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.