a bit of the walls. Because there is no good way to judge the actual height of the walls from our perspective we assume they are full height and the illusion is carried out. World Showcase displays Disney's most sophisticated forced perspective in that almost always the connecting structure between foreground and background elements is totally hidden from our perspective: in order for the trick to work part of the spectator's impression of the space must vanish totally from sight, like different panes of glass in a multiplane camera.

The false portal: Morocco's balcony in the Casablanca Carpets store; France's Le Petit Rue

The United Kingdom gets the most credit for fully mixing real and false portals and providing visually accessible upper levels to demonstrate that this space is actually real, ie, constructed. The upper levels found in the Crest & Crown and Heraldry shops shows you an entire richly detailed upper area that is inaccessible but beautiful; walk outside and some windows have lanterns in their Elizabethan windows which create false space beyond. The upper level of the Rose & Crown, which would traditionally be an inn, has windows facing the streets with a small wallpapered wall where little framed pictures hang just beyond, creating the sense of an upper passageway. Throughout, the variations of false portals where scenes are suggested and real portals where scenes are shown give the upper areas of this little pavilion a sense of purpose and activity.

France, too, suggests upper level activity through the visually accessible second level in the perfume shop and the actually accessible Bistro de Paris eatery above the popular Chefs du France. But even better are the two finest false portals in World Showcase: one is above the entrance to Impressions du France, where at night an ornate chandelier can be glimpsed through a gauzy curtain only by its' twinkling lights, creating romantic space where the hazy diffusion of a dream is achieved through the practical and logical device of a curtain. Better still is around the corner on the Petit Rue, where a large window by day becomes transparent at night with a flickering gas lamp and silhouettes static socialites can be seen in a loft apartment. Although the effect is more representational than it is convincing, it's beautifully executed - more felt than seen.

The combination of these traits - layout, forced perspective, the hidden area, the false portal - support the sometimes quite beautiful travelogue attractions and films, eateries and shops, to make World Showcase a height of Disney Design in any arena. Considering that the largest public spaces of any of these little design oasises is no larger than a single block of Main Street, they are remarkably sophisticated and offer more to learn about effective theme park design than any single "land" in any of Disney's castle parks.


Omniluxe said...

I didn't know there were Parisian socialites up there! You're not only educating me on a routine basis, you're starting to exhaust me as I attempt to physically appreciate these details in person. Thanks, I think. And great work.

Cory Gross said...

I admittedly don't have a really intense interest on visiting WDW... Mostly it's just an academic curiousity about things like the design and functioning of Animal Kingdom, and to see how they represent My Home and Native Land at EPCOT.

I suspect the content would be a bit of a gasser (Martin Short?! We don't even pay attention to him anymore!), but in terms of communicating Canadian identity through design... Hmmm... From photos, the universalized Grand Railway Hotel looks quite impressive, but the mountain looks nothing like the Canadian Rockies. It should actually look more like the Matterhorn ^_^

will said...

whilethe american adventure is one big bldg, it does its job well....its needs to balance out all the big box structures in future world....

Stephen said...

What about the idea that the American Adventure is meant to stand alone as an exception to the WS "rule" or, as met19 said, that it's meant to balance out the FW pavilions? Any reason you don't entertain those notions? I found your criticisms of AA interesting, but to me it has always come across more as an intentional (maybe even experimental) outlier than a huge oversight.

(And if I'm not mistaken, wasn't AA originally designed to be VERY out of place--a futuristic pavilion at the entrance to the lagoon in contrast to the more traditional pavilions of the other WS countries? I can't for the life of me remember where I saw that, though.)

J Gall. said...

I'm sorry, but I agree with Foxx on her point about AA. Any pavilion that you have to ride an escalator on in order to get to the main attraction is not laid out well. It makes the speed ramp, a contrived notion when it comes to theming, seem natural in compression! Excellent post Foxx!

FoxxFur said...

I have no doubt that it was intentional - I never said that they were asleep at the wheel - I did say that it just doesn't work. And I said that it doesn't work because you're in the midst of all this nice immersion theming and suddenly for about a hundred feet all the rules just *change* and you have this big ugly building. It's the same reason the Magic Kingdom's careful shifts in time and place just dead end at the Tomorrowland/Fantasyland intersection at the Mad Tea Party and why that area is awkward too. You can't aesthetically violate your own pace and rules, so carefully set up, in mid-march, and either way you walk around World Showcase, American Adventure is right there in the center!

I'm all for an experimental intent in art and design, but Disney just isn't experimental. I spent months attempting to reconcile Brechtian distance with Waltian themeatics and ultimately determined that the two were essentially mutually exclusive. Something else is going on in American Adventure, and that thing just doesn't fit.

If somebody would like to make a compelling argument as to the aesthetic cohesion of the pavilion to some mode or form of World Showcase or Future World that we've been prepared for, fits well, is satisfying - and is divorced from any kind of history or development based criteria ("Well you see Walt wanted it this way in 1956..") - I'd love to hear it. I spent a very long time looking for such a possible reading from that pavilion and ultimately determined that the noble self-importance of the show ultimately undermined common sense. In many ways it's one of WED's most redundant gestures ever, especially considering the far superior Liberty Square, original Hall of Presidents, and the United States centrist mindset of Future World.

FoxxFur said...

By "redundant gesture", by the way, I am referring to my opinion that there was no compelling reason to actually build an America pavilion in World Showcase.

Unknown said...

I think the first time I "realized" the false portals was while walking right down the middle Main St USA at Disneyland.

I think the scale is so much more intimate than the Florida Main St that the buildings seemed so much smaller. The color choices were bolder and a lot of the doors and windows were obviously faux. It seemed so much more like a series of doll houses.

Now I see them everyhwere...

J Gall. said...

Okay, to refer to AA as a redundant gesture is a little harsh. It is not redundant if we view its placement as a colonial act. By placing AA at the center of World Showcase makes the fact that Mexico and Canada are the bookends of this section of the park a political act. America is so important that is devoid of its traditional neighbors. American Constitutional Democracy, and all it stands for, have to take their place at the center of humanistic endeavour. Can't we all agree, rather we be marxist, postcolonists or lovers of Disney that WS, nay all of EPCOT, is suppose to be a humanistic endeavour?