Fantasy architecture; The Listener

Why are so many of today's most exuberant buildings, from Las Vegas to Poundbury, grounded not in classical aesthetics but in popular fantasy? And should this tendency be condemned as dumbing down - or welcomed as a change from architecture's traditional elitism? In today's selection from the best of BBC Radio, proponents of both points of view consider the merits of Architecture Lite
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NARRATOR: Disney World in Orlando is a themed environment built by architects of the imagination, that has people smiling and queuing up for more. This is a place for castles, and cute cottages, haunted mansions and Main Street. You can go back in time to the dinosaurs, or forward into space, and visit Hollywood of the Roaring Twenties in between. It's a popular playground that's not just for children. Everything you desire is on offer, from a monorail to a showcase of the world. A trip to the Animal Kingdom, or to darkest Africa. Theme parks started life as the great exhibitions of the 19th century, when countries eager for trade presented elaborate pavilions of their national life and achievements. Now, our desire for spectacle and novelty has turned these artificial worlds into a favourite place for us to spend our leisure time. All the more so, according to Professor James Steele, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Southern California, since the free time promised by technology, has failed to materialise.

JAMES STEELE: In America there was a tradition of a summer holiday where the family would pack up into a station wagon, with the dog, and a picnic hamper, and drive across the country. But now people are finding they don't have time to do that, so, a two or three hour trip to a themed environment has to substitute. The other thing is the idea of security. Then you have safety, which is very much a part of the American psyche these days. And, the idea that the image is more real than the reality.

NARRATOR: Wing Chow, is Executive Vice-President at Disney, in charge of master planning, architecture and design, and he's responsible for commissioning buildings that satisfy popular fantasy.

WING CHOW: What we did is look the world map, and ask where are the places people like to go for their vacation? And instead of them going there, we bring the place to them. We're telling the people, "Look, you don't have to go to Wyoming to stay in a national lodge, you can come to Disney World. Or you can come to Disney World and stay on a Caribbean beach island. You can come to Disney World to stay in the Polynesian Village. You can come to Disney World and stay in a Victorian, elegant, romantic hotel, like the Grand Floridian Hotel. Once we invite the architects on board, then we will give them the briefing, sometimes one page, very simple. They will build on our story. Then the fun begins.

NARRATOR: In Disney's parks, some super-league architects have been working in recent years. Michael Graves designed twin hotels, The Swan, and the Pyramid shaped Dolphin - Busby Berkeley buildings, topped with huge fish and fountains and painted in turquoise and coral. In Paris, Frank Geary was responsible for the Be-Bop Diner. Robert Stern designed the Newport Bay Club, as a homage to the aristocratic world of New England Yachting. Anton Predoc evoked the adobe building of New Mexico in his hotel Santa Fe - complete with plenty of sand, and burnt-out cars. In Orlando, the Miami firm, Architectonica, has made a series of hotels, on popular themes from sport, and music and film. Fans of 101 Dalmatians can stay in a building fronted by two three- storey high models of Pongo and Purdey. The whole building is painted in black and white spots, and - Brian Burnett assures me - it's the same story on the inside.

BRIAN BURNETT: Inside the rooms they're probably gonna find everything from the dog-paw prints, throughout the bathrooms, on the towels, on the sheets. You're gonna find pictures of dogs. You're gonna find representation of the black-and-white Dalmatian spots in different areas. Everything you're going to find will reflect where you're staying, and it helps continue the theme and continue the story.

NARRATOR: Popular, or entertainment architecture, is now hugely in demand. The new plan is to have a theme park about California, where you can visit Hollywood and Beverly Hills just miles from the real things. In Las Vegas, whole swathes of the city now resemble a movie set. Tourists are invited to a resort wholly modelled on New York, to a fully working Italian village and to representations of Paris, and Venice.

John Jerde is America's most successful entertainment architect. His brightly coloured, re-workings of city centres, are about a sense of event, bringing together shopping, civic buildings and restaurants in malls calculated to reassure and excite consumers. They've been built, across the globe from Rotterdam to Japan.

