well after a few years of inactivity—i’ve been busy at the oakland museum of california as an exhibit designer for the past two years—i’ve decided to breathe new life into the themerica project. i completed my MFA degree and presented themerica in may of 2009. more to follow shortly; i’m going to be archiving the blog posts on this site in a different format fairly soon using indexhibit. since this presentation will be in more of a portfolio format, wordpress isn’t the best fit. in the meantime, you can check out my final thesis book (issuu) on my main portfolio site here.
at the kind invitation of scott lukas, chair of anthropology and sociology at lake tahoe college, i was invited to speak on a panel at the 107th annual meeting of the american anthropological association (AAA) this past friday, november 21, at the san francisco hilton. each member of the panel delivered a paper, followed by a discussion and Q&A session with the audience.
EXPERIENTIAL, BRANDED, AND LIFESTYLE SPACES: DIALOGUES BETWEEN ARCHITECTURE AND ANTHROPOLOGY was a multi-disciplinary panel that included noted authors and scholars who study theming. left to right – hai ren, john hannigan, myself, scott lukas, brian lonsway, miodrag mitrasinovic, and brian mclaren.
scott lukas is the author of two related books, the themed space. and his latest, theme park. also on the panel was miodrag mitrasinovic, associate professor of architecture at parsons, and author of the seminal total landscape, theme parks, public space. rounding out the bill were brian lonsway, associate professor of architecture at syracuse university, john hannigan, professor of sociology at the university of toronto and the author of fantasy city, and hai ren, assistant professor of east asian studies at the university of arizona. brian mclaren, assistant professor of architecture at the university of washington, moderated the discussion that followed.
the panel’s purpose was to expand on the dialogue between architecture and anthropology, and included case studies on place branding, contemporary lifestyle and retail stores, shopping malls and theme parks, and casinos around the world. i was asked to speak about my visit to dubai last april, and i presented a slideshow titled modern antiques: imaging history in dubai. in this presentation i outlined the ways in which dubai is using theming to fabricate an imagined historical identity.
MADINAT JUMEIRAH imagines a classical age.
WAFI CITY MALL imagines an ancient legacy.
IBN BATTUTA MALL imagines an islamic tradition.
WILD WADI WATER PARK imagines a rich folklore.
i then gave a brief overview of the ongoing DUBAILAND project.
after the panel session, some of the group and i made our way up the hill to the san francisco fairmont hotel’s infamous tonga room for dinner and cocktails. it was appropriate to continue our discussion on theming at one of the oldest original tiki bars in america.
the next day, both miodrag and scott were kind enough to grant me interviews regarding their work as well as my own. i hope to post the transcripts sometime soon. thanks to all on the panel for a fascinating and very fruitful discussion of theming as global cultural and aesthetic phenomenon.
there’s a great new article over at the wall street journal about the resurgence of tiki culture in bar circles across the country. the piece was timed to promote the 8th annual bay area tiki crawl, which took place this past weekend.
organized by the online community at tiki central, the tiki crawl includes many landmark tiki bar/restaurants in and around san francisco, including trad’r sam (the richmond), the tonga room (in the basement of the fairmont hotel on nob hill), trader vic’s in palo alto and emeryville, conga lounge and the kona club (oakland) and the legendary forbidden island (alameda).
i have visited quite a few tiki bars in my travel research on themerica. aside from the above bay area meccas, my tiki destinations over the past two years have included two trader vic’s locations in dubai (an older one and a newer one), tokyo, las vegas, beverly hills (since closed) and san francisco (since closed); thatch (portland, oregon), the tiki ti (los angeles), kon tiki (tuscon, arizona), and ohana at walt disney world’s polynesian resort.
tiki culture is important because it represents one of the largest and long-lived thematic design trends outside of the amusement park and casino industries. belonging to the ‘tropical paradise’ archetype, tiki is a bizarre amalgam of half-baked western ideas about polynesian culture—with a liberal dose of very strong rum thrown into the mix. as such, it’s completely “made in america.”
the tiki trend in restaurants and bars grew out of interest in the south pacific after world war II, and reached a zenith in the 1960s following hawaiian statehood before hitting a decline worse than crash of disco music.
in the mid-nineties, there was a rivival in 50s and 60s “swinger”culture, including sinatra and his rat pack, the martini, swing and big band music, and everything vegas; a renewed interest in the near-forgotten tiki gods came right along with it. after lulling for a while, lust for rum-soaked bowls of exotic juices (often aflame) sipped under bamboo huts is once again on the rise.
what’s interesting is that, even though the entire tiki style is inauthentic with regards to the cultural source material, the theme still retains its own internal aesthetic criteria. the wall street journal article provides a solid perspective on ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ tiki along these lines:
“anything sleek and postmodern—say, a steel-and-glass totem—is bad tiki. anything you can find in the luau section of your local party store—think cheap plastic leis and cardboard cutout hula girls—is bad tiki. i’m also of the opinion that “camp” makes for bad tiki. ours is an irony-soaked culture, and camp is just a gaudy variety of the old, knowing wink-and-a-nod. campy tiki provides no escape at all.”
here are some pictures from my tiki travels, with a few notes on tiki thematic design.
trader vic’s – dubai, UAE (souk madinat). there are two vic’s in dubai, this is the newer location, so it’s a bit less traditionally themed (read: good tiki) and more on the upscale side. beautiful location overlooking the water canals of the madinat jumeriah beach resort. many of the latest trader vics locations resemble this one; it’s the current ‘format’—more elegant than gaudy.
ohana at walt disney world’s polynesian resort – orlando, florida. a key distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ tiki is the TIPSY factor (tikis per sqaure yard). the larger the statues are, and the more of them are packed into the environment, the more traditionally themed (and thus better) the tiki bar is considered to be.
thatch – portland, oregon. another essential element of the tiki theme is relative darkness; in a tiki bar, it is always perpetually night. granted, most bars are dimmly lit, but the night-time vibe in these environments is accentuated by the types of light you would normally find outside.
trader vic’s – las vegas, nevada. many would consider this newest trader vics to be decidedly ‘bad’ tiki—it’s more glass, steel, and polish than bamboo and lava rock. this is an intentional shift away from the perceived ‘dorkiness’ of the tiki theme, and an attempt to draw a more flashy and trendy nightclub vegas crowd.
the tiki ti – los angeles, california. one of the oldest and most respected tiki bars in the united states, it is a top draw for the LA bar crowd. “the ti” contains all the elements of a classic (read: good) tiki bar; tons of knick-knacks, a very high TIPSY factor, strong drinks, appropriate lighting, a thatched roof, and a history stretching back to the golden age of tiki.
i’ve begun design work on my final book for graduation in may. the specs right now are a hardcover, coffee table-style volume measuring 11.3 x 10.2 inches, at about 300 pages. the photography and illustrations (maps, diagrams, timelines, etc.) will be about 50% my own, and 50% sourced. posted here is the complete outline of eight chapters, plus an introduction and coda. roughly half the content spans chapters 4, 5 and 6; the first three are about a quarter, as are the last three.
