Disney Goes Pop (Denise Scott Brown)

The authors of Learning from Las Vegas—early proponents of the bold and the garish—take a look at King Mickey’s latest resort.

Disney’s Pop Century Resort designed by Arquitectonica offers nostalgic accommodations in a landscape of jumbo-size icons of twentieth-century pop culture. Each decade is represented by a hotel decked out with familiar sayings and enormous objects reminiscent of the era.

In his famous 1965 essay “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” Charles Moore described Disneyland as a monument in a society that has no establishment and no need of one. It’s built, he said, by “men willing to submerge their own Mickey Mouse visions in a broader vision of greater public interest, and who are nonetheless willing and able to focus their attention on a particular problem and a particular place.” These builders, Moore felt, must help create the public realm. Moore was describing Disneyland, but his observations would apply even better to Epcot and Celebration, the company’s later forays into urban planning and new town building. In both, the Mickey Mouse images—and commercial communication in general—have been suppressed. This leads to a much “nicer” environment, one appreciated by residents and architects. Yet the absence of commercial vulgarity is also a sign of a monopoly. Disney wants you to buy only their goods. Why should they let in competitive advertising?

Where does this put Disney’s Pop Century Resort? It’s beautifully done—a highly talented evocation of the Disney reality, more European perhaps than American in its refinement. If Disney’s reality is a picture book, then Pop Century is a picture book of a picture book. But it’s as controlled as Epcot. There’s no jar and jostle of competitors, and none of the precision of siting and design that informs real commercial communication, for example, road signs on a strip or billboards along a freeway. It’s a pretty landscape of delight—and we should not ask more of it than we ask of Disneyland.

The Las Vegas Strip, when we studied it in the 1960s, was much harsher than this, and we learned from it more austere and general lessons than those purveyed by Disneyland. The Strip taught us the relation between perception, scale, and the speed of the automobile; the inner being of the everyday environment; what popular culture could say to architects; and the forgotten role of symbolism in architecture. These lessons we applied to institutional and urban buildings and landscapes far from the glitter of Las Vegas. Was this a better use of us?

There was a time when we dearly hoped to complete some of the designs Disney commissioned us to do, and we feel mixed emotions when we detect themes in entertainment architecture that relate to our Disney designs. But we have been given other commissions as architects. Therefore what we learned from Pop is evident in our writing, in a host of sketches for unbuilt projects—and in weatherworn beach cottages, reticent institutional and academic buildings, spaces and places that betray their origins on the Strip only to the knowing and the canny.

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