Disney, Design, and Futurism
The Walt Disney family museum is one of San Francisco’s more curious hidden gems. Housed in an unassuming barn-like building in the Presidio, the museum guides you through Walt’s life and work with old family photos, early sketches, and lessons in animation and color correction. His genius becomes evident as you move from exhibit to exhibit: he was the first person to make a full length animated film; when his television show, Disneyland, debuted, he filmed it in color despite the majority of American’s still had black and white TVs in their home, anticipating the future, inevidible shift.
I enjoyed seeing early sketches from the movies my parents raised me on that were made 40 years before I was born (!!!). There is a certain nostalgia that washes over you as these characters return to your life. But my real interest grew in the final exhibitions, as Walt moved into physical space, creating the first Disneyland theme park. This surprised me. I’ve never been to a Disney park, nor ever had any desire to go.
But Disneyland kicked off a new phase in Walt’s work — suddenly the two sides of Walt’s work collide — the glorification of nostalgia and small town life with the hope and optimism of the future. This set off a series of projects that culminated with EPCOT. I couldn’t stop looking through this part of the exhibition. And after I left, I couldn’t stop thinking about.
“Where you leave TODAY…and visit the world of YESTERDAY and TOMORROW.” — Disneyland proposal cover
To build his theme park, Disney created WED Enterprises to be the design and engineering arm (the first imagineers!) of his company. James Rouse, an urban planner giving a keynote at the 1963 Harvard Urban Planning Conference, called Disneyland the “greatest piece of urban design in the U.S. today.” Following Disneyland’s success, WED Enterprises helped design four exhibits at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Those exhibitions became entry points for his Florida project — the center of which would be his most ambitious project: a real, working city.
EPCOT was an acroynm for Experimental Protoype Community of Tomorrow (although sometimes Community was curiously replaced with City) and was set to be a test bed for the latest in American industry — a utopian community of sorts filled with the latest technologies and developments in urban development that would serve as an example for the rest of the world for how cities could be developed. Here’s a short film Disney produced announcing his plans for the Florida project and introducing his intentions for EPCOT:
Parts of this film were looping in the exhibition on a screen above the plan. I watched it at least a dozen times, completely mesmerized . His ambition is striking — he wants to build “a community of tomorrow that will never be completed” and develop a prototype the world will look to to see “what a community can accomplish with proper control over planning and design.” And what about that park, fully enclosed to ensure the weather is always perfect? What’s that all about?
It all sounds completely fascinating, utterly hopeful, and also somehow creepy. Disney believed that industry and technology could create a better community. His interest in the fantastical and the ordinary, the real and the artificial, crash into each other and he believed these intersection could make for a brighter, more prosperous future.
For the first time, I suddenly saw Walt Disney not as the creator of the movies I watched as a kid or as the name behind blatant consumerism, but as a peer to the futurists I read today. EPCOT feels like something that could have come from Buckminster Fuller or Mashall McLuhan or Stuart Brand. This was about the future. This was about design.
A brief digression so I can mention Lost
If you’re like me and compare everything to Lost, you can’t help but make comparisons between EPCOT and the DHARMA Initiative: grainy videos of man with a soothing cadence, experiments for how cities should and could function in the future; a small community isolated from the real world in a highly controlled environment, persumably funded by a larger corporation; the name an acroynm for its mission. Even the logo feels like an abstraction of the EPCOT plan. Think about it! 4 8 15 16 23 42
Okay, sorry. Back to EPCOT…
It’s 2015 and design has become the central metaphor for how we understand the world — websites, infrastructure, governments, chromosomes are all designed. We praise design’s strengths and see it’s power in the everyday. This is exactly what Disney was exploring in EPCOT. In the film, he states it will be an example of “what a community can accomplish with proper control over planning and design”. Disney was using design thinking to imagine a better city, a better community, a better future. He was way ahead of IDEO. The way Silicon Valley and start up culture uses design as a sales tool, Disney’s WED Enterprises also saw the advantages of a design-centric process.
