Utopia built on Mickey Mouse

No minority ethnics need apply... Celebration is Walt Disney's model town for model citizens that's sealed from the savagery of 20th century America. Jonathan Glancey traces the utopian trend back to its roots in Victorian England
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The Independent Culture
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain and inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Which is fine and dandy, Mr Jefferson, except if you happen to be an all-American US citizen 200 years down the line from the Declaration of Independence and live in an uncertain world of escalating violent crime, drug abuse and dodgy neighbours.

Where can a God-fearing, rosy-cheeked, apple-pie American family live today without the restless savagery of the late 20th century poking a Magnum .44 through the front door, and denying life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the process?

Celebration, Florida, that's where.

This summer, the first 350 or so families began moving into this saccharine- sweet new town brought to them by the wonderful world of Disney. By 2010, Walt's architects will have built homes for up to 20,000 decent folk on 4,900 acres of virgin east-coast soil. Mom and Dad will pay their mortgages to the Bank of Disney, will ride along Main Street on Disney buses and bring babies into the world at the Disney Maternity Ward, who will go on to be educated at Disney schools.

This will be a world free from drugs, guns, ethnic minorities and Beavis and Butthead. No Disney child should ever witness the corrupting blight of urban decay: everything at Celebration is brand new, even though every house will look a century old.

Disney has brought post-modern architects on board, including Robert Stern (a Disney director), Philip Johnson (designing the Celebration's City Hall) and Aldo Rossi from Milan, once a respected name in European architecture. This makes perfect sense as post-modernism has long been accused of being Disney-style design: the Mouse has paid off the architects and proved the critics right.

It is easy to sneer at Celebration, but it is what at least 20,000 - and probably far more - American families want. Celebration offers a Back to the Future life situated in a make-believe world some time between American victory in the Second World War and the arrival of the US troops in Vietnam nine years later. Between 1945 and 1954, the US was, to hungry people the world over, the promised land - a democratic Utopia in which everything was the biggest and the best, pinkoes and Reds were kicked out from under the bed and the films of Uncle Walt reassured the population of the rightness of their refrigerated, gum-chewing way of life.

And yet, like all Utopian communities, or sanitised suburbs, Celebration is pretty creepy. Already, a growing list of by-laws is in place to ensure the town is kept squeaky clean: no hanging out washing to dry, grass must be kept crew-cut, and no living out of town for more than three months a year. This is a happy town, one big family. Right?

Celebration is a disturbing concept to anyone who believes in the kind of life posited by Thomas Jefferson and the pioneers of American independence. Celebration is about safety (which is fine), but also about conformity and regulation. Latter-day pioneers and libertarians need not apply.

Given the rise of violence, pollution and urban squalor across the world, it seems likely that those with the money to do so and with no liking for the excitement of city streets will welcome the idea of living next door to the Potato Heads or Mr and Mrs Mouse. In any case, all Disney has done is to take an idea - the ideal village, the garden suburb - that began not in Hollywood, but in Victorian England.

The prototypes of Celebration were - if you exclude model villages built by 18th-century landowners - Port Sunlight and Bournville, two paternalistic villages designed to keep company workers safe from the crime and disease of late 19th-century Liverpool and Birmingham.

Port Sunlight was developed by the soap baron WH Lever (1851-1925), whose Sunlight soap rose to become brand leader within three years of its launch in 1884.

Lever commissioned "a conveniently planned and healthy settlement laid out with all possible artistic thought on sound business lines" (sounds like Celebration?) on the west bank of the Mersey between Birkenhead and Bromborough Pool in 1888.

His architects, William and Segar Owen, chose a black-and-white Cheshire vernacular that was picturesque in the extreme. The crafted timber studwork frames of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves-style workers' cottages rose from rustic stone bases. Roses rambled around oak doorcases. No washing could be hung out front, however, as this might have upset the ceaseless nobs and nabobs Lever paraded around Port Sunlight as workers doffed their caps.

Life in Port Sunlight had to be lived as a kind of perpetual Sunday best. If this sounds intolerable to British families of today, it is exactly what American families want from Celebration.

The architectural style of Port Sunlight was knowingly archaic. This was not simply because arts-and-crafts design was fashionable, but because it spoke of a world in which workers knew their place. Rusticity rarely produces Reds; suburbia rarely equals subversion.

Bournville, five miles from Birmingham, was George Cadbury's (1839-1922) response to Port Sunlight. What made it less corporate was Cadbury's decision to rent its arts-and-crafts cottages (designed by W Alexander Harvey, from 1895) to both Cadbury's workers and to others living in the area.

Bournville and Port Sunlight led, step by step, to Letchworth Garden City, Hampstead Garden Suburb and ultimately to the Housing Acts of 1909 and 1919 that provided for village-style suburbs for the urban working class on the edge of major British cities. Once again, the driving force behind such legislation was a desire to keep the working class not only free from filth and squalor, but from Karl Marx and insurrection.

In fact, far more interesting and, in many ways (certainly from an architectural point of view), better solutions to the problem of urban housing and sanitation were developed by the idealistic young socialist architects of the London County Council, founded in 1889. Under the brilliant direction of WE Riley (1852-1937), the LCC team designed such masterpieces as the Boundary Estate, Shoreditch (1894-1900), proving that it was possible to create high quality architecture for the urban poor and a form of urban planning that offered air, exercise and gardens in a high-density setting.

The experiment was not to last. Soon after the First World War even the LCC was building estates of schmaltzy cottages on the fringe of its urban empire, while the joke oak and neo-Geo semi was about to leap from the pages of 100 housebuilders' brochures onto the market gardens, dairies and woodlands surrounding Britain's major towns and cities. The universal desire was to escape the city, and the British led the way.

From Port Sunlight to Celebration, from a market-leading brand of soap to a world-dominating cartoon Mouse, the ideal form of urban escape remains a cheery, chintzy cottage in a paternalistic town governed by nostalgia, middle-class paranoia and an ordnance of Walt-knows-best rules. If this is something to celebrate, I'll see an elephant fly first.