Friday, January 12, 2007

An Aesthetic History of EPCOT: Part One

Walt Disney Imagineering doesn’t know what EPCOT is or, rather, WDI can’t quite seem to figure out what WED Enterprises actually did. EPCOT Center, one of the most contested of the jewels in Disney’s crown, has been variously badly mishandled and praised over the years, both by its’ creators and those it was intended to inform and entertain. Disney pundits who walk around with their feet in their mouths often dismiss EPCOT as not being “what Walt wanted”, regardless of the fact that Walt Disney’s final dream was in actuality probably unattainable by anybody except himself.

What EPCOT evolved as is actually a remarkably sophisticated contrast to Disney’s Magic Kingdom park concept in and of itself. Whereas the disparate areas of Magic Kingdom-style parks seek to interface with each other in a way which is unique and simultaneously discreet, EPCOT takes the concept of the land entryway / bridge and removes all other elements, filling the spaces in between with “filler” designed to evoke “scope” – rolling lawns, flowers, lakes, trees. The signifying arch of the land entrance becomes a huge building which seeks to allude to the contents of the interior pavilion in a way which harmonizes with the surrounding pastoral landscape and with the other pavilions. No building has an appearance which is too different than the others, but each building is uniquely thematically unified.

The concept of the interior pavilion also makes irrelevant the themed design concepts of unity and harmony across diverse styles and concepts, in the way, for example, The Magic Kingdom matches Caribbean architecture to Southwest architecture. Since the space is totally enclosed (and if not by a ceiling, usually by at least three walls, which is why the World Showcase buildings are all courtyards), there is no actual need to screen out “inorganic” elements! Thus, each pavilion has, once inside, distinct styles, concepts and color tones decided by a unique group of architects, artists, and story men. This approach makes much of the innovation of Disneyland’s lands’ organic blending and thematic orientation actually rather inessential to the EPCOT show: it is a subversion of the codified concept of a “theme park”, made famous by the Disneyland model.

What EPCOT does take from Disneyland is the hub and spoke layout and the concept of the “weenie”. But the hub is elaborated into a figure eight, really two “hubs” rotating in a fixed pattern, and the weenie situated on the outermost rim of each: one weenie to guide you into the park, the other to guide you to the back of the park. All other patterns of pedestrian traffic are governed by the circles, either of World Showcase Lagoon or Communicore, mirroring the circle which Spaceship Earth inscribes in the sky.

Presentationalism: 1982 – 1988

Presentationalism is an aesthetic which has actually been in the Disney canon since 1955, although it is rarely elaborated on or even mentioned in aesthetic overviews of the Disney three-dimensional style, and since EPCOT it has been on the decline, replaced with the elaborate and “depth staged” faux realism which was the mode of Harper Goff’s Adventureland. Presentationalism is the realm of Tomorrowland, simply put, with its’ circle-visions and halls of chemistry, wherein subjects are presented in a rather directly informative way in a way which puts the subject front and center with often a second objective being the direct tactile involvement of the spectator in the manner of a Space Mountain supposedly being about space travel. A classic Disney attraction is often overlooked as one of the great examples of Presentationalism: “it’s a small world.” The representative tableaus within make no effort to accommodate for wildly different architectural styles or geographic locations, all of which are homogenized into large swatches of complimentary colors and vaguely organized into thematic sections. What remains consistent is the deco-style 60’s exuberance of Mary Blair’s colors and shapes, interior scenery by Claude Coates and Rolly Crump, and the song by the Sherman Brothers.

EPCOT Center similarly used concepts and abstract connections to thread together its’ attractions, with often very little in the way of a nod towards realism in the way that Disneyland seeks to actually put you in a jungle, in the Old West. Spaces are not designed to be infinite, to recede endlessly into space in the way that very successful themed environments generally appear to do. World of Motion and Horizons marked their space as limited, World of Motion through stock footage projected behind its’ animatronics in a way which is designed to artificially extend the space while also making the audience aware of the methods through which the space is artificially extended. Horizons contained some of the most complex and elaborate sets in any Disney attraction, but broke these up with non-diagetic tableaus or transitional spaces, sometimes as simple as a literal theatrical curtain hung in front of the passengers and lit with diffuse, glowing light.

What marks all of the EPCOT Center attractions is the complete abandonment of the articulation of locale: each pavilion locates the visitor not in a pastoral, turn of century Mid- western farm, but a represen- tation of such in a pavilion within EPCOT Center. Even when guests move through a very complex themed space, such as a primordial swamp at the Universe of Energy, eventually the illusion is dispelled through the return to the theatre and the renewal of the filmed presentation.

EPCOT Center overflows with film presentations, some innovative, some not, some entertaining, some not (for every Symbiosis there is an Impressions de France, which is still as beautiful and enchanting as it was in 1982). Film is, after all, another method of presentationalism, and what EPCOT’s attractions actually do, through their disjunction of space and time, is force you to locate your momentary existence within the attraction not in a futuristic undersea city, but in the continuity of knowledge and science which informs the human experience – not the moment, the cumulative whole.

This function is essentially identical to the function of the documentary film, where the audience is not expected to be caught up in the universe presented, but to learn by example. EPCOT Center evolved not out of the narrative tradition which Disneyland sought to evoke, but out of the documentary tradition of Disney’s Man in Space and other programs. This is why its attractions, shows and exhibits were as revolutionary as its design: it, in the words of Walter Benjamin, both established and abolished its own genre.

That’s why there will never be another EPCOT.

More next week!