It’s Not a Place, It’s a State of Mind –
Welcome to Themerica™
1.) Narrative Applied to Space –
Defining Thematic Design
2.) Telling Tales to All the Senses –
The Visual Vocabulary of Theming
3.) Themes Before Theming –
Early Forms of Meaning, Experience, and Place
4.) Friendly Faces, Familiar Places –
The Seven Basic Archetypes of the Twentieth Century
5.) The Magic Kingdom® Model –
Disneyland® and the Birth of a New Language
6.) (Still) Learning from Las Vegas –
The All-You-Can-See Thematic Buffet
7.) The Placemaking Revolution –
From Pure Simulation to Pure Brand
8.) Theming as Lifestyle –
Urban and Suburban Unrealities
This Way to the Exits –
Future Trajectories for Thematic Design
one of the purposes of the themerica project is to adapt the thesis work into a commercially published book. the final look and feel of this will probably differ from what i am producing for my MFA (based on publisher taste, photo permissions, etc.), yet the written content will be very similar.
over this past summer, in the course of taking a business practices class at my university, i wrote a rough proposal to commercial publishers. this document outlines the book in rough form, explains the potential audience, and analyzes comparable books already in the marketplace. i will be polishing this as graduation approaches, tying it to the look of my final book design, and adding a sample chapter with some sample layouts.
a special thanks to alan rapp (former senior editor at chronicle books), brett macfadden (also formerly of chronicle books as senior designer) and his wife leigh anna (at walt disney publishing) for their valuable insights in creating this document.
this fall term, i’m working with my directed study adviser to write and design the themerica book for my MFA final review next may. the volume will be about 300pp, hardcover case-bound. the aim is to produce twelve new spreads per week for the entire semester, while continuing to revise throughout as the content grows. during next spring i will be making small revisions, developing an abreviated pamphlet version for my review and graduation, creating some small promotional materials, and printing and producing the hardcover book in a small quantity.
there won’t be much activity on the blog from now on, since i’ve finished all my travel notes. i’ll post some PDF proofs of the book in a few weeks as they become available.
after my experience with photographic permissions at the americana at brand a number of weeks back, i decided to write a letter to the glendale news press about the incident. the difficulty i encountered in taking pictures illustrates the troublesome nature of public / private space issues in these new “decorated malls”—a thematic environment that is on the rise. because these new private complexes are being very consciously fashioned to appear and function as public spaces, this is one of the places where thematic design and democratic ideals interact and perhaps conflict.
here is the edited letter, in its entirety, which they published in the saturday, september sixth edition of the paper.
Recently I visited Rick Caruso’s newly opened Americana at Brand. I am a graduate student from San Francisco conducting research for my MFA thesis on thematic design; as such, the stunning architecture of Americana was a must-see.
After being on the premises for a couple of minutes, I began snapping a few pictures for my research, and was immediately accosted by an albeit friendly security guard who informed me that all student, commercial, industry and entertainment photography must be pre-approved. Basically, all photography other than personal shots of friends and family is strictly prohibited. That’s right: no pictures of the lovely greens, the fountain or the fun trolley car.
I had been to Caruso’s Grove earlier the same day, and I took copious photos there; absolutely no problem. A security guard even stopped to admire some of my shooting angles. Both here and at the Americana, I was courteous to others and did not use a tripod or a flash.
After discussing my intent with the polite Americana security guard, I was informed that I could get a photography permit from the marketing director’s office. Fortunately, the fact that I was only a student conducting research (and not someone shooting for stock photo purposes, etc.), I was able to fill out the lengthy paperwork and get a laminated pass that kept Americana’s private security force at bay.
I have two problems with this policy. First of all, there are no postings of this regulation anywhere. Secondly, as reported in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, the Americana at Brand is a troubling mix of public and private property, with the standards for conduct ill-defined. The streets and buildings, sure enough, are private, but the two-acre park in the center of the complex is actually public property.
By the letter of the law, at both the state and federal level, standing in this green space, I am allowed to take pictures of the public on public property. Not so at the Americana. Even if I’m standing on the streets, though, how am I to know they are private property? There are no signs, no posted regulations, not to mention that Americana is consciously designed to appear like public space.
More important, though, is the spirit of the law. What does Caruso expect to gain from this policy? Will it prevent others from lifting the idea of his outdoor shopping mall and building their own? Even explicitly private spaces like Disneyland do not prohibit guest photography of any kind; they only kindly ask that you do not bring tripods into the park (a reasonable request for the comfort of others).
My thesis research has taken me all over the world, from Dubai to Walt Disney World, from Paris to Tokyo, from Hong Kong to Macau, from Las Vegas to Southern California, and the Americana at Brand is the only place I was told I was not allowed to photograph without prior written permission.
Caruso certainly has a lot to learn about the precedent of photographers’ rights. What makes him think his shopping mall is so special that he attempt to enforce stricter regulations than at Las Vegas casinos or the Disney theme parks? This policy represents a lack of goodwill that will not be lost upon patrons of the Americana at Brand.
at the kind invitation of scott lukas at lake tahoe college, i was invited to speak on a panel at the 2008 annual meeting of the american anthropological association. i’m happy to say that the event is now confirmed. the panel is called experiential, branded, and lifestyle spaces: dialogues between architecture and anthropology and will include such authors as anna klingmann (brandscapes: architecture in the experience economy) and miodrag mitrasinovic (total landscape, theme parks, public space). our panel convenes on november 21, from 1:45–5:30pm, at the san francisco hilton.
i’ve been asked to speak about thematic design and dubai, and i will be basing this presentation on information i gathered for the sisters in the sand project this past spring.
well it’s been a little over a year, and my travel research is finally completed. in studying something like thematic design—practiced in real, three-dimensional space—i felt that the only way to get to know many of these places was to visit them myself. reading and looking at pictures can only get you so far. here’s the full list of the places i visited, along with a brief note about each and why i felt they were important.
DISNEYLAND RESORT – Anaheim, California. While theming existed in various forms before this seminal park opened in 1955, Disneyland is where the design language was perfected and codified. As such, Walt Disney’s original Magic Kingdom is difficult to ignore. Given the proliferation of Disney parks around the world (currently eleven), it’s also prototypical; a master lens with which to view the Disney thematic formula as it has been modified and adapted to meet the needs of different cultures and geographies.
I purchased an annual passport which allowed me to visit the park multiple times throughout the year at minimal expense. There are two parks here; the second is the disappointing California Adventure, build adjacent to Disneyland in 2001, in addition to three major hotels and a shopping / dining district, Downtown Disney.
August 27–30, 2007
January 3, 2007
July 15–16, 18–20, 2008
August 1, 27–30, 2008
KNOTT’S BERRY FARM – Buena Park, California. Knott’s bills itself as “America’s first theme park”—indeed the original Wild West themed Ghost Town area of the park dates back to 1940. Walt Disney’s concepts for Frontierland were based in part on research he did at Walter Knott’s nearby park, and the Knotts were even invited to Disneyland’s grand opening. Knott’s is important because it was the first time that a significant simulated historical environment was hosted permanently within an amusement park setting, as opposed to a temporary exhibition or World’s Fair. The park was sold to Cedar Fair in 1997, and sadly many of the original historical structures on the property have since been removed or altered.
