Tuesday, November 27, 2007

EPCOT's Modern Aesthetic

In the past few years a lot of (choose one: blood/tears/ink/spite) has been spilled over EPCOT, and seemingly also, strangely, recently rapidly receded. As if to coincide with the 25th anniversary of only a few weeks ago now, in preparation for the event the Disney fan community collectively reared up on their hind legs, their dignity affronted, and then........ Disney suddenly demolished the much hated wand and played vintage music out in front of the park for a day. And suddenly all the tension has dissipated.

Although the removal of the wand is a huge first step towards admitting that there is a problem, EPCOT is still in the midst of a massive, crippling identity crisis. The past few administrative regimes have allowed laziness, cheapness, and - worst of all for the last gasp of real optimism about our futures in the 20th Century - post modern sarcasm to enter the EPCOT realm. Yet strangely all does seem to be good in Prototype Land as of this writing, and it is strange to reflect that the last serious bit of writing about The Place With The Big Golf Ball posted on this blog was made in March while we were still under the shadow of The Big Wand and on disaster watch for El Rio del Tiempo's successor. Well now the wand is gone but the relief of El Rio del Tiempo's awkwardly named successor not being a disaster has been heavily negated by an honest to god tragically awful new Canada circlevision film. A new head of EPCOT has been named, a museum has opened, and Disney has sold us an old-fashioned EPCOT T-shirt for twenty bucks.

I say that now, before Spaceship Earth reopens as something possibly very different in March, while we're still feeling all warm and happy about the 25th, while the godawful wand no longer casts a long shadow over Communicore Center, and while the two best things about EPCOT - Food and Wine and Holidays Around the World - are in full swing... now, now is the time to begin to probe the question as to exactly what the hell EPCOT thinks she's up to.

I wrote a very basic examination of EPCOT's aesthetic history back in January, and this is what I said about EPCOT's modern sensibilities:
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.
Let us, then, use this as a blueprint for attacking the Future World side of the equation.

EPCOT sure has a lot of clutter strewn across her landscape these days: although the wand is gone, everywhere tiny things like water play areas, purple hot dog carts, neon, and weird netted canopies are flying this way and that. The Living Seas, which once had the most memorable entrance sign because of the waves crashing over it, a subtle but cool enhancement, is now strewn with those obnoxious birds from Finding Nemo. Areas which were once uninterrupted rolling hills of green and flowers have now had coffee carts plopped down in front of them. Useful but ugly big LED signs have sprung up all across Future World telling you not only wait time information, but things like the time and the weather that we're used to seeing on scrolling signs outside drug stores.

It's not all bad and recently there has been in effort in the Communicore Central to reduce the amount of stuff that's there to pester you, but ill-fitting carts and diversions and whirlygigs still fill this area. In "An Aesthetic history of EPCOT" I spoke of how EPCOT totally eschews traditional modes of the theme park space, and I think the problem is that the People In Charge still haven't figured out that EPCOT, unlike Magic Kingdom, does not benefit from little pockets of activity you can stumble across. EPCOT's aesthetic is built right into her very buildings and walkways, and that is sleek, uncluttered lines and open spaces. You can't cover these up and the result of trying is to make these original design choices more, not less obvious to the casual observer. The act of having to look past the twirling whirlygig to see the bold primary shapes of Communicore just accents the disjunction.

But let's take this seriously for a moment and say that the honest intent of these is distraction. This appears to be another effort to make EPCOT more like the Disneyland model: Magic Kingdom, where you can look anywhere and see something subtle and interesting, as on Main Street, relies on the methods of Stratification, where details pile up, one on top of the other, and recede apparently endlessly backwards into space, suggesting things which are not there. EPCOT Center is all surface: the details of the buildings scaled back until there are nothing but bold simple shapes which interest the viewer the way the intersecting lines of, say, Escher do. It is modernism, and I've called it Presentationalism before: here it is, it's all out in the open, this isn't detail, this is important. This is pure input.

Stratification or Presentationalism. Oops, I think I've just named the two existent kinds of themed design...!

EPCOT's Future World requires much more work to be a Stratification kind of park, it needs a lot more detail, many more structures, less open space, but it's what is being done and undone, so now we know it by a name.

Color & Harmony

Above is a chart of EPCOT's main color patterns in three attractions of 1982 and 2007. What's important to remember about EPCOT is that Future World's main colors were silver and blue with accents of red; in 1982 Future World was a veritable concrete garden of white and blue and the dull green of florescent. Inside, blue and muted red carpets paved a path to better futures through Communicore and Universe of Energy and elsewhere; although many have argued about the merits of EPCOT Center's dual-park design, Future World is the best aesthetically integrated park ever built. Looking at the 1982 color tones above, it becomes clear just how muted everything was.

