Friday, January 19, 2007

An Aesthetic History of EPCOT: Part Two

The Transitional Phase: 1988 – 1993

Everything which has been added to EPCOT post around 1984, when the enchanting Morocco pavillion opened, has been a significant departure from the EPCOT Center model in ways variously subtle and overt. Morocco is an unusual case in that it actually betrays the hand of a later generation of Imagineers - those who built Animal Kingdom - with its earthy intensity, preoccupation with native craftsmanship, and apparent interior organic disorientation.

It is the 1988 additions which are more difficult to classify, as they cover a diverse aesthetic range. Of the three The Living Seas pavillion is perhaps the easiest to classify as essentially “EPCOT”, at least at a passing glance. But The Living Seas betrays a larger conceptual logic which is not part of the EPCOT tradition at all – the immersive environment. Although it’s very hard to fault the pavilion for its bold evocation of bringing guests to an undersea base through “Hydrolators”, then back to surface with the same, it actually disguises a very traditional themed show in a classic EPCOT-style building. Even the entrance area, with its’ carpeted switchbacks passing marine artifacts and then through a theater where a tedious film is presented, is classical Presentationalism in form before switching gears into science-fantastic Narrative. What is ironic is that this pavilion proves that the balance can be struck: The Living Seas fit right into EPCOT’s 1983 components without actually engaging in the same level of non-narrative discourse, resolving itself in the comforting environs of the traditional theme show.

Wonders of Life is an even greater conundrum. The mode of the pavilion is not the traditional EPCOT mold of white, perfect, angular structures but outside and inside a rather diverse, cartoony, distinctly 80’s shopping mall-type atmosphere which one feels was never fashionable. Yet ironically Wonders of Life does not cheat it’s environs, eschewing the traditional theme show mold and coming close to Presentationalism in its’ open air dome which makes itself out to be nothing less than a big pavilion full of entertaining information, in the grand old EPCOT fashion. What makes Wonders of Life sometimes rather difficult to swallow is its’ wholesale endorsement of a rather jokey 1988 version of “futurism”, where recognizable television celebrities loom from all darkened corners and it’s just as important to us that Body Wars was directed by Leonard Nimoy with effects by the same folks who gave us Star Wars (a connection the title exploits) that it is that it’s a supposedly educational tour through the human body.

There is much of the original EPCOT charm evident in Cranium Command, probably attributable to the fact that a number of Disney old-guard WED staff worked on it, including X. Atencio, which gives it a classical feeling. Combined with a smart script which doesn’t make mince meat of its’ silly premise and strong animation and direction by Gary Trousdale, who would go on to co-direct at least two masterpieces of Disney’s “second age” of animation (Beauty & the Beast and Hunchback of Notre Dame), the attraction has a classical atmosphere which overcomes its’ dated lighting, performers and ‘contemporary’ filmed sequences. It’s really the only wonder in an otherwise stale pavilion.

The World Showcase Norway pavilion is a classier act, adding to the World Showcase formula of nice shops and a decent sit-down meal establishment a boat ride through mythology and fantasy. Malestrom is actually closer to the presentational form than it is the narrative form as it uses a succession of stylized spaces placed in disjunctive patterns. Although ‘troll magic’ is used as a narrative device to move the disjunctions and dislocations along, this actually serves the presentational purpose of being able to include a number of geographically disparate conceptual images in a flow which is logical but hardly possible. The attraction furthermore skews the balance towards the traditional EPCOT formula through the use of a narrator / interpreter throughout. But the strongest connection to presentational attractions like World of Motion is the queue, which takes place in nowhere – a strange zone of turquoise walls with modernist blonde wood accents adorned with clusters of Norwegian flags. Finally the boats are seen passing along in front of a huge mural which depicts things which will be seen in the attraction itself. This is Presentationalism in a pure form, bringing the narrative flow all the way back to the Fantasyland dark rides of 1955. The rest of the attraction plays in modernist Narrative forms, especially a flume ride, but the classical EPCOT form is there in spirit if not tonality.

These transitional attractions convey the general confusion at the time about EPCOT, how and why it reaches audiences, and how to proceed with “plussing” the park without dissolving that essential tissue of EPCOT Center. That The Living Seas, Wonders of Life and Norway integrate so totally is a tribute to the excellence and malleability of the EPCOT theme show more than the designers already attempting to cast EPCOT in their own form.

Fragmentation & Reassembly 1994 – Present

Sometime in the early 90’s, perhaps in a fit of exasperation, Disney park management finally decided on what EPCOT was: a Discovery park – never mind that that term leads you to expect something like a Sea World. Since a “theme park” could only be, in the minds of park management and guests, a Magic Kingdom-style experience, and since EPCOT was definitely not, a new terminology must be invented.

Under the guise of a “discovery park” the four enormous conceptual hearts of EPCOT Center were gutted – CommuniCore, Horizons, World of Motion and Journey Into Imagination – and replaced with watered down versions or only tangentially related thrill rides.