August 31, 2007
WALT DISNEY WORLD – Orlando, Florida. Walt Disney World (WDW) is in many ways the successful blending of thematic design with the principles of urban planning (espoused by Walt Disney himself with his utopian EPCOT project). There are more theme parks and thematic venues on this 43 square-mile site (roughly the size of San Francisco) than anywhere else on the planet. As such, it’s something of the global capitol for thematic design. There are four major parks here:
- THE MAGIC KINGDOM – 1971 (a second-generation design of Disneyland, v2)
- EPCOT – 1982 (a combination of a World’s Fair take on modernism and a permanent cultural exposition featuring the architecture, food and shopping of eleven countries)
- DISNEY’S HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS – 1989 (a celebration of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the art of movie making and animation)
- DISNEY’S ANIMAL KINGDOM – 1998 (a unique amalgam of theme park, zoo, and wildlife preserve)
One multi-day pass allowed me access to all the parks for the duration of my stay. I also visited numerous hotels on the properties, each with their own theme, and the various shopping / dining districts throughout the resort. Most interestingly, I went on the Backstage Magic behind-the-scenes tour, in which I toured many infrastructural aspects of WDW, including the famed “tunnels” (utilidors) underneath the Magic Kingdom.
October 17–24, 2007
LAS VEGAS STRIP – Las Vegas, Nevada. Las Vegas is such a fascinating architectural study, I had to go twice—once before visiting Dubai, and once after. The week I spent after was much more in-depth, my observations after having seen Dubai much richer. Las Vegas has been home to thematic design since the 1940s, yet in the 1990s a “Disneyization” building-boom brought the number of themed venues to all-new heights. You really haven’t seen theming until you’ve seen Vegas—the all-you-can-see thematic buffet. I visited nearly all the major themed hotels on the Strip, as well as the Fremont Street Experience, Atomic Testing Museum, and the Neon Sign Boneyard.
December 27–30, 2007
July 7–12, 2008
DISNEYLAND PARIS RESORT – Marne-la-Vallée, France. Initially considered a financial failure, this Disney resort is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. The Disneyland Park (1992) is v4 of the Magic Kingdom formula, and it was remarkably detailed, beautifully designed, and completely unique when compared to its stateside cousins. The Walt Disney Studios adjacent to it (2002) was, conversely, a horrible disappointment. The resort includes five major hotels, each with a different American regional theme, and a shopping / dining district with multiple themed restaurants, Disney Village.
March 16–22, 2008
DUBAI - United Arab Emirates. What can be said about Dubai that hasn’t been said already? So much, in fact, that I had to see the place for myself. I timed my week-long stay in order to attend the region’s leading theme park and leisure trade conference. Dubai is an amazing city, and one of the future trajectories of thematic design. I visited themed shopping malls, hotel resorts and the Dubailand site (which when completed will be larger than Walt Disney World). I also skied indoors and went to a water park—in the same afternoon!
April 17–24, 2008
ATLANTIC CITY CASINOS – Atlantic City, New Jersey. Like Las Vegas, this East Coast gambling mecca uses thematic design to draw patrons into casinos and differentiate one (seemingly identical) environment from the next. Atlantic City illustrates how the surrounding environs (in this case, the ocean) can make or break (in this case, break) the impact of thematic design.
May 27, 2008
TIMES SQUARE REDEVELOPMENT DISTRICT – New York, New York. Going to New York was initially not on my agenda, but I had a chance to visit for personal reasons, and thus took the time to check out Times Square, specifically the Hershey Store. This is center of brandscapes in the United States today—yet another future trajectory for thematic design.
May 27, 2008
TOKYO DISNEYLAND RESORT – Tokyo, Japan. I had visited this resort twice before (August 2001 and January 2003), but it was good to come back and take a much more serious look. Tokyo Disneyland (1983) is v3 of the Magic Kingdom formula, using the best parts of both Florida and Orlando, and is uniquely adapted to the cultural landscape of Japan. Tokyo DisneySea opened up next door in 2001, and is probably the most detailed and beautifully designed thematic environment in the world. It has to be seen to be believed. The resort also includes numerous hotels and a shopping / dining district, Ikspiari.
June 3–8, 2008
HONG KONG DISNEYLAND RESORT – Hong Kong, China. This is Disney’s newest resort, (2005) and is v5 of the Magic Kingdom formula. There are also two major themed hotels attached to the property. Hong Kong Disneyland was meticulously designed to adhere to traditional Chinese practices, and its replication of Sleeping Beauty Castle and Main Street U.S.A. from the Anaheim original takes simulacrae to a whole new level.
June 8–12, 2008
VENETIAN MACAU – Macau, China. Just as Hong Kong Disneyland represents the “copy of the copy,” so to does this recently opened (2007) sister resort to the original Venetian in Las Vegas (1999). The Cotai Strip of Macau is currently the gambling capitol of the world, in terms of revenue, and development is proceeding at a mad pace—with many more themed hotel resorts are on the way.
June 10, 2008
MACAU FISHERMAN’S WHARF – Macau, China. This free-admission shopping / dining district on the water’s edge in Macau was the most horrendous example of thematic design that I saw in my travels. Multiple themes tossed together, with no thought given to narrative cohesion or transition zones. Truly an abomination; a terrific example of what not to do.
June 10, 2008
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD – Universal City, California. This studio backlot tour has been a staple of the Southern California amusement scene since the Silent Era. Unfortunately, it’s developed into a full-blown theme park destination so slowly and piecemeal over the years, that today Universal Studios is a jarring jumble of half-hearted attempts and incomplete or unconvincing designs. Like Macau Fisherman’s Wharf, this curious mix of environments is useful for critiquing solutions that don’t work, and why.
July 17, 2008
UNIVERSAL CITYWALK – Universal City, California. A major project by Jon Jerde, Citywalk is emblematic of the future of thematic design. This shopping / dining district adjacent to Universal Studios is a postmodern pop-collage; an example of referential—versus representational—design. Forms are alluded to, but nothing is re-created or simulated directly. Multiple themed restaurants and entertainment vcnues have locations here, which made it ideal research fodder.
July 17, 2008
THE GROVE – Los Angeles, California. The Grove, and its newer sister, The Americana, both represent theming as lifestyle. No longer the object of short-term amusement and entertainment, thematic environments are coming to replace traditional architectural programs. People are now to living, working and (yes) shopping in spaces that very consciously re-create lost modes of planning, past decades of prosperity, and a nostalgia for simpler times.
July 18, 2008
THE AMERICANA AT BRAND – Glendale, California. The Americana takes the design approach of The Grove even further—here is the full-scale assault on traditional public spaces, here is the blurring between public and private property, here is the privatization of the commons. Americana is designed to look like a public area, such as the downtowns and town squares of old, but it’s really just—like The Grove—an outdoor “decorated mall.” Except this mall includes residential spaces above every floor—not to mention a strict ban on photography without prior permission (in direct violation of the letter of the law and numerous precidents of photographers’ rights). In all my travels, this is the only location where I was told I could not take pictures. I ended up writing a letter to the Glendale News Press about the incident; this ridiculous standard can’t last for long. I should thus probably say, though, that this image is © Caruso Affiliated, and is posted here under fair use for educational purposes.
