Celebration: American Utopia or Stepford?
“The building of cities is one of man’s greatest achievements. The form of his city always has been and always will be a pitiless indicator of the state of his civilization.” Edmund Bacon, 1967
The art of city building, after being lost and rejected for over half a century in favor of decentralized commercial strip development and suburban sprawl (the stepchildren of Modernism), is being resurrected in several ‘New Town’ projects cropping around the country. Seaside, Newport, Windsor (all on the East Coast) and now Disney’s Celebration have caught the hearts and wallets of Americans wishing for a middle ground between the infrastructure waste and social isolation of our refined suburbs and the higher density, raucous/ crime stereotype of the big city. A moot (perhaps) bonus is that somewhere in this in-between might be a new-found sense of community.
Millions of Americans in our sterile suburbs allow themselves to be robbed a human necessity: to experience a balanced social/ environmental upbringing (that our European counterparts enjoy day to day). Political isolationism and escapism have a root in our psyche. Throughout our lifetimes, minimal interaction on a daily basis for children and adults with a cross-section of individuals of varying ages with cultural, ethnic, and economic differences limits our world-view and understanding of each other. The core issues of community, democratic participation, and individual responsibility are ignored perhaps because they touch deeper philosophical and social themes that continue to be evaded by the American conscience.
As for New Urbanism, most Americans wouldn’t know it if it bit them in the derriere. Starting with mitigation (a form of legal bribery: destruction of protected wetlands-flora and fauna, in exchange for $15M) Disney has not bettered the typical subdivision in many respects. At Celebration, inhabitants will commute out to their jobs while lower salaried workers in the CBD commute in. The net result is as much auto pollution as ever-even more since the whole mixed-use development is at a higher density. Commons and parks are by-products of tight lots which are improvements over the monotony of the typical subdivision, no doubt.
Celebration is over controlled and lacks social conscience. It is elitist: gingerbread glosses social inequity. There is no evidence of individual contribution by the citizenry nor will there be until ownership (Homeowner’s Association) changes hands one day and Disney will be legally immune. Totalitarian control, as in Haussmann’s Paris under Napoleon III, appears to be the only way that Americans can find a modicum of utopia. Relinquishing the Democratic process is an accepted trade-off in order to gain peace of mind (read ethnic, social, economic cleansing). Our dismal history of failed modern planning and zoning, originally intended to improve quality of life, has proven an antiseptic, deadening social and environmental conundrum where the only winners are bureaucrats and corporate developers.
At Celebration architects have been intoxicated by a power that could only have been relegated by corporate executive mandate. Design omnipotency tied to corporate ends has resulted in a high-brow, overpriced subdivision on steroids. Oddly, the downtown architecture appears to have been a product of weak management control over the imported ‘name’ architects. Pastel banality with a homogenous finish (due to single developer build-out of the entire ensemble and too much STO) is a Disney trademark. You can even spot a tinge of fascism at the entry sequence to the project where Disney Development offices stand abstractly in stark opposition to the truer to period Colonial and Classical Traditionalism of the other community buildings nearby.
On the whole the image of the residential sectors reminds one of the facades of early western boom towns which hide a more meager ‘back of house’. Overblown facades are squeezed side by side on narrow lots while infrastructure is duplicated in the form of back alleys hiding 2-3 car garages. Sociability around the front lawns and curbside is thus dramatically impaired. Screening is allowed only at the rear where most families will spend their down-time in the pool and safe from bugs. They also won’t be bothered by the parades of inquisitive tourists that Disney is planning to draw to the downtown.
While capitalizing on their brand-name and offering total predictability in all aspects Disney has tried very hard to make buying Florida swampland feel good: ‘Utopia on a platter’. Sans serendipity, surprise, mystification, or complexity the overall theme is succinctly “defense by privilege”. While ‘citizens’ are anxious to wake up in Mayberry they may find out to their chagrin that they have really bought into Stepford.
PART 1: An Early Look at Disney’s ‘Celebration’
What if they built a city and nobody came? (An intriguing thought but perhaps not the case here as corporate inertia and massive marketing will guarantee build-out.) In this instance I feel a strange sense of loss even though perhaps at first blush a Classicist’s dreams are about to come true. While many traditional/Classicist architects and designers have decried the Modernist’s indiscriminate foray into the built environment and hoped that the tide would someday turn back to a widespread use of classical or formal design principles coupled with a more traditional and organic planning theory, the concept of a Utopian setting to showcase a ‘return to tradition’ has not been attempted at this scale (except in Leon Krier’s fantasies) in three dimensions. Until now.
