As a skilled wizard, Walt Elias Disney (1901–1966) manufactured environments to trick us into believing in his temporary getaways. Through the production of enchanting characters he told fantastical stories, all animated in the sheltered space of the cinema. Later his feel-good universe leapt into reality via his constructed architectural environments and gated communities, all staged realities that blended symbolism and nostalgia while speaking of alternative futures.

The man truly was an adventurous genius and his main medium was the American psyche. He understood how to produce a new culture for a nation yearning an identity. He merged a longing for old Europe with a utopian vision, and created the narrative, mastered and innovated the technological medium, and embraced mass media to produce popular culture for the rising middle classes. His oeuvre captivated audiences across the globe and grew from the small-scale beginnings of early animation in the 1930s to the foundation of WED Enterprises in the 50s.  This was the engineering division tasked with designing Disneyland that was later rebranded as Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development, Inc.

This compelling image of Walt the carefree genius, and father to both the middle class and the Disney brand has been carefully crafted and controlled, initially by the man himself, and since the mid 80s by his namesake company.  And even with an enormous staff, the image of a one-man show was always the myth put forward.

Back in the 50s, to build Disneyland – The Happiest Place on Earth – on the site of a former orange orchard, Walt persuaded the media company ABC to invest in the purchase of 244 hectares of land around Anaheim, California. In return for its investment, Walt appeared in a weekly television programme to tell stories about alternative realities, technological progress, and updating viewers on the process of building the theme park.

The key to the theme park’s early success was in the creation of a total environment and the continuous broadcasting of its conception. By disseminating stories of wonder, Walt cast his spell of desire out across his future audience. The whole design pulled in visitors who wanted to explore new territories, but who found something oddly familiar upon arrival.

Inside Disneyland everything is staged and orchestrated – queuing up, dumping trash, smells, colours, light, scale, sounds, nothing is left to chance. Carefree leisure is the aim, yet it is all highly controlled and thought out into meticulously routed journeys that guide the audience along the main axes, which branch out into predetermined tracks – to pavilions with fanciful and aspirational names like Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland, as well as to the iconic landmark buildings that Walt lovingly referred to as Winee’s.

In the era of world fairs and mid-20th century modernity, Walt understood the zeitgeist – American society was looking for a story of progress. To give them that designed identity he took inspiration from the cultural production of the old European continent, its literature and its architecture. Disneyland borrows from the Tivoli Gardens, the amusement park that opened in 1843 in Copenhagen and which Walt visited in 1951, and of course the Sleeping Beauty castle bears resemblance to the 19th century Schloss Neuschwanstein castle. Built by King Ludwig von Bavaria, it was in the region where Walt was stationed as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross towards the end of the First World War. Throughout his life, Walt gathered snippets of inspiration, elements he copied and resampled that resulted in a collage of familiar references. Up until the 19th century, many European castles were already copies, which was never regarded as inauthentic, but rather a manner for the architect to display their connoisseurship, their craftsmanship, taste and travels.

Walt with his teams of Imagineers, animators, set-designers, designers and architects were similarly driven. He wanted to develop a safe haven for the rising middle class, albeit one that was technologically advanced and focused on the future being somehow better. His cultural production gradually shifts from drawing cartoons on paper, from the first Laugh-O-Gram animations on celluloid (1921) to a hybrid of live animated shorts – the Alice Comedies (1923-27) – featuring a real actress interacting and operating in the same frame with animated figures. For this technique, he familiarized himself with books from the local library. Besides nostalgic storytelling and visualizing projected futures, Walt and his Imagineers kept on developing a range of technological cinematographic innovations, such as the seven-layered multiplane camera (1937) to enable depth and perspective in the animations. Walt was the driving force behind all these innovations and developments, often enacting scenes or the characters himself, or literally giving voice to the animation figure he identified with most, Mickey Mouse. Never having had a son himself, Walt even introduces a modern father-son relationship in his caring for his first successful animation character.

The amalgamation of imagination, narration and media, coupled with the embrace of novel technologies led to collaborations with NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and with some pillars of American industry, such as General Motors. These joint ventures paved the way for a mode of living, for a cultural production which trained the public for the same future they would come to inhabit.

For example, The Monsanto House of the Future, an attraction exhibited at Disneyland from 1957 to 1967, was a house that boasted how plastic might be used in the home of the future. There were also household appliances such as a microwave, a dishwasher, and a doorbell with a camera – all products that went on to become familiar household items. All the innovations Walt and his team contributed to were showcased in the form of product placements in the pavilions of New York’s 1964 World Fair, and later in Disneyland with the ultimate purpose of producing desire.

However, this is only one side of the story. Disney positions the nuclear white family and its singular kind of identity at the heart of the American Dream. Many of the Disney stories are sugar-coated reinventions of more gruesome coming-of-age, and underdog-comes-good fairy tales. The portrayal of the characters in the animations and movies contribute, unwillingly or not, to racial stereotyping and also enforce gender roles, which in return leads to the normalization of discrimination. The reinforcement of certain gender roles and divisions became apparent as early as the first full feature animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). While the Suffragettes were busy marching the American streets fighting for the right to vote during Walt’s formative years, Snow White is placed behind the stove. And Walt laid claim to her voice: he made sure the actress Adriana Caselotti (1916-1997) could not appear – vocally – in other movies ever again. Snow White’s mystique had to be maintained.