Compare those sets to the 2007 sets to their right. If colors have been retained, they've been made bright and loud and attention hogging. Other colors have been added to downplay a "sterile" impression, generically warm colors like yellow and orange in stark contrast to the dynamic, uncompromised bright red which used to adorn Universe of Energy, World of Motion, EPCOT Energy Exchange, and others.

The most prevalent color which has been introduced to Future World (and it's everywhere, from those Communicore Central awnings to stanchion poles) is purple, with bright orange a short step behind. Purple is traditionally associated with royalty, but also with uncertainty and madness, neither of which have much of anything to do with EPCOT. It could be an extension of the popularity of Figment, but I doubt it: probably intended more to harmonize with the current and most famous lighting scheme of Spaceship Earth, it misses the point totally. White and blue are the colors of the sky; purple and orange are colors of whimsy. EPCOT Center looked to the sky.


The other major color to have infected EPCOT lately is black. It's more due to the dissemination of the concept that modernism can be represented in themed design through minimalism throughout WDI than anything else: all through Future World now there's big cavernous black spaces through once moved audio-animatronics, elaborate sets, and Presentationalist tableaus which better represented modernism than any amount of darkness.

When I refer to Modernism we must remember that Modernism is not a movement which is producing much work today; confusion of "modern" and "current" is prevalent both inside of and outside of Disney. Modernism is a concept evolving as a rejection of Romantic values which rose heavily out of the work of Freud. Modernist art eventually mutated into things like Cubism and Pop-Art. Therefor, all things which are contemporary are not Modernistic (although, ironically, The Contemporary at Walt Disney World is Modernistic!). On the contrary, the prevalent cultural "ism" today is Postmodernism, buoyed by such self aware populist works as Star Wars.

Although Minimalism is indeed a concept found in Modernism, it is not a concept which is productive in a theme environment (I talked about this in The Haunted Mansion in regards to Claude Coates). Nor is Postmodernism useful; witness California Adventure. But Minimalist Postmodernism flourishes throughout EPCOT today, an unhealthy combination of the two least conducive forms in theme design. While the outsides of EPCOT structures are covered with gaudy excesses of stuff, the insides are stripped away. There is no harmony anymore - in theory, content, color, design or even between the insides and outsides of attractions.

Yet there are ideas at work here, just not the ideas the park opened with. Through color, through clutter, through (not entirely intentional) disharmony, Disney wants EPCOT to be a pleasure center, full of eye popping colors and spinning devices, places to get espresso (a contemporary sign of sophistication), and do interesting things like go into "space". It's more of a shopping mall with rides than anything. Which is ironic, because as shopping malls become more like theme parks and theme parks become more like shopping malls, a line must be drawn. Some malls around Central Florida are calling themselves "Town Centers", fully manufactured commercial downtowns plopped down in the middle of nowhere, or are billing themselves as 'culture centers" and get the local newspaper to write up little blurbs on famous citizens and put them on bronze plaques around the shopping plaza and throw lots of public art up everywhere.

I think "culture center" is a fair assessment of EPCOT, certainly more fair than any billion dollar commerce zone. It is, however, different than the original meaning of the term, and it is different than "learning center", which is what EPCOT was originally more like.

Which is ironic, because originally Future World was more like the theme park, with bad restaurants and good rides and generic stores, and World Showcase was your upscale mall with great food and great shops - EPCOT Center was the total package, your day of fun and your shopping spree and dinner out afterwards rolled into one.

But World Showcase has been changed the least of the EPCOT package, so therein must be a key, right? I posit that it's worth considering here that Future World's roughest spot was 1994 - 1998, when we saw:
- The Land refurbished to a new color scheme, Symbiosis replaced, Kitchen Kabaret gutted
- Communicore disbanded
- World of Motion closed
- Horizons put on seasonal status
- Universe of Energy, Spaceship Earth refurbished into significantly different shows
- Journey Into Imagination closed
I sometimes call this period, not fully jokingly, EPCOT Center Apocalypse (A Go-Go). Yet the best and most profitable thing EPCOT has going for it today, The Food & Wine Festival, opened smack dab in the middle of this otherwise dreary period, in 1995. This suggests that there has been a concerted effort to make EPCOT... what's that word I just pinpointed? Ah yes. Sophisticated.

After all, Post-Modernism's bubble hasn't burst yet (nay, we're right in the middle of its' hump), so things Post-Modern are seen as sophisticated. And so is having an appreciation of good food and spirits, coffee, and other things EPCOT offers you in abundance. If so, is it possible that EPCOT is attempting to carve out it's own kind of Neo Future Sophistication? It's a long shot from RCA's Home of Future Living, but it's there.

