- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2001

The National Building Museum considers Walt Disney Co. more than Mickey Mouse in its attitude toward architecture.

"The Walt Disney Company has had an extraordinary history in American culture with wonderful architectural forms," museum President Susan Henshaw Jones says. "To say that it has the most symbolic structures in America is not an overstatement."

On April 5, the museum will pay tribute to Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner and the company with its 2001 Honor Award.

The award has been given since 1986 to individuals and companies who have made significant contributions to architecture, planning and building.

The museum says that under Mr. Eisner's leadership the past 16 years Walt Disney Co. has commissioned 80 buildings from some of the nation's most innovative architects, including Michael Graves, Robert A.M. Stern and Frank Gehry.

Mr. Eisner "understands the power of architecture, and he put the Disney Company into the mode of choosing the very best architects of the day," Mrs. Jones says.

It is Mr. Eisner who is responsible for the distinctive "Disney style," she says. Central to the style is the combination of top-flight architects with the recognizable Disney cast that made its theme parks so successful.

Jacquelin "Jack" Robertson of the Cooper/Robertson architectural firm in New York and also a co-chairman of the awards ceremony calls Mr. Eisner "one of the most successful architectural patrons in the world."

"He thinks of architects the same way he thinks of people who write and make films," Mr. Robertson says.

The Disney style is being used on "serious" buildings and in broader urban and community planning projects, museum representatives say.

Frequently occurring motifs, logos and emblems adorn the sides of Disney buildings, regardless of architect. This is part of what makes the Disney style distinctive, they say.

"I have always believed that there is a level of responsibility that accompanies the creation of buildings and public spaces," Mr. Eisner says. "We can merely construct the obvious and the bland, or we can strive for innovation and excitement."

An office building, for example, almost by nature lends itself to convention. But at Team Disney headquarters in Burbank, Calif., designed by Mr. Graves in 1991, the pediment is supported by seven 19-foot, cast-concrete dwarfs.

Mr. Eisner, who holds final approval over masonry textures, paint colors and even light fixtures in his buildings, insisted upon the dwarfs.

"To get a big media company to care about architecture is just incredible," Mr. Robertson says.

Mr. Eisner's building plans are viewed at Disney as the natural extension of the architectural leadership of the company's founder, Walt Disney. During the 1940s and 1950s, Mr. Disney's fanciful confections of buildings have tugged at memory or sparked the imagination. Main Street in Disneyland was the home of reminiscences — a larger-than-life small town without crime, trash or pain.

The Wild West was the place of possibilities, where every boy could shoot straight and no evildoer would go unpunished. Cinderella's castle, perhaps Disney's signature building, is quite simply the stuff of dreams.

Today's Disney buildings rely not so much on the intricacies of design as they do on themes. At best, Disney architecture is a mixture of wit and whimsy that transports the viewer into an engaging world.

Some critics say Mr. Disney created postmodernism before the architects did. Certainly, his in-house designers, his "imagineers" used color, history and playfulness in building at a time when most architects bowed to the rigid constraints of steel and glass.

That's a commitment that continues under the stewardship of Mr. Eisner.

"He's used everyone from modernists to traditionalists," Mr. Robertson says. "He always seems to know whom to go to and for what."

The architects are just part of a package that includes many people behind the scenes.

"It's important to recognize the people behind Disney who are involved in creating these structures," Mrs. Jones says. "Everyone from landscape architects to engineers are closely involved in the process. These are very well-built buildings."

At the 1,500-room Dolphin Hotel at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., Mr. Graves has created a mock ziggurat adorned with dolphins. Nearby, Mr. Stern's Beach Club and Yacht Club Hotels nod to the coastal resort style popular at the turn of the century.

"Disney's hotel architecture is really part fantasy, part functional," says architect Hugh Hardy, who is on the museum's Advisory Council to the Board of Trustees and a co-chairman for the award ceremony. "But its real genius is its ability to absorb families peacefully and happily. There is a generosity of dimension here that you don't find everywhere."

The importance of family is most apparent, however, in the town of Celebration, Fla., an experiment in urban planning that combines state-of-the-art facilities with a palpable connection to the past.

In Celebration, homes surrounded by front porches and picket fences weave their way along roads designed to mimic the feel of small towns of yesteryear. Whether yesterday's small towns were actually safe, clean and friendly is moot. What matters at Celebration is the feel of the place, a sort of orchestrated state of mind where neighborliness is all important and buildings resonate with a sense of those who have gone before.

But not every town can feature a post office designed by Mr. Graves. In Celebration's mini-downtown, Mr. Graves' circular post office competes for pride of place with Cesar Pelli's art deco movie theater. In this, perhaps the most talked about suburban project in the United States, the world is served up as we imagined it, as we wanted it to have been.

In many ways, Celebration exemplifies the original focus of Epcot, Walt Disney's 1960s vision of the "experimental prototype community of tomorrow." It was to be a special kind of new community, where 20,000 people and cutting-edge technology would work together. Celebration works nearly along the same lines, except that technology has been overshadowed by a focus not on tomorrow, but on yesterday.

"It's a very, very interesting experiment," Mrs. Jones says. "The thing just keeps growing, and the ideas have really caught on."

Mr. Eisner and Walt Disney Co. also have made significant contributions to urban renewal, museum representatives say. They cite the 1993 revitalization of New York City's Times Square District, along with the restoration and the revival of the New Amsterdam Theatre on West 42nd Street.

"Disney didn't want to be the only kid on the block," says Mr. Hardy, who worked on the renovation project. "It was important to them to work in concert with other tenants who would make a commitment to the revitalization of the whole area."

For the theater project, a "whole arsenal" of research ensured that the old theater was brought back to the way it was when the girls of Ziegfeld Follies strutted across its stage.

Today, "The Lion King" is performed there.

Then, of course, there are the theme parks. Disney's newest, Anaheim's California Adventure, just opened on the site of an old parking lot in front of the original Disneyland. Although smaller than the original Disneyland, the commitment to detail — and to references to the past — is clear. The Cannery Row dining area features weathered, corrugated iron siding. At Condor Flats, the atmosphere is reminiscent of a 1940s airfield with mock hangars. Visitors to the theme park can eat lunch on a mock-up of a soap opera set or pick fruit and vegetables in the Bountiful Valley area.

"When you consider the scope of Disney creations, it is really quite remarkable," says Mrs. Jones, who is expecting close to 1,000 people for the award ceremony.

Along with Mr. Eisner, many of the architects associated with Disney projects are expected at the National Building Museum's black tie affair, to be held in the Great Hall of Montgomery Meigs' big red barn of a building.

Four "mega screens" will be set up in the Great Hall to showcase all of the buildings and structures associated with Disney.

For those unable to attend the event, a new exhibit, "The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks," focusing on the evolution of the parks themselves, will be on view at the National Building Museum from March 17 through Aug. 5.

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