Disney passed away unexpectedly in 1966, two months after he recorded the EPCOT film, before his plans were completed. The heirs to his company were not interested in the business of running a city and worried EPCOT’s vision would be lost without its creator moving it forward. EPCOT became what we know it as today — just another theme park.
So these documents, this film, Disney’s dream, looks like a vision from the past of an alternate future — of what could have been. In a piece on Disney’s new MagicBands, Ian Bogost writes:
Disney properties have more often been scorned as “false” than celebrated as tentative. But Walt Disney always saw them as provisional and speculative, even if his successors haven’t always followed his lead. Endeavors like Tomorrowland and EPCOT and their ilk are undoubtedly tactical, sponsored, corporate speech. But they are not just cynical commercial products. Like World’s Fairs, Disney parks are spaces where people negotiate with alternate experiences. They are mass-market examples of what the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling has called design fiction, a kind of design that “tells worlds rather than stories.”
EPCOT was design fiction before design fiction existed: what does a community designed around technology and industry by a single corporation look like?
Metahaven, a design and research studio in Amsterdam tackled similar questions in Facestate, an exhibition included in the Graphic Design: Now in Production show at the Walker Art Center. “We are interested in the ways in which Facebook and government, Facebook and employers, Facebook and friends, Facebook and enemies constitute a power arrangement,” says Metahaven, “and the way in which this constellation might influence politics, currency, and the social contract.”
Of course Metahaven is just imagining an alternate future; Disney was actually trying to give us one! I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he lived long enough to see it through. What would be different? Can a corporation really run a city? Can deep design processes and partnerships with industries and technologies make a better future?
Buzz Price, a consultant for the project, believes “EPCOT would have been more famous than Walt Disney World”.
Because EPCOT never came to be doesn’t mean that Disney’s vision for a community was lost. In the early 1990s, The Walt Disney Corporation, under the direction of then CEO Michael Eisner, started developing Celebration, Florida, a town that nearly 10,000 people now call home, and perhaps the closest thing we’ll see to what EPCOT could have been.
Michael Bierut worked on the graphics for Celebration — helping to design a town from the ground up. “Everyone was amazingly idealistic; the true believers managing the project would make many of the my non-profit clients look crass and cynical by comparison,” Bierut notes, “We were building the future! It was one of those rare occasions when I felt like I got to design the whole world.” And like imagining what EPCOT could have been, Celebration feels too perfect, too idealistic, still just a little bit creepy. Bierut continues:
What unnerves me most about Celebration is actually what is not Celebration. Despite the increasing popularity of New Urbanist principles, the country’s vast scale means that places like Celebration will remain anomalies, isolated Brigadoons dropped into bleak exurban landscapes. I remember an early planning meeting for the project, where, after hours of talk about picket fences, paving patterns and live oak trees, the discussion turned to the design of a “vertical entry feature,” a tall landmark that would provide a target to guide people to the town. We were considering relocating a historic water tower to the site. Then someone said, “Wait: how tall would it be compared to the water slide?” Water slide? What water slide? Well, across the street from the town’s entrance was a completely unquaint, moderately tawdry water park, populated by screaming kids and rowdy teens drinking Mountain Dews and eating twist cones. And we suddenly remembered what so much design was being deployed to help us forget: that real life, in all its uncontrolled, aggressive profusion, would be transpiring as usual right across the street from, and indeed all around, this carefully planned precinct.
Perhaps EPCOT would have ended up the same way — a wonderfully designed, corporate controlled environment but right outside its borders is the wonderfully uncontrolled reality. Disney was always interested in the fantastical and the reality, the nostalgic and the future. EPCOT was always destined to live in that tension. You can’t control everything, you can’t design the world.
Even if it was built according to his vision, it could have shown us the future, but like his theme parks, it will always be fiction.