Walt Disney: shaping architecture or illusions?

Even in a cartoon-like life there is a cumbersome dark side: an exhibition tells the story of Disney's impact on how we conceive our living.

The exhibition “The Architecture of Staged Realities. (Re)constructing Disney,” curated by Saskia van Stein, runs from March 28 to October 6, 2024, at the Arc en rêve architecture center, Bordeaux, exploring the social and cultural legacy of Walt Disney.

From its modest beginnings in the 1930s with cartoons and shorts, Disney has evolved into a global powerhouse, encompassing feature films, theme parks, resorts, and cruises. It has built a vast business empire spanning multiple markets and continents, generating $60 billion in annual revenues and employing 225,000 people.

Disneyland Paris © Tabuchi-Monnier

 At each stage, Walt Disney and his company have carefully curated their image, resulting in Disney being seen as the “father of the middle class.” His cultural products offer reassuring lifelines in a world torn apart first by the Cold War and then by repeated economic and social crises. However, beneath this facade lies a complex reality.

Disney’s crafty blend of nostalgia, magic, and historical simplification, along with the allure of the “cute,” gave rise to a culture that is charmingly sanitized, sweetened and devoid of sharp edges. This cultural concoction imbued the pursuit of capitalist profit with a mixture of traditional values and warm sentiments. Meanwhile, the economic empire expands its influence through massive investments in technology and innovation, from robotics to virtual reality.

Disneyland Paris and the surrounding farmland © Maxime Lerolle

The exhibition at Arc en rêve explores the darker side of this narrative, dissecting Disney’s cult of personality, its problematic “heroes” and critiquing the idealized architecture of Disney-fied suburbs. It delves into the immersive multimedia experiences Disney creates, combining films, parks, and TV shows.

Disney’s crafty blend of nostalgia, magic, and historical simplification, along with the allure of the ‘cute,’ gave rise to a culture that is charmingly sanitized, sweetened and devoid of sharp edges.

Much like the “IKEAization” of design, the exhibition unmasks a “Disneyfication of architecture,” where conflict-free simplicity and nostalgic imagery emerge as guiding architectural principles. This phenomenon extends beyond theme parks – from the groundbreaking Epcot of the 1960s, hailed as “the happiest place on earth,” to the sprawling Marne-la-Vallée – infiltrating residential neighborhoods crafted by the Disney Corporation and even seeping into select American suburbs.

Mastering Bambi © Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukacs

 Architecture is presented as a magical fiction that eliminates contrasts and presents an idealized vision of community life. Adorned with historical references, serene landscapes, vibrant colors, and special effects, this aesthetic conceals not principles of democratic diversity, but rather norms and control.

Snowhite in Disneyland Paris © Pilvi Takala

As director Fabrizio Gallanti explains, “The aim is to understand which are the spaces where our existences take place today, and to examine which are the possible strategies of transformation aimed at improving their quality.” It’s a journey into the profound influence of Disney on our society, urging us to see beyond the rose-tinted magic.

Opening image: © Eléa Godefroy

The Architecture of Staged Realities (Re)constructing Disney
Arc en rêve centre d'architecture, Bordeaux, France
From 28th March to 6th October 2024

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