July 18, 2008
THE TAM O’SHANTER INN – Los Feliz, California. The Tam is the oldest continuously operated restaurant in the Los Angeles area in the same location run by the same family owne. But that’s not what makes it an essential part of theming’s long history; in addition to being Walt Disney’s favorite restaurant, it was designed by Harry Oliver, famed movie studio art director (and untrained as an architect) in the Storybook Style for which he became reknowned. It’s ironic, perhaps, that the end of my travels took me to one of the earliest beginnings of thematic design.
July 18, 2008
my last stop in the los angeles area before heading home was the tam o’shanter inn. this famous scottish pub has the distinction of being los angeles’ oldest restaurant operated by the same family in the same location.
i wasn’t even aware of the significance of the place, thematically, until i read the short entry about it in chris nichols’ fantastic book, the leisure architecture of wayne mcallister. the subject of the book himself is a noteworthy early practitioner of thematic design; the tam o’shanter was mentioned only in passing because mcallister was called in at some point to enlarge and remodel the restaurant.
what caught my eye reading about mcallister was a small, seemingly insignificant fact—the tam o’shanter was walt disney’s favorite los angeles restaurant dating back to the earliest days of his animation studio.
as it turns out, the tam o’shanter inn has a long history, and it provides one of the earliest examples of twentieth century thematic design. the general manager was kind enough to allow me to take numerous photos photos of the interior, and provided me with a history write-up that they give to patrons. from the handout:
“in june, 1922, walter van de kamp and his son-in-law, lawrence l. frank partnered with restaurateur joe montgomery to co-found a quaint restaurant and roadside stop. initially called ‘montgomery’s country inn’ the name was changed to the tam o’shanter in 1925.”
there is a nice display cabinet in the entrance lobby to the restaurant, showcasing many old photographs and assorted memorabilia from over the years. the tam o’shanter name, incidentally, comes from the poem by robert burns (1759–1796), widely considered to be the national poet of scotland.
yet the most fascinating feature of the tam is its creator; the initial design of the then-named montgomery’s country inn (before wayne mcallister’s remodel and expansion) was done by harry oliver—humorist, artist, and academy award nominated art director of films from the 1920s and 1930s.
that’s right—a hollywood art director. oliver never received formal training in architecture. he began his career in 1911 as a set painter and then later as a set dresser (having never even gone to art school; oliver was a grade school dropout). his expertise, in the words of cecil b. demille biographer robert birchard, was “atmospheric settings and controlled environments…one of oliver’s specialties was recreating really believable exterior locations.” and in this, oliver didn’t even use a formal crew, preferring instead movie studio carpenters.
despite having no formal training, harry oliver is credited as one of the major practitioners of storybook style, a fanciful cottage design in which angles are askew and window panes crooked. structures he designed in this vein were the original van de kamp bakery windmill (which became the chain’s signature landmark), as well as famous los angeles residences such as the willat-spadena witch house.
it’s hard to beat this description of the tam’s storybook style from the leisure architecture of wayne mcallister: “…a series of undulating, lopsided, eaveless cupolas with a gnarled walking stick rising from the center. stone and stucco with storybook shingle interiors were dark with heavy half timbers supporting medieval iron chandeliers.”
the exterior of the tam has been remodeled many times since, but the initial design seen in this picture from the 1930s shows the fairy-tale influence; tree trunk and branch columns, topsy-turvy roof lines, knotted wood, wrought iron flourishes and homely chimneys.
all the wood has a wonderfully weathered feeling. almost blackened. owner lawrence l. frank, who hired harry oliver for the job, once explained that “every piece of wood which was used in [building the tam] was thrown into fire first with the result that we never had to paint it and it got more beautiful as the years went by.”
today the overall motif would probably be associated with something like the lord of the rings films—a small country cottage for trolls. one of the few remaining original exterior features is the central cupola.
i can only wonder what walt disney thought as he dined here nearly every week during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. i’m guessing (no matter how good the food was), he found the environment positively narrative-rich. the tam is a building straight out of the head of a motion pictures set designer, not a formally trained architect. this would be the exact approach walt would employ when building his dream park—hiring film people like harry oliver.
not limited only to fairy-tales, this early thematic designer was also fascinated by spanish california and the old southwest. oliver designed, directed and produced gold gulch, a 21-acre 1850s old west mining camp replica that was the largest concession at the 1935-1936 california pacific international exposition in san diego. he even consulted on knott’s berry farm’s original ghost town themed area, but it’s rumored that walter knott dismissed his designs for being to fanciful and not a serious enough re-creation.
harry oliver’s place in the lineage of thematic design can’t be understated; he essentially introduced the coming overlap between cinema and architecture. this was an informal cross-pollination in which those accustomed to conceptualizing the temporary, fantasy worlds of film sets turned their talents towards constructing permanent, real-world environments.
the tam o’shanter inn must have captured walt disney’s imagination, because it embodies all the creative principles that he codified when he hired art directors from twentieth century fox like marvin davis and bill martin to make his disneyland vision of a unified, immersive thematic environment, a reality.
as such, the tam is a historical landmark of thematic design.
originally, the only retail districts i had planned on visiting while in southern california were jerde’s citywalk and the grove, but an email from instructor hunter wimmer at my university alerted me to rick caruso’s latest development, americana at brand.
located in glendale, just north of downtown los angeles, americana at brand opened this past may to rave reviews. it continues the main street U.S.A. packaged nostalgia design embodied by the grove before it.
like the grove (and disneyland), a street trolley car navigates the loop, offering free rides (which are very popular, by the looks of the cue).
some of the vendor buildings around this park nod to tavern on the green in central park, new york city—as well as to cities like paris and vienna.
the water fountains in the park preform a show choreographed to music, and are the brainchild of the ex-disney creatives at WET design, the same firm that did the water features at the grove, as well as the famous fountains of the bellagio in las vegas.
large outdoor clocks are everywhere. this contributes to a victorian “town square” feeling (people out in public needed to know the time to catch trains, etc., in an era when pocket watches were expensive).
there is a bizarre industrial tinge as well. the dominant landmark at americana at brand is a large, distressed and rusted iron tower, that looks very much like the eiffel tower towards the top.
it holds glass elevators that—in a unique feature that had many young children staring in wonderment—operate with their weights and pulleys system on the exterior of the tower, completely exposed. they are, of course, over-designed and embellished beyond their mere functionality, looking quite spectacular.
what’s remarkable about americana at brand, however, is the philosophy. blending the retail district model of the grove with new urbanism towns such as disney’s celebration, this outdoor shopping mall is also a sprawling, high-density residential complex.
apartments, ranging from studios to townhouses to luxury suites, sit above the ground-floor of every facade. caruso affiliated, after all, is a real estate development firm. again, this is theming as lifestyle—not only are these ersatz spaces used for entertainment and amusement, they are now inhabited, permanently.
complex property issues arise from the format. the streets and buildings are private, to be sure, but as the los angeles times has reported (with regards to the pet policies; dogs must be small enough to carry), the two-acre green space park in the center of the development is, by virtue of zoning, actually public property.
this convoluted relationship is further exacerbated by the design of the complex. americana at brand very consciously evokes a concept as old as the first human settlements—”the commons.” americana is channeling the design history of public spaces to appear to be public property (such as a town square, or downtown), even though it’s a private mall. los angeles times architecture critic christopher hawthorne sums this problem up nicely:
[the design of the complex] “makes the distinction between public and private in the final product almost impossible to untangle. at the americana, the park is public space masquerading as private space that is masquerading as public. got that?”
