metropolitan life: once upon a time in america

Building has begun on America's newest town. Celebration, Florida, will be a planned community offering its residents a sugar-spun vision of the all-American dream. Its architects? Walt Disney, who else?
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if an entertainment company gauges how well it is doing by the success of its premieres, then November 1995 was a good month for The Walt Disney Company, having had two blockbuster opening weekends in a row in two completely separate divisions. A little over five years ago the marketeers and mouseketeers at Disney gazed into their crystal balls and decided that come autumn 1995 the American masses would be craving oversized, syrupy portions of nostalgia and would be willing to consume it any guise as long as it looked, felt, sounded and tasted like the sugar-spun vision of America that their relatives used to talk about over Thanksgiving dinner.

By Wednesday last week, Disney's dream-makers were proved right. It was announced that their 100 per cent computer-animated film Toy Story, which features such classic characters as Mr Potato Head and Etch-a-Sketch, was the second highest grossing Thanksgiving film release in the history of American cinema. It pulled in more than $39m in just five days.

The week before that, a lesser-known arm called the Disney Development Company had proved that nostalgia doesn't just fill cinema seats; it is also useful if you want to sell homes, lease a lifestyle or even engineer a retro-inspired city of the future. Fifteen minutes south of Cinderella's Florida castle, 4,900 acres are about to become a showcase for some of the world's most high-profile architects and home to 20,000 rosy-cheeked residents. When complete in 15 years time, it will be the most comprehensive exercise in new urbanism in America.

In 20 years time, after countless sessions of urban therapy, Celebration, Florida will hopefully have recovered from the trauma of also being given one of the worst names in the history of town planning.

Walt Disney himself planned to build a series of monorail-linked skyscrapers under a huge dome filled with young people who wanted to rent a piece of the future. But his experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow never got off the drawing board. When the plan was resurrected some time after his death in 1966, the concept was watered down into the Epcot theme park which now sits alongside Disney World.

Recognising that he had almost 5,000 unused acres kicking around south of Space Mountain, Disney's chief executive Michael Eisner started thinking about a planned community as far back as 10 years ago.

Working alongside architect, urban planner and member of the Disney board of directors, Robert AM Stern, the company's development arm came up with the Celebration concept in 1989, after research showed that American home-buyers wanted to live in traditional, secure neighbourhoods. Given that Celebration citizens are all buying into a Disney package of white picket fences, apple pies cooling on the window ledges and an overall return to a "time of innocence" all going according to the master plan, the town should turn out to be a Norman Rockwell portrait for the 21st century. That said, Celebration as urban utopia is being sold on the basis that it will actually look more like a Norman Rockwell painting from the early part of the 20th century.

"There was a lot of discussion about what our community would look like. We considered doing something modern but in the end it became clear that what people wanted were traditional homes that they were familiar with and would offer them a comfortable style of living," says Donald Killoren, general manager of the Celebration Company.

The 4,000 hopefuls who entered the Celebration lottery in a bid to become pioneers in Disney's experiment in social engineering won't be able to throw up just any old Sir Norman Foster slab on their plot. Having to adhere to the strict guidelines of the 100-page Celebration covenant, "classical revival", "Victorian" "coastal", "Mediterranean", "colonial revival" and "French" are the only architectural styles that will be tolerated in a community that, if it's not careful, might start looking a bit like a frame out of Toy Story.

"Communities like Celebration are not really about diversity, they're about security," says Witold Rybczynski, Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. "The home-buying public is very conservative; they want to be secure in the knowledge that their neighbour isn't going to do something hideous to their house that will drive surrounding property prices down."

So, like most communities in America that have covenants (and believe me there are plenty), Celebraters won't be allowed to install satellite dishes on their front lawns, fix their cars in their driveways or engage in abstract forms of landscaping. That seems curious enough in a country that prides itself on personal freedom; it seems even more bizarre from a town that is trying to celebrate (so that's where the name comes from?) all that is truly American.

"I think people get tired of too much self expression, especially when it's going on right next door," says Killoren. "We're seeing people in this country gravitating towards communities that are governed by an idea and which offer controls to ensure that houses aren't half-Victorian, half-French colonial."

With names like Philip Johnson (the city hall), Aldo Rossi (offices and the central green), Charles Moore and Michael Graves (the post office) all signed up to work on the project, Celebration won't necessarily be an exercise in uniformity.

"Celebration and other projects that embrace new urbanism are centred around the idea of mixed zoning," says Isolde Motley, editor of This Old House magazine. "These projects are a reaction against the planned communities from the early part of this century that were zoned single- use and where uniformity was the main point. What you're seeing now is a desire to have actual towns, with actual neighbourhoods where people can walk and interact with their fellow residents. The only way you achieve that is by mixing shops, houses, offices and apartments together and by thinking about pedestrian traffic."

By building apartments above shops and actually creating jobs in Celebration, master planner Stern hopes to overcome the current urban American plague of the dead downtown. "We hope that people will make multiple trips to the town centre," says Stern. "And sometimes they will walk from their homes and sometimes they will drive."

While Celebration's cheerleaders would like to paint a picture of an integrated community with the full spectrum of ethno-socio-economic backgrounds represented, one can hardly imagine a more un-American concept.

"It kind of goes without saying that the turnout for the initial offerings at Celebration were very white affairs," said a local journalist who covered one of the builders' fairs held at the sales offices. "As much as they like to say that it will be representative of a typical American town, they fail to mention that it's of the middle-class, white variety. Disney doesn't do subsidised housing."

Disney does do education, however, and is busy constructing a model school for 1,000 students. Disney will have representatives on the board of trustees to make sure that the school's curriculum fits in with the master plan.

In addition to this, the Celebration Health Campus will be a hospital combined with an athletic centre and a, wait for it, "edu-tainment centre" where toddlers and OAPs can no doubt do their Mousercise programmes.

"Celebration is a bastardisation of new urbanism in a way, I think they've borrowed a lot of ideas from here and there but I'm not convinced that they've thought the whole thing through," says Motley. "I'm not sure whether they've thrown in all the appropriate ingredients to make it work the way a healthy community should."

With no building taller than three stories and houses squeezed into small lots, Stern and fellow planners Cooper, Robertson & Partners have clearly gone for a traditional English model and are obviously hoping for a villagey- market town vibe when all the Volvos and minivans are finally parked in the driveways of Celebration's top of the range, estate- level homes.

With many critics lining up to take a swipe at Disney's plans, many see Celebration as a potential tonic for many of America's worst urban problems. "In America, you can create these types of things from scratch and make them work because there is no reference point. And, at the end of the day, if someone's going to go out and create a town, who better to do it than Disney," says British architect and journalist Martin Richardson.

If Celebration works - and most are betting it will - Disney might be looking to revitalise vast tracts of America in the 21st century, though Don Killoren assures us that this is a one-off venture.

"We had the land, we had the opportunity, so I can't see that we would head to some other part of America and do it again," he says.

Set to come in at just under $4 billion when the last bit of sod is laid 15 years from now, there are few companies that have pockets as deep as Disney's to embark on Celebration size projects. Nor is there necessarily the need to construct whole towns from scratch, particularly when vast tracts of metropolitan America simply need to be re-thought.

"The whole new urbanism movement is about ideas and is challenging many of the currents that are destroying metropolitan life," says Motley. "The great thing about Celebration is that it makes people think, allows us to re-assess where we are and come up with new solutions. That's what the success of Celebration will be based on."

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