So the question remains: is it working? Certainly, eating sushi while waltzing through a big flashy shopping mall of the future is kind of what people think is sophisticated, if the retailers and clientèle of the big soulless Mall at Millenia just up I-4 is any indication. Is it lasting? I'm not sure. Will it last us longer than Modernism lasted EPCOT, opened in the last possible moment before Post-Modernism arrived and sucked all the wonder out of our life? Perhaps... but in the future, we can probably expect a lot more of wining and dining out of EPCOT and a lot less of the attractions which made her famous.


johnny law said...

I wish there were more people like yourself talking about the things Disney is doing both right and wrong.

I'm a huge fan. A "fanboy" even. I've given mickey thousands of my dollars, and thousands of hours of my time. Heck, I was even under the employ of the mouse.

I love it just as much as anyone else, but I just can't take the rose-colored blogs, podcasts and websites anymore.

It's just I'm still upset over the whole 25th "celebration" as it was called.

Is it just me, or was it a complete joke to anyone else?

It was a slapped together little party Disney had to put on so that the fan events didn't make them look bad.

I'm just tried of reading and hearing fans make excuses for and excepting mediocrity from a place that used to set the standard for excellence and value.

Next thing you know they'll charge us $.50 to use the bathroom and we'll happily pay because it said in a Disney press release that it just makes good business sense for the company, yet still presents a great entertainment value.

And for those going this holiday season I wish I was there with you to enjoy the festivities and the all new for 2007 "You're already here so about paying an extra $4 to eat surcharge." Copyright 2007 Disney

Thank you Walt Disney Company for treating us, like the sheep we are.

/end rant

Cory Gross said...

I can't help but wonder if the transition you're describing from a "science centre" to a "culture centre" isn't signifying an entirely unintentional return to what EPCOT was originally supposed to be.

Watching Walt's old promotional film, I get the distinct sense that walking around sipping coffee and being sophisticated against a backdrop of stores themed after international cities is exactly what I am supposed to be doing as a subject of the oligargic republic of EPCOT, before hopping on my Peoplemover to go out to my Monsanto house in the 'burbs. Not that I give the Company credit for being that intentional about present day EPCOT, but give the residents of Celebration a direct monorail line to EPCOT and you're not too far off the concept.

I feel like I should say more about Modernism and Postmodernism, but having never been to EPCOT, I'm at a disadvantage. All I can say is that I personally don't care much for Modernist aesthetics, since I'm big on the visual-spatial learning styles and a firm believer that the inessential parts are the most essential, whether we're talking Googie or Gothic.

If, and you can slap me down for this uninformed speculation, my impression of EPCOT is anywhere near reality, I wonder if the directionless motion of the design is a product of changing ideas of what the future ought to look like. Futures always get dated, and it takes 20 or 30 years before they get nostalgized again (5 years to go?)... Postmodernism as you describe may be filling in the gaps until people figure out what exactly they want their future to look like again, whatever the period Post-Postmodern is.

FoxxFur said...

I agree that it isn't too far off from Walt's EPCOT Downtown, but sadly Walt's EPCOT wasn't built. The two aren't really even comparable. I'm really more interested in maintaining the integrity of what was put there in 1982, which was kind of it's own totally glorious unhip beast!

And you're right, EPCOT is kind of rudderless because we no longer have a strong sense or interest in The Future. One day we'll hopefully regain that, but I don't see much evidence of a resurgence.

To put it in a non-EPCOT context, it's basically the Tomorrowland Problem. We all know Disneyland's Tomorrowland of 1967 was insanely awesome, and we know what happened to her. My vote for addressing the Future World Problem is to rename it Discovery World or something; "Future" is a word that's lost its' meaning to us today.

Cory Gross said...

That's not a bad idea... In a way, it kind of counterpoints Animal Kingdom: if Animal Kingdom is a zoo, EPCOT is a science and discovery centre. They've got the international discovery aspect down with the various countries (such as they are... I don't know if I want to see this wretched movie supposedly representing my home and native land) but they'd really have to work on the science side of things. Its almost shocking how difficult it seems to be for Imagineers to convey science in interesting ways.

That practically begs a look back at what Tomorrowland USED to be and taking off from there. I mean, now Tomorrowland is Sci-Fi land, which is perfectly fine so far as I'm concerned. It's the Magic Kingdom after all. Adventureland was corrupted a long time ago and its mantle taken over by Animal Kingdom. (I just hope they never, EVER bring that "mythologyland" concept into Animal Kingdom)

I'm definitely seeing an Inner Space 2.0 in your Discovery Land... But what else? I'm imagining some kind of massive observatory-style dome show with spectacular visuals of space. I don't know if that's feasible or not. A Magic Skyway 2.0 would be pretty sweet as well... I don't get the impression that Dino-Land in Animal Kingdom is really doing much except providing some kiddie rides and a Dinosaur film tie-in.