JOHN JERDE: I was born into an unusual family that were called "Oil Field Trash" as a joke - we would blow from one oil field to another, so I never lived anywhere for more than about six months. I began to develop a thing about the communal event. People getting together, mainly anonymously - whether it was a fair that was coming through some little town, or a circus, or a parade. The congregation of people gave me a sense of tremendous well-being and it put me into an odd state of emotion, and always, I've yearned for this communal scene, probably because it was so fleeting in my life.

NARRATOR: Jerde's first big job was to save the city of San Diego, which had suffered terribly when the Navy left town, and when practically everybody else moved to the suburbs. He built Horton Plaza, the most intensely visited complex of its sort in America, where the key to success is not in producing beautiful buildings, but in manufacturing an experience where the visitors feel good, where their perceptions are heightened by a variety of spaces and stimuli. Broad, sunny, squares. Narrow cool spots. The sound of water. Brilliant colour, and most importantly, a reassuring sense of being in a place that plays to the popular myths of local history.

JOHN JERDE: Architecture has always been in the service of the elite. We now see that the common man is the most important power there is and is one that has been seriously underserviced.

NARRATOR: Having built what they think the common man wants to see on his holiday, and on his shopping expedition to town, a group of architects who term themselves "the new urbanists" are turning their attention to popular forms of housing and town planning. And in this it seems the desire of the common man is very clear. He wants to live in the neighbourly world of the soap opera, Peyton Place, to return to Fifties America, when houses had porches, and picket fences, and all the folk were cheery. Andres Duany of the Miami architects, Derany and Plater-Zyberk thinks this urge is strong, even though most people don't remember that era personally.

ANDRES DUANY: There's a cultural continuity through Hollywood, because virtually every Hollywood film takes place in traditional street space. So there's a continual memory that gets revived and you can tap into it as a built alternative. And an incredibly high number of people actually choose to live in such traditional neighbourhoods.

NARRATOR: Which is why Duany's company is snowed under with commissions to build traditional towns such as Seaside, the pastel-coloured, clapboard beach-town on the Florida coast. And why a hundred miles away, Disney has realised Walt's dream, and built it's own town. It's called, Celebration. Population 2,500 and growing. Marilyn Walters, of the Celebration company.

MARILYN WALTERS: In terms of home styles we have colonial, classical, Victorian, coastal, Mediterranean, and French. Mediterranean and French are what we call "spice styles" and you won't see as many of them in the community, as you will the other homes. The sense was that people wanted to be part of a community where they knew their neighbours, where they could walk down the street and run into people with whom they shared common experiences. A place where they felt comfortable and connected.

WING CHOW: We tried to follow what Walt's original vision for the futurist city, but then we realised there's no such thing, as a futurist city, and what we say is OK, instead of trying to create, the future, why can't we look back in history. What kind of town or community that makes your life more comfortable and more liveable, that the kids can ride their bicycles to school, and you can walk to a town centre. So it's more people friendly, rather than automobile friendly. I think somebody said that the automatic garage-door opener, became the most anti-social element with your neighbours. Because in the morning you can click the garage door open, get in your car, back out of the driveway, wave to your neighbours - you don't have to say hello, if you don't want to roll down the window. Then when you come home, click to open the garage, drive into the garage and you're in your house. So you don't even have that contact with your neighbours. Whatever we do, we always try to do things for the people, what the people want. What would make them feel right.

NARRATOR: Celebration is a pattern-book town, it brings together all that people say they love about pre-suburban America. These are houses where you can almost hear the sound of a Thanksgiving party behind the Georgian windows and column flanked French doors, dressed with seasonal wreaths. Celebration was thoroughly researched, and based on the common man's wish list.

MARILYN WALTERS: Right now we're sitting in Market Square, which is at the top of Market Street, which is the thriving part of the business and retail section of Celebration. Right in front of us is the Preview Centre, one of the last buildings, designed by Charles Moore. Directly across from the preview centre, is the town hall, and in the classical tradition of Philip Johnson, it is surrounded by 50 columns, which very loudly proclaim that this is an important civic building.