i was met head-on with this convoluted state of affairs when, after being on the premises for a couple of minutes, i began snapping the pictures you see here for my research. i was immediately accosted by an (albeit, friendly) rent-a-cop who informed me that all photography, other than personal shots of friends and family, is strictly prohibited. that’s right—no pictures of the lovely greens, the fountain, or the fun trolley car. of course, many folks on flickr have taken them anyways.
after discussing my intent with the polite rent-a-cop, i was informed that i could get a photography permit from the marketing director’s office. fortunately, because i’m only a graduate student conducting research (and not someone shooting for stock photo purposes, etc.), i was able to fill out the lengthy paperwork and get a laminate pass that kept americana’s private security force at bay. i was bothered enough by the incident to write a letter to the glendale news press.
even disney—the most zealously litigious of all major media corporations—encourages copious photography of every nook and cranny of their theme parks (although they ask that these images not be sold for profit), and generally allows for commercial publishing of these images with permission.
themerica has taken me all over the world, from dubai to walt disney world, from paris to tokyo, from hong kong to macau, from las vegas to southern california—and americana at grand is the only place i was told i was not allowed to photograph without prior written permission.
americana at brand is troubling for all these reasons, but overall because it represents a recent trend in “public” spaces that are actually private—this is the privatization of the commons. spaces that are built like a town square (public), but are more like a corporate campus (private); no free speech, no photos, no rights. you can read more about this ongoing debate over americana policies at, among other places, the franklin avenue blog.
i guess it’s worth stating, then, that all images in this post are © caruso affiliated, and are posted here under fair use for educational purposes.
after time spent at both the disneyland resort and universal studio hollywood, i visited two sister complexes in the los angeles area that represent—like jerde’s citywalk—yet another future trajectory for thematic design.
both the grove (2002) and americana at brand (2008) are outdoor shopping, dining and entertainment sites designed and built by real estate developer caruso affiliated. the firm was founded by henry caruso—who also started dollar rent a car—and is currently headed by his son, rick.
the official inspiration for the grove, as reported by the los angeles times and elsewhere, is the city of charleston, south carolina circa the 1940s. i found this surprising when i read it, because there is a palpable southern california golden age nostalgia about the place.
maybe that’s because—although ostensibly based on a real locale in the southeastern united states—the grove’s true lineage is really disneyland’s main street U.S.A.
main street U.S.A. is the singular entry corridor to disneyland and a fantastical tribute to walt’s childhood town of marceline, missouri. wrapped in nostalgia and americana, it was designed to represent the coming of the automobile and electricity (circa 1890–1910). main street is not really marceline at the turn of the century, of course, rather it’s sort of a victorian gingerbread anytown (hence the U.S.A. name), and the grove mimics it in both form and function.
first, the aesthetics—this is not straight simulation, but rather a vision of collective memory; a nostalgia for something that never existed. it’s cleaner—no dirt, mud, horse stink (or poverty) and it’s also simpler—no differing races, creeds, classes (or crime). this kind of design approach is best described as eliminating visual contradictions.
the use of forced perspective at the very tops of the building facades is slighter than at the disney parks, but still perceptible. even the topmost floors of the grove are functional, after all, and so must be reproduced at near-full size.
a central plaza and green space sports a water fountain show by WET design (founded by ex-disney imagineers) who created the famous fountains at the bellagio in las vegas, countless water features for disney parks and attractions, as well as a similar water show at the new americana at brand.
second, the utility—just as at main street U.S.A., lavishly adorned false-front architecture serves as facade for a large retail complex. inside, all of the businesses at the grove appear as regular mall outlets and, as at disneyland, several are interconnected, despite their outer appearances being small, individual proprietorships. in the tradition of venturi and brown’s “decorated shed;” here, then, is the “decorated mall.”
when compared to jerde’s postmodern citywalk, the grove is a striking contrast. instead of a departure from (and an adamant rejection of) disney’s simulation-centric nostalgic representation, the grove embraces it.
the grove represents the culmination of an architectural trend that has spread across the united states for several decades, reaching high zenith in the 1990s; one of very consciously manufactured nostalgia instead of overt modernism or flashy pop sensibility.
it’s hard to estimate in numbers how influential the disneyland main street model has been; but the influence is certainly there. in the fifty years since disneyland opened its gates, shuttered downtown districts across the country—decimated by the suburban mall, and later, the big box—have sought to revitalize (and grow their tax base) by gentrifying their own once-bustling main streets and taking a page from disney.
this has extended to the residential sphere as well. masterplanned communities that wrap themselves not in high-tech gloss or frank gehry “starchitecture,” but in a re-imagined, pre-war faux-yesteryear have been spreading wildy for over two decades. this neo-traditional neighborhood concept—clearly influenced by the thematic design of disney and others—is part of the new urbanism school of architecture that arose in the united states beginning in the 1980s. prime examples include seaside, florida (where, appropriately, the sterile reality-television town of 1998’s the truman show was filmed), prospect new town, colorado, and disney’s own celebration, florida (designed by robert a. m. stern).
the grove is unique in that it represents the creation of a re-vitalized retro-downtown from scratch, without having actually re-vitalized anything that came before. and like its more recent glendale sister, americana at brand, outdoor decorated malls such as the grove (and new urbanism residential developments with a shared vision) signify the growth of thematic design beyond entertainment and leisure.
whereas before, one experienced a thematic environment for a day (disneyland) or a series of days on vacation (walt disney world); now it’s possible to shop, work, and even permanently reside fully encased in the visual narratives of imagined nostalgia. it’s theming as lifestyle, and from the suburbs of southern california to the desert daydreams of las vegas and bourgeoning dubai—it’s on the rise.
this 23-acre shopping and dining district was designed by the legendary entertainment architecture firm jerde partnership international, noted for other such spaces; horton plaza (san diego; 1985), fashion island (newport beach; 1988), and the mall of america (bloomington, minnesota; 1992). in las vegas, the jerde firm has developed numerous thematic environments; treasure island’s pirate show and facade (1993), the fremont street experience (1995), and the entire bellagio resort complex (1998). the citywalk project also has lead to collaboration with universal at both their florida and japan parks.
the work of jerde, universal citywalk in particular, represents one of the vectors that thematic design has been traveling—away from it’s disneyland roots. in an earlier post, i elaborated on a gradient that tends to form between two extremes: pure simulation and pure brand. near one end, there is main street U.S.A., for example—a conscious attempt to re-create americana at the turn of the century. near the other, there is something like niketown—a space where the only representation is the brand itself.
universal citywalk falls somewhere in the middle. it’s not simulation, and it’s not brand—it’s sort of referential. instead of trying to represent various icons of los angeles architecture and design, the space creates a new environment for these icons in which they are reassembled and then referred to. not replicated, not simulated, but nodded to.
visceral reality, a 1998 monograph of the jerde partnership international, notes that the firm consciously avoided the simulation end of the spectrum. jerde “did not want [citywalk] to be an imitation of any other place or time period.” thematic design, if nothing else, is exactly about the replication of other times and places.
the passage continues; “the [citywalk] design, thus, became a collage of the images and characteristics of the city of los angeles; it distills the atmosphere, the ephemeral quality, of los angeles street life, without duplicating any of its iconic architecture” (emphasis is mine).
by reference, then, i mean that there is a level of distance (not cold, but sort of a playful detachment) between the source and the execution. that distance grows greater the closer you get to pure brand. the path from one extreme to the other, then, would look something like this.