Test Track, the biggest and most inadmissible blemish, also straddles the line between the traditional narrative show and the traditional EPCOT presentation, with the balance skewed towards the narrative in its’ effort to fully reconstruct an automotive test facility, less so a stylized representation of one inside an EPCOT Center pavilion. But this concept was one evaluated by the designers of the original World of Motion and rejected, and its’ not hard to see why – WDI’s version of a test facility has to strain the line between a stylized fantasy version of a test track and an authentic one. The inharmonious balance is evident in the contrast between the happy plywood environment of the “Mountain Road” hairpin turns segment and the ugly industrial buildings seen behind the pavilion, truthfully the EPCOT support facility but convincing as GM automotive support buildings because – let’s face it – bad show all looks the same.

Test Track’s interior is telling – neither especially badly themed nor especially appealing – the reason it appears to have been rejected in the first place, by an older and, yes, wiser team of designers. What Test Track has is a lot of clutter. This is not inaccurate for a test facility, but when WDI designed this pavilion it seems like somebody came along, rubber stamped it “A-OK”, and WDI immediately decided that this is what EPCOT was – clutter. Communicore is now cluttered with strange awnings, neon lights and other valueless paraphernalia.

And this is what WDI has been doing for years now – covering up EPCOT Center’s beautiful, sleek, simple lines, shapes, colors, and forms with clutter which in content and color is not dissimilar than their concurrent redesign of Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland. This in concept is not dissimilar – both areas were large, white and sleek, monolithic gardens of futurism, a concept which is dating badly now that we’re actually entering the 21st Century without a flying car in sight. It is telling that fixing EPCOT involved cluttering it with stuff to make it look more “lived in”, more like a bustling metropolis.

What WDI is actually doing is slowly recasting the EPCOT aesthetic in a new mold which seeks to reduce the monolithic lines, huge open spaces and serious atmosphere of contemplation and exploration. Everywhere kinetic devices and colorful distractions whirl and turn and loom and dance and play music in an effort to stimulate the pleasure center synapses, not the intellectual response the buildings are actually designed to evoke. Even the classy exterior of Paul Pressler’s Mission: SPACE pavilion is more intended to evoke excitement and use up extra digital camera space than the more abstract horizon-line / gemstone of Horizons, which it replaced. It may integrate with EPCOT aesthetically but, like The Living Seas and Wonders of Life before it, Mission: SPACE doesn’t know what it’s doing here in this strange park full of so much serious information.

Ironically in recent additions the concept of the Presentational form has been gaining new ground. Mission: SPACE has a convoluted rationale behind why it’s budget cuts don’t allow you to travel back from Mars once you get there, but in the way of presenting a Narrative form which cannot resolve itself it dabbles in the Presentational form once again: you never went to Mars in the first place, we were just showing you our nifty centrifuge – silly tourists! Strongest of all in the EPCOT tradition is Soarin’ – a flatly Presentational film dressed up with some sensory gags (not dissimilar, after all, from similar gags once found in Horizons) which does not make any effort to account for hard cuts in the film itself, allowing music and image alone to carry the flow. Like Mission: SPACE, it makes no effort to disguise the actual workings of the attraction. But it fits squarely in the EPCOT Center tradition of interesting, scenic films presented in novel ways and unusual formats.

Ultimately as much as WDI tries to minimize the bold but simple lines of Future World (World Showcase is more traditional in design and so is relatively safe from the demolition sphere), not only does the simple but classical design of the structures themselves become ironically more appealing, but also more obvious to the casual viewer, whom is prone to screen out the brick-a-brak in the foreground and see what WDI is trying to hide in plain sight ever more clearly. And ironically, WDI is waging a war which the original EPCOT Center designers themselves waged and lost: how to hide the massive American Adventure show building with a structure that’s actually appealing. They ended up reversing the forced perspective trick utilized everywhere else in World Showcase and cheating the building “shorter” to make it appear more quaint than it really was. That didn’t work, either.

The EPCOT case is really unique in the history of Disney’s attempts to convey meaning through themed design in that it’s the only time they’ve actually tried to undo the aesthetic whole of a park which had nothing wrong with it to begin with. Trying to convert a park which only is half of what it needs to be like California Adventure has commanded much money and attention recently, but EPCOT’s reformation has no actual guiding principals behind it, and no apparent organizing logic. It’s just lots of stuff which is “Not EPCOT” put up everywhere and left up even after the perpetrators have been long gone. But lots of “Not EPCOT” everywhere won’t magically transform EPCOT Center into Disneyland III. If that’s what WDI is after, they’d be better off bulldozing the area and starting from scratch. EPCOT’s design is too strong to be overshadowed by a gaudy bandstand ringed in pink neon. It is frustrating for some and awe-inspiring for others that no matter how hard you try, you can take EPCOT out of 1982, but you can’t take 1982 out of EPCOT.