Directly, next to the town hall is a distinctive post-office building, designed by Michael Graves. It's a place where people can gather together at the end of the day, or on the weekends to check their mail, and there are benches right at the end of those boxes, where you can sit down and go through your mail, and compare notes with your neighbours if you wish to. We have a grocery store, a barber's shop, a hair salon and an ice- cream shop. And a significant part of the planning and design of Celebration is to return the community to the pedestrian.

It's a very walkable community, and to that end, most of the houses have alleys behind them, where you park your car and put your garbage out twice a week. Much of the town is dotted with parks, and many of the homes are built around parks. We have parks that are a little more formal, like an English garden, and we have a number of parks that are built specifically for children, with playgrounds, sandpits and places for families to gather. That, if you will, are meant to be an extension of your front yard. The parks pull people out of their homes, to ensure that sense of community with each other.

JAMES STEELE: The result is frightening, almost neo-Fascist, an attempt to revise the reality of American urbanism, but it is not always as wonderful and cutesy as it seems to be. There's a sense of control in it that I find quite frightening - to the extent that people aren't allowed to paint their houses any colour they want, they have to follow a certain palette. I do find it quite disturbing, quite frightening, it's America without the freedom that made America what it is.

NARRATOR: There is a subtle security presence here too, not quite as obvious as the "Beware armed response" signs which dot the driveways of most Florida neighbourhoods, but effectively the same. But for the new urbanists, Celebration represents a future that is preferable to the the jerry-built houses of suburbia, in which fast food and retail chains, gaudily compete for drivers attention, and where the contagious ugliness has affected even relationships between people. Against this background, a popular traditionalist, like Andres Duany, welcomes what he sees as the pragmatism of the baby-boomer generation.

ANDRES DUANY: They will happily buy a traditional house, or even build a traditional house, and actually have no problem whatsoever stocking it with the latest kitchen, and the latest appliances, and the most modern bathroom. They'd like the spatial equality of the traditional house, with modern plumbing. There's also a series of people who have emerged who are somewhat confusing - the ideological, traditionalists, who are the people that feel, that the older houses are better, that the past is absolutely better, and that one should actually have, a tub with legs on it in a traditional house, and that an 18th century clock, is better than a modern clock. And we're often confused - we, the new urbanists, are often confused with these ideological traditionalists. They think we want to take the clock back, when in fact, what we want to do is actually select non-ideologically, purely pragmatically, that which works better in the long run.

NARRATOR: Robert Adam is a British architect who shares the new urbanist faith in popular taste. He makes Georgian-style country mansions for clients who like them, and reworks villages to look more like they did before the Second World War. Leon Krier's neo-traditional village of Poundbury, at Dorchester, in the Duchy of Cornwall, is the kind of scheme he likes.

ROBERT ADAM: There are two kinds of moving forward. One is moving forward with a tradition. In other words you see a building that is clearly identifiable as belonging to the past, but not necessarily exactly the same as the past, because traditions can be made up, they can be changed, they can be created. It's a very common phenomenon actually. The whole ceremony of our monarchy is actually made up. But it has an historical anchor, and that's the important point. It's perceived to be continuous, and perceived not to be some great radical change. That doesn't stop it being new. This is very important. Traditions do move on, but they're always anchored in their past. And of course the fabric of our towns, villages and cities is part of our cultural identity. So to destroy that - or to attempt to radically alter that - is actually to take away part of our cultural identity. It doesn't mean it can't be new. It doesn't mean you can't be original. It doesn't mean you can't use new technology. It just means you don't actually make rude gestures in the face of the past.

NARRATOR: Adam's views, perceived to be backward-looking, have pushed him to the margin of the architectural establishment, which - in his words - is now run by elderly men in jeans, and unreconstructed modernists who don't know the revolution is over. While these people are in power, popular taste will always run second to the arrogance of the avant garde.

ROBERT ADAM: The principle that the public might not like now, but might like it in the future, has now been twisted to say, if the public likes something it can't be good art. Now that is not a logical conclusion, but that's what it's become like. But there is this idea that somehow the future has a certain direction, and that if you betray it, you're not just betraying a theory, you're betraying the future.