- PURE SIMULATION (traditional theming)
- REPRESENTATIONAL (interpretive theming)
- REFERENTIAL (decontextualized theming)
- PURE BRAND (self-reflexive theming)
the intriguing and engaging design of these retail spaces has endured longer than some of the businesses. one former tenent, sam goody music, closed its citywalk location following a massive bloodletting in 2006. the storefront tower, reminecent of the capitol records tower in nearby hollywood, remains.
many architectural features typical of the region are sprinkled into the medley. the lighting seems to have been plucked from the area’s tangled freeway network; it’s nearly identical to los angeles county municipal streetlights.
it’s disemboweled, appropriately shown to be past it’s prime. again, it’s not a simulation or a representation—i don’t feel that i’m really on a drive-in lot. there’s a distance between me and the reference being made, but i still get the message and know where it’s coming from. it’s just less immediately felt.
you are here, the jerde firm’s 1999 monograph, describes these various elements. “citywalk is both unique and familar—a collage of the images and characteristics of vernacular los angeles archiecture. the project’s buildings are formulated from a ‘kit of parts’ of generic components: decorative tower and marquee elements, flat simple facades with a layering of various grids and signage.”
the intial bubba gump’s location opened in 1996 in monterey, california—the first such chain to be based directly on a film property (1994’s forrest gump)—and there are now nearly 30 scattered throughout the U.S., mexico, and asia.
the front facade of the citywalk location is a good example of referential, versus representational, design. note that the masts of gump’s boat from the film (the jenny) are not sitting atop an actual replica.
if disney’s imagineers had designed this restaurant, there would likely have been an actual environment surrounding it to provide context, because disney tend to practice more traditional, simulation-based theming. such a thematic environment—with a recreated dock, water features and seaside landscaping—would have clashed with the look and feel of citywalk’s referential collage; jerde’s aim is to remove sources from their original context and collage (reassemble) them into a wholly new setting.
once i moved inside, however, i found the restaurant employed more traditional, representation-style context. this was closer to simulation; a series of beachside shacks on the bayou. there was now environment—there was context.
at night, the citywalk creates the same kind of visceral, dynamic energy as the las vegas strip, replete with garish (yet well-designed and attractive) signage and lighting.
although a decontextualized montage that departs from traditional theming, the space has continuity, similar to the cinematic staging of parks like disneyland. in the words of jon jerde, “when i look for urban archetypes, they are not things, they are sequences.”
at first i thought this would be jarring (as universal studio’s numerous incongruities were), but rather, since jerde establishes this as the program from the outset—here is a montage, it’s not meant to simulate, replicate or otherwise re-create—he succeeds.
the second attraction at universal studios that i enjoyed was the brand new, $40 million simpsons ride, which replaced the back to the future ride before it. the technology is derivative of disney’s aforementioned star tours, but instead of individual simulators, all vehicles face a single, massive IMAX-style screen (the star trek experience in las vegas uses the same approach).
the simpsons ride, like the show, is distinctly postmodern. here, the emperor (or the “wizard,” rather) has no clothes, and everybody knows it. as such, the attraction openly mocks the theme park concept—krustyland, “the krusty-est place on earth”—it’s proprietor (krusty the clown), the audience, and the ride itself.
for someone like me who has spent a good part of the last year trying to take these places as seriously as possible, this was some very welcome comic relief.
this is hardly just a gloss-over parody, however. great attention was paid to the smallest details and inside jokes, some of which only make sense to long-time disney park fans.
for example, the entryway to the attraction is flanked by a large, poster-sized park map of the krustyland park—drawn at the same level of execution as the infamous disneyland poster maps.
the references are delightfully blatant to even the most casual theme park visitor. this smacks of disney’s big thunder mountain railroad attraction.
and the classic jungle cruise (this time with a killer octopus).
the front area of the park resembles disney’s main street U.S.A. there is so much detail to take in on this map that you can spend most of your time in the cue just admiring it.
besides disney, there are countless other reference to either amusement park mainstays, or local southern california favorites. here on the left is a log flume that is styled very much after the original at knott’s berry farm.
and an orca show theater nearly identical to those seen at sea world in san diego. the town of springfield is visible in the background.
even krustyland’s imaginary attractions are conscious rip-offs of disney classics, such as pirates of the caribbean and the haunted mansion. these are given their own framed posters, just like at disneyland.
are these jabs a none-to-subtle reference to universal and disney pillaging each other’s techniques and concepts over the years?
just like jurassic park: the ride, the ride is themed to actually be a ride—krusty’s carnival midway.
the attraction also employs the “wrong turn” narrative trick of the jurassic park ride. here, though it is no accident, but the malicious melding of a long-standing antagonist of the series—sideshow bob. as a result, we are thrown on a crazed chase through krustyland, breaking into most of the parody attractions that we saw on the poster map in the entry cue.
all in all, the experience was fantastic—i had to ride it twice.
but what makes the theming of the simpsons ride unique is this self-conciousness that can only be called postmodern. what is the simulation here? on one level, we’re entering the world of the simpsons; this is springfield, and i am now yellow. on another level, we’re entering the world of krustyland, which is itself based on other such fantasy places such as disneyland. so the theme is springfield, and the theme is also a theme park, within springfield.
physical structures that once only existed in the simpsons cartoon universe are replicated outside the attraction area with astounding precision, such as the kwik-E-mart (itself a parody of the ubiquitous 7-11 chain).
this brings up something interesting from the blog comments about war game at fisherman’s wharf in macau. a sharp reader pointed out that this attraction was based on a video game—so in addition to representing a geographic locale, the theme is also the gaming environment itself; a virtual world. how do you characterize such a space, with multiple (and sometimes contradictory) reference points?
the simpons ride is somewhat similar, referencing disney, theme parks, and its namesake television series—not to mention all the smaller cultural nods that make up that universe, which themselves come from all over the place.
as gestalt, however, it totally works; a postmodern pleasure palace.
universal studios hollywood may have been disappointing overall, but there were two attractions that were rather clever, and deserve a bit of analysis. the first of these is jurassic park: the ride. when it opened in the summer of 1996 (although it had been in development foo two years prior—during the original film’s production), this water-flume attraction was the park’s number one attraction; over ten years later, it still commands some of the longest cues.
designed to complete with disneyland’s splash mountain (the leading flume-drop attraction in the area), the detailing of the entire jurassic park area—including the eponymous torch-lit wooden gate—is very well done. they’ve invested in subtlety and scaling that pays off; this is one of the few areas at universal studios where i felt enveloped in and engaged by the environment.
it’s really the only part of universal studios that even seems like a theme park; good thing that’s the actual premise. following the story of the film franchise, we are on that famous costa rican island— where dinosaurs have been bred and put on zoological display for tourists—to ride one of the park’s signature attractions, a boat cruise.