Pilvi Takala: Real Snow White, 2009, video, courtesy of Carlos /Ishikawa, Stigter Van Doesburg and Helsinki Contemporary

The under representation or characterization of people of colour further ingrained existing stereotypes. In the early short entitled Mellerdrammer (1933), Mickey Mouse portrays blackface thus linking the animation to the tradition of black minstrel, the cultural production from which animation stems. Another aspect is the falsification of historical facts like the depiction of “happy slave life” in the animated musical Songs of the South (1946). Also, our relationship to and image of nature has been altered by its portrayal as too pristine.

This is all rather problematic, as we are informed and influenced by the culture we live in and the stories we share. The one-sidedness of both the narratives and the forms of representation and exclusion, hide and thereby suppress the plurality and complexity of day-to-day reality. This is particularly the case now, in our era where the favoured rhetoric of populist political propaganda is over-simplification which, similar to Disney, deploys identification, symbolism, sentimentality or projected innocence to sway audiences into a certain set of ideals that serve to exclude others.

In order to achieve this sense of ‘wholesomeness’, a set of utopian ideals were mediated through archetypes. In the production of hope and comfort, Disney’s cultural fabrications are simultaneously manufacturing nostalgia for the past, as well as for the future. In order to do so, an eclectic multitude of architectural styles such as gothic ornaments, 19th century Beaux Arts features, or neoclassical elements are appropriated, mixed and staged to evoke an atmosphere rather than a place. You end up in a place that is neither here nor there. A copy so often copied, we forgot all about its original. This all ultimately leads to an architecture of reassurance.

This non-linear weaving with time and place, with real and fiction, with interior and exterior, introduces destabilizing ambiguities that are pivotal to captivating the Disney audience in an immersive experience. It does this while suppressing or hiding an outside reality. As the narrative fields expand beyond the screen and theme parks, seamless feedback loops of reassurance on bodily, visual and psychological levels are erected and even become inescapable as we choose to believe in the story and literally play along.

Disney took a certain poetic liberty in order to construct a sense of the real. For instance, all the US flags at Disney theme parks are fakes. In fact, they each lack a star or a stripe, which allows them to not be subjected to the regulations that typically apply around flag raising or lowering.  Besides this tampering with the representation and jurisdiction, other techniques to skew what we see and perceive as real are at play. One of the most infamous is the “go away green” paint, which the company patented to camouflage and hide what’s in plain sight. The idea being that visitors to the theme park will not notice objects painted a greyish-green shade as they are designed to be overlooked. Not to mention the inauthentic use of colour or material veneer in the staged facades of the buildings designed at a 5/8 scale.

Many methods and techniques to conceal or influence what we see draw on filmic methods such as framing, collage, montage and the forced perspective. This skewing of perspective is crucial in the manipulation of scale, relationality, and our perception of the real. In the parks, the human visual system and haptic positioning are active design interventions in constructing a correlation between the sight lines and vantage point of the spectator in order to draw pedestrians towards an attraction. Other sensorial triggers such as colour, sound, light and scent are being employed to further influence moods and behaviour. This bodily engagement of the audience is a crucial element in the immersive experience within the parks. As we temporarily commit to co-produce an imagination, we suspend our belief, escape into worlds of wonder and persuasive architecture while subliminally being informed by the norms and cultural codes of the fictions.

Much of Walt’s visionary innovation, his collaborations with the American industry, his future oriented ideologies and aspirations for societal change, remain unknown to the general public. It was Disney’s ambition to harness the park’s success and influence real-world conditions. Walt had started to purchase vast amounts of land outside the theme park with the ambition to build property. His aim was to ‘prototype’ communities of tomorrow by creating vibrant-yet-controlled-urban spaces to counter the crime-ridden inner cities, congested highways, and the ongoing sprawl that dominated the American urban sphere of the 50s and 60s – an ambition worthy of being taken seriously. Could this imply that we need to embrace Disneyfication as much more than a derogatory term?  To say something has been Disneyfied most often implies that a ‘real place’ has been stripped of its authentic, historic or sometimes even gritty character. What does it say about us, that our inner cities become the backdrop for speculation, smooth facades and atmospheric spaces? Moreover, what is the long-term influence of social and cultural homogenization where sameness is performed?

The Disney Company has gone on to achieve what Walt was attempting, namely, to establish an all-encompassing universe. With expanding investments into building and intellectual property, with resorts on nearly all continents, the omnipresence of merchandise (produced under very poor labour conditions I might add), the production of games, ocean liner holidays and streaming service Disney +, the company has fully permeated our lives and homes. And of course there is the cultural monopoly and box-office revenues. The Disney Company is acquiring technological start-ups spanning fields from robotic engineering, cinematographic VR, to machine learning, artificial intelligence, and Computer Generated Images (CGI), which algorithmically produce photorealistic images. With this investment in technology, it will become even harder to untangle the difference between the ‘real’ and an agglomeration of arranged pixels; further blurring fiction and reality endemic to Disney long before digital processing became mainstream.

Now that Disney+ is streaming into our homes, Disney’s utopian ideas and ideologies are further interiorized. It influences how we see ourselves, our community and our environment, as we become the stories we tell and share. Yet how do these stories talk back to us? How desirable are staged narratives and whitewashed versions of reality? On the other hand, what can we learn from the success of Walt Disney now that it’s time to imagine alternative futures?  His work being so much about his belief that imagination is the model for reality. In our era of individualism, fact-free politics, and the blurring of boundaries to sway citizens, an understanding of the cultural codes and an awareness of these developments are paramount.

Disney – The Architecture of Staged Realities, Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, due to coronavirus the exhibition will now on 5 June until 5 December, hetnieuweinstituut.nl

Curator: Saskia van Stein

Exhibition design: Frédérique Albert-Bordenave

Graphic identity: Irene Stracuzzi