In late February this year several local architects and residential designers were invited to a preview of Disney’s ‘Celebration’. This master-planned city of 20,000 will have state-of-the-art health and educational facilities, a town center designed by the usual cadre of ‘important’ period style architects (including a rather surprising modernesque Philip Johnson entry) and approximately 8,000 residential lots of differing types and sizes, the widest being 90 feet with 15 foot side setbacks.
The project manager, a Princeton architectural graduate with an MBA, insisted that the goal of the master plan was to induce a sense of community; the expectation is to achieve a varied mix of age groups and economic backgrounds where families would continue to live there throughout several generations. And there was a meticulously researched and produced architectural control standards manual (based on the ‘pattern’ books of yesteryear) illustrating the acceptable styles for the residential units: Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival, Coastal, Mediterranean, and French.
Architectural control includes inviolable first and second floor heights as well as window and door types, setbacks, massing and materials use per each distinct style. Porch, roof, and facade treatments have recommended design standards as well. The picket fences, common areas, and shady boulevards as shown in the conceptual watercolor perspectives achieve a Mayberry-Savannah-Charleston feel with happy residents apparently enjoying the good life sitting at single and upper story front porches (highly recommended) watching the world go by.
I could not put my finger on what was troubling me except I remember that I felt either God was in the planning or I was hearing the drums of the Third Reich. The Strathmore model of the town center looked a bit contrived. Here were Pelli’s, Venturi’s, Stern’s, and Moore’s little monuments in the form of a bank, theater, apartment, office building, cultural center, lookout tower, etc. all arranged neatly on separate blocks. It seemed like a swell theme park to live in. Everything had its place, the main boulevard was on axis leading by the commercial zone to the lake-front promenade with intersecting streets that allowed a minimum of parking.
Further setback were the residential areas each grouped according to the size of the lots with alleys separating types and also eliminating the unsightly two or three door garage viewed from the front of the main street, no doubt a clear improvement over America’s typical suburban layouts. Everything seemed as perfect as possible. Sometime after 1940 it was pointed out, “…architecture took a right, we are trying to continue the development (of well designed buildings, implied) as if it was never interrupted; we are taking the left fork in the road.” Very true, I agreed, the Modernists surely drowned this country and the world with their banal excess of stripped down functionalism. I was rooting yet skeptical at the same time. A little voice inside me told me to stand up and defend… something–that was missing perhaps.
I asked if the entry points were to be gated. “Not foreseen, we want this to be an open community.” What about security concerns? “No crime anticipated at the moment.” We chuckled at the vision of 40’s black and whites roaming the streets. Will the town center be able to sustain itself? “All space currently pre-leased.” How can you make people sit out on the front porches in Florida’s heat and mosquito swarms, especially since you are not allowing screened enclosures? “The overhead fans will cool and dispel the swarms.” Well, there was nothing more to criticize, Disney had it all figured out. Satisfied we all left and thanked our host.
The next day I communicated the following in part:
I realize that your model incorporates the European traditional building forms in an American town setting, but wouldn’t the more successful model (especially for the viability of the commercial activity) be to complete the circle and re-introduce the classic Italian, French or German prototype? Maybe this will be the theme of Celebration II? The other irony of Celebration is that I recall Walt’s intent for EPCOT was for a viable ‘City of the Future’ which implied real examples of futuristic living and working (technological progress, etc.) nodes and the corresponding buildings. I guess we have looked into the future and really didn’t want where the ‘right-hand’ fork was leading. For now, unless there is a proven better alternative I must agree with the premise that Celebration takes and its intent to re-educate America on what a community should really consist of. You have here a utopian layout that will re-ignite a spark of remembrance and longing in all who visit.”
But that uneasy sensation kept grinding in my stomach. Finally I put it together: First, like Seaside, this community was designed to keep the visitor uncomfortable from just wandering into town and enjoying the sights. Second, with so much architectural control the organic tendency for creative growth was nipped before the bud like an Orwellian injection. Even with six allowable styles that quixotic architectural invention that makes a street-scape so charming and vital was not possible. A Victorian motif grafted onto Colonial Revival didn’t seem credible. Mixing Mediterranean with Classical outlawed Palladio. Why, no Modernist touches were even thinkable! (I was surprising myself pushing for a bit of ‘contemporary’ styling).