the cue area thus requires no additional theming; the attraction is meant to look like, well, an attraction. this effect is completely with the requisite safety videos (containing some subtle wit and inside jokes).
once on board, an automated narration—the same from the film—directs our attention to various dinosaurs on display. so far, so good. what’s most clever about the attraction, however, is the story twist. about half way through the ride, our boat literally takes a wrong turn and enters a secure area. we then discover that (surprise!) many of the dinosaurs have gotten loose and now we’re in really trouble. i apologize for not having better pictures—the ride was too wet to bring my digital SLR camera along.
the theming of the final flume drop is well executed; our boat has entered a massive water treatment facility, and we end up being flushed down the drain, so to speak. when we return to the loading dock, it’s back to the original narrative of a theme park attraction, and apologies are made for the “malfunction.”
this is a story approach that disney pioneered with it’s successful star tours attraction in 1987—it’s right when things go wrong. based on the star wars film franchise, guests of star tours are space tourists on a commercial shuttle flight. thinking they are going on vacation, they are instead dropped into the middle of the conflict between the empire and the rebellion (complete with a death star) by an inexperienced robot pilot.
the “wrong turn” occurs right near the beginning, and immediately the audience knows that they’re in for something different. for many years, everything went perfectly right at disneyland—indeed, that was the point. then a younger generation of thrill-seekers, accustomed to the “safe” fantasies of the park, came of age and yearned for something extra; star tours provides that. by breaking the attraction (but keeping the illusion intact), disney was able to create an added dimension of surprise. a fantasy within a fantasy, in which the original (perhaps more tame) fantasy is unfulfilled in favor of the “accident” fantasy (which turns out to be quite thrilling).
others have copied this approach since, such as the star trek experience at the las vegas hilton. the premise is extremely similar to star tours, yet it takes things even further—the fact that you’re about the ride a simulator is overt, just before you are beamed to the future for the “accident” fantasy. by the end of the attraction, captain picard announces that you’ve returned to “your own time,” to the “simulators you were supposed to ride.” again, it’s the “wrong turn” approach, taken to the next level.
jurassic park: the ride goes even further than either star tours or the star trek experience by theming the environment as a theme park itself (the original premise of the source film). the attraction that you ride is actually a simulation of a ride—the ride that is going to “malfunction,” and provide the fantasy within the fantasy. it makes perfect sense, for the dinosaurs to present any danger, you first have to let them out of their cage to “break” the ride.
all which made for a thrilling (and complex) thematic immersion; one of the few at the otherwise lackluster universal studios.
universal studios, near hollywood, is one of the los angeles area’s oldest amusements. yet what began as a simple backlot tour during the silent film era took many years to evolve into something of a theme park.
probably due to the immediate success of nearby disneyland—as well as knott’s berry farm—in 1964 the modest tour was expanded to take guests even further backstage. into the seventies, the studio slowly began experimenting with adding more ride-based attractions and live entertainment. by the 80s and 90s, this trend had accelerated with popular rides based on film properties like E.T., back to the future, conan the barbarian, the mummy and the terminator. universal subsequently spun off its franchise into parks in orlando, florida (near walt disney world) and osaka, japan. recently the company broke ground on its new park at the dubailand site, expanding into the middle east.
universal has a curious history with the disney organization; the two have (no pun intended) often played cat and mouse in the themed entertainment market. the announcement of coming to florida spurred the company to rush its competing disney/MGM studios (now disney’s hollywood studios) to completion in 1989, thus beating universal to the punch by nearly a year.
disney had directly lifted the “studio backlot tour” and themes of golden age hollywood, and universal was not amused. to add insult to injury, the company didn’t stop there—there are now very similar park formats at both the disneyland paris resort (walt disney studios) and the disneyland resort in california (as a land in disney’s california adventure).
universal has sometimes responded by riding the coattails of disney’s more popular attractions, coming up with cheaper imitations to compete. for example, the former back to the future ride (and current simpsons ride) use the same motion simulator technology as star tours; the jurassic park ride was the studio’s answer to the massive flume drop of splash mountain. the organizations have also shared common talent; many former disney creatives and contractors have gone on to work for universal, most notably on their japan project.
you would think that given it’s long history (and this competitive banter with its rivals), universal would have a tried and true format. but the park is beginning to show serious age, and as an example of thematic design, it’s a total mess.
a mexican cantina appears out of nowhere, for example. part of this is because universal never set out to design and theme park (like they did in orlando and osaka, which are by many reports more cohesive); they simply added attractions (or “rides” as they plainly call them) piecemeal over the years, giving the park a frankenstein-like multiple personality disorder.
part of this is also the location, which is far from ideal. the first chunk of the park sits upon a bluff, overlooking a valley far below where the actual studio lot sits. as a result, all visitors must descend and ascend through a series of long escalators down a cliff wall to the rest of the attractions on the lower level.
it feels like being in a airport, and although the smoggy view of the san fernando valley is sort of charming, a barrier to the outside world is required to maintain thematic illusions, and here we have none. plus, other movie studios, such as warner brothers, are in plain view—ruining the exclusivity of universal’s offerings.
one of the key lessons of walt’s original disneyland formula was control; control over access to the outside world (via the raise berm around the park), control of movement between one theme to another (within an illusion of choice at the plaza hub), control of entry and exit (the main street corridor, at the front). these restrictions actually provide freedom to guests—freedom to enjoy the fantasy, become immersed in the environment, and fully live the themes with which they are presented.
with no berm, no clear navigation center, and the disconnect between the bluff above and the valley below, i actually felt more disorientated (and confined) than i’ve ever felt felt under the tight grip of disneyland. because it’s a warm grip, a helping hand; it allows one to forget the cares of everyday.
universal studios felt loud, garish, crowded and hot by comparison. it wasn’t any busier than disneyland, where i had spent the last few days, and the weather was the same, but every negative felt amplified by the lack of cohesion around me.
transition zones were presented half-heartedly or completely non-existent. the sci-fi future world of the terminator sits adjacent to merry olde england. the island tropics of jurassic park are across from the ancient egyptian temples of the mummy. the 1950s are next to the flintstones. and all of it surrounded by the numerous regular warehouse structures of a working studio lot.
the incongruous diversity of the las vegas strip succeeds by comparison because it doesn’t present itself as a single, consolidated entity; it is, very clearly, indeed just a “strip” on which various proprietors have set up shop. it’s an open-air market, so to speak, so i expect a bit of jarring disconnects, a bit of noise, and a whole lot of visual inconsistency.
universal, by virtue of a single gate and a single admission, tries to pretend that it is a single entity, parroting disneyland’s park concept. but because it’s such a hodgepodge, it falls flat. spread out along a single boulevard, with no fence around it; then universal studios might work.
it’s not only the geography that works against the theming of the park, however; it’s also how the subject matter is treated. hollywood movies are about fantasy and illusion, fair enough. universal studios derives its narrative power from taking you “behind the scenes” to see how these illusions are actually made.
in essence, the wizard himself is selling tickets to have us pull his curtain away. and then, in trying to use thematic design to tell this story, he admonishes us to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” but it’s far too late. you can’t construct a simulation in order to show that’s it’s all a simulation; the thought alone makes my head hurt in all new ways.