In Museum and Heritage Studies there is heaps of debate over whether the role of the institution should be to inform directly or entertain to provoke self-discovery. For museums and science centres, it varies depending on the institutions resources and market. However, with Imagineers being, theoretically, the masters of showmanship, they would probably have to side on entertaining... Throw down a fantastic ride that captures peoples imaginations about these things. As much as I love the guy, probably go a little easier on Bill Nye delivering lessons. (do they even still have his stuff around after the legal clashes?)

Unknown said...


Great article. Or mini-thesis. ;)

I can see the changes, but how much would you actually attribute to fashion and taste changes?

My first visit was in 1994, the start of the decline, so a lot of my references for the park are that way.

I did see the original Journey, Horizons and World. The replacements are vague--at best. I still missed a lot. In my theme park naivete, I just assumed that nothing would ever change and I would experience everything else on my next trip.

By 1997, Epcot had been picked over like a corpse and so little remained that interested me. We did do Horizons one last time...so that was something.

Enough commiserating. Keep Moving Forward!

FoxxFur said...

Great theme design, i.e., art, doesn't actually date, it just goes in and out of fashion. I don't much trust taste and popular opinion much farther than I can throw it, and EPCOT is a great example. So is Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management. If EPCOT's original fleet of attractions were well maintained and still open today, there'd be the usual complaints of things being "dated" (you can't please people with no conception that something with an older aesthetic isn't invalid), but I bet attendance wouldn't be any worse than it is now. You can't stop people from going to WDW; it's not like the DL demographic.

I wish I could share your enthusiasm for keep moving forward, but the systematic destruction of the best theme park ever built isn't something I can walk away from. It's like the destruction of practically every film by Erich von Stroheim or the burning of the original negative of Magnificent Ambersons or the suppression of The Passion of Joan of Arc or anything; when art matters, and when great art is destroyed, I will not take it lying down.

I don't want them to rebuild Journey or World of Motion or Horizons or Dreamflight or Mr. Toad or whatever; I want the parks to be their own thing, and I want them to continue evolving, but you'd be pretty mad too if they shuttered The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, thunder, Splash, and Space Mountains: great rides shouldn't go away, they should be preserved and updated. Closing your best stuff isn't moving forward, and Disney would have agreed with me on this point: he walked away from failures and fixed them, but knew whento leave something good enough alone, something I wish Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would learn. Otherwise you're just destroying your own path to greatness.

Unknown said...

Aaargh...blogger just messed up and I lost my comments.

Let's see...

When I type Keep Moving Forward, my tongue was planted...just hard to see that in a blogger comments section. ;)

I enjoyed some of the changes made to the original Star Wars trilogy. But not many of them. It seemed to make the movies commonplace. Of course, let's not speak of the travesties of the first two prequels. Geesh. Sacrifice everything for a technological orgasm and a scientific explanation of the Force. Another example of the person in control, with all of the money and power who has lost his artistic way. Or just couldn't keep up with the world?

Would you surmise that is what happened to Epcot? The Imagineers had their hands tied? They just couldn't unleash their imagineering powers?

Do you think the world wasn't ready for Epcot in 1982?

As I type this, I am listening to Jellyfish. One of the most perfect power pop bands that just couldn't capture the public attention.

How fickle are people? Or is the art fickle?

Questions, questions, questions.

I still thought it was a great post!

FoxxFur said...

pretty big questions, and ones I can't answer here right now. ;) I will say that EPCOT wasn't so much ahead of its' time but of a time that never quite happened... it was optimistic, informed, direct, progressive. Over at Your Souvenir Guide, Geoffrey (correctly, I think) posited that in 1982, popular culture offered two idea about how the future could go: EPCOT Center and Blade Runner. And Blade Runner won.

Was it an ideal? Of course. So is Magic Kingdom. I think what happened is a combonation of the fact that Future World was a time bomb waiting to combust (in ten years half the information was old hat or inaccurate) and Eisnerian self awareness entering the Disney cultural scene and taking it over. He did a dilly on what he could of in the Magic Kingdom too, and let's face it: he was a new regime, and new regimes in business always, on principle, throw out half the stuff the old powers that were were doing. EPCOT couldn't be optimistic and low key; it had to be an edge of your seat thrill ride into YOUR future where everything was all about YOU! Talk about the Me Generation...

EPCOT wasn't surpassed by culture; culture never raised itself to the level of EPCOT. It spun off in another direction.

Hey, you folks out there in blog land - contribute if you like!!