disney, conversely, embraces the illusion; it is, for example, official company policy that mickey and his friends actually live in the park. there are no behind the scenes, behind the scenes. the fantasy is real, presented as real, assumed as real, and consciously designed to be perceived as real. no confusion there—what you see is what you get.
for all these reasons, universal studios hollywood may be decent entertainment, but it’s very poor thematic design.
for my information design class, spring 2008, i wrote a seventy-page booklet comparing las vegas and dubai. i looked not only at theming, but at climate, geography, development models and overall growth patterns. i sought to convey that the two cities are far more similar than the casual observer might first think.
although i was fresh off the plane back from dubai when i produced this piece, i had yet to conduct my research trip to las vegas; as such my observations were limited to what i had already read, and the handful of times i had informally visited before. now that i’m back from las vegas, i thought i would revisit some of this material.
one of the more challenging aspects of the project was illustrating a series of maps to show dubai in 1990, 2007, and its projected state in 2015. i based them on materials obtained in dubai, as well as archived satellite photos.
here are some excerpts from the text, or you can download the entire booklet [PDF].
it all began with the sand.
the most remarkable feature of the desert, from a development standpoint, is not the lack of water, nor the scorching heat, nor the difficulty in raising crops and animals. it’s the emptiness. deserts are the stuff of dreams (or more often, mirages) because they represent a blank slate. for those that wish to build proverbial castles in the sand, there is an awful lot to work with. when i began asking people casually about las vegas and dubai, the general assumption was that any similarity between the two was superficial at best. sure, they’re both hot. they’re home to megaresorts and ridiculous amounts of money being both earned and spent. everyone speaks broken english, to some degree. and as a visitor, you’re surrounded by fantasy.
vegas themes because she wants you to forget; dubai is desperate for you to remember her.
both dubai and las vegas before it are global capitals of thematic design. arguably the first themed casino on the las vegas strip was the el rancho, designed by wayne mcallister, which opened in 1941. early theming in las vegas drew upon the romance of the old west and mexicana, but as the town grew and changed, so did the design approach. in the 1950s, hotel casinos referencing the desert and “arabian fantasies” became more popular, but the largest step forward in the evolution of the megaresort was caesar’s palace (1966). for the first time, architecture was combined with costume, interiors with food, and sights with smell is to create a truly holistic experience.
the 1990s brought the “disneyization” of the strip, as casino owners sought to attract the kind of mass family audience that would typically vacation in orlando with mickey instead. resorts such as treasure island (pirates) and excalibur (medieval arthurian fantasy) emphasized children’s entertainment along with the slots and dad’s craps tables. the building boom brought more and more elaborate recreations, such as the exquisite venetian (1999), but now theming—as it as been traditionally practiced—is in something of decline on the strip.
las vegas is once again returning to its roots as “sin city” and playing up the image of a hard-drinking, hard-gambling, sexy-as-hell vacation destination for adults only. treasure island is now the TI, and features more tramps in g-strings than swashbucklers with eye patches. vegas is also cashing in on its own classic mythology—the era of the rat pack, the black suit and the dry martini—and is consciously theming and branding both hotels and residential complexes as swinging bachelor pads.
the larger themed resorts on the strip are sure to stay, but the future expansion of thematic design in las vegas remains uncertain. this is hardly the case in dubai, however, where theming is just beginning to spread its wings, and beautifully. whereas las vegas seeks to take people away to never-never land with its designs, dubai very deliberately is trying to remind visitors where they are. there is a certain insecurity to this practice—where the newest luxury resorts are all styled to resemble the older part of the city razed at mid-century—so too, perhaps, a kind of guilt.
dubai is eager to provide the future for the gulf states of the region, but to do so it must have a past. instead of english castles or spanish galleons, theming provides the suggestion (and deception) that dubai has a rich past as a center of trade, arabic culture, and above all, islam. mecca or damascus, certainly. even riyadh. but dubai? hardly.
i started this project with the premise that by comparing what’s happened to las vegas over the last century to dubai in the present tense, we might better chart dubai’s future. instead, my research tended to suggest the opposite—that it is las vegas who can learn from dubai.
las vegas and dubai are not only sisters; they’re members of the global workforce. las vegas is the gal that’s been at the firm for god knows how long. she’s a bit rougher around the edges, knows how to work just hard enough not to get fired, has the best water cooler gossip, and knows where all the bodies are buried. she’s a bit insecure about her age, las vegas has a proven track record, but dubai is better prepared for the growth of the future. and slaps on a little too much makeup to cover for it. she’s constantly reevaluating her look to the delight of her co-workers, but still, they know it’s just an act put on for their amusement.
dubai on the other hand, is just coming to apply, and she’s at the interview. it’s a big position she’s applying for—entertainment and commercial center of the entire middle east. understandably, she’s a bit nervous. of course, one rarely lies outright when applying for a job—but, invariably, the resume is puffed up, the very best outfit is worn; the warmest smile, the firmest handshake. and that is exactly how dubai presents herself. herself-conscious theming of the past is like adding flourish to previous job titles, inventing qualifications. if honest, she would have to sheepishly glance down at the floor, and admit that despite the glitz, the glamour, and yes, all this money, she was the kid in school least likely to succeed. a trust fund baby, always hiding behind the confident shadow of her older and more responsible brother, abu dhabi. not a center of islam, not an influential trade nexus, but instead a backwater bedouin settlement on the creek, home to pearl divers and small-time merchants. and like her, we prefer the embellishment.
one design setting that is more unusual to find is pure urbanism—that is, the theme is “city” itself. sociologist mark gottdiener counts this among the numerous thematic archetypes in his key work, the theming of america; he too notes that the theme does not recur with the same frequency of mainstays like tropical paradise or the wild west.
the new york, new york casino hotel (NY, NY) is certainly not the only resort on the strip to represent such a specified setting of place—both the venetian and paris that i discussed earlier embody the look and feel of their respective cities—but it is the only one to stress this overarching sense of urbanism.
in this sense, the resort not only simulates the look and feel of new york city, but environmental details common to all large cities—much like a tropical paradise setting represents all beaches and jungles, even if the theme is further localized to say, the south seas. accordingly, the resort’s tongue-in-cheek motto is “the greatest city in las vegas.”
because i live in downtown san francisco, one of the largest (and loudest) cities in the country, some of the subtleties of the overall presentation were lost on me. i frequently found myself focusing only on the drawbacks and flaws in the design—in the same way, i suppose, that a resident of venice would find the venetian; not only patently fake but somewhat ridiculous.
i’ve only seen new york city through the eyes of a west-coast tourist; accordingly, my own level of scrutiny was far less than a local’s might be of this simulated manhattan. still, as a city-dweller, i was not very impressed (in the sense of wonderment); there is no fantasy here for me. i fight the crowds, the lights, the noise—and yes, the smells—of urbanity on a daily basis. the new york, new york hotel casino was about as exotic for me as a trip to the local convenience store, or to my favorite neighborhood watering hole.
unlike paris or the venetian, this forced-perspective skyline literally gives rise to the numerous hotel room towers. as a guest, you might stay in the chrysler building, for example.
fortunately, the world trade center twin towers were exempted from this montage (probably owing to their modernist simplicity—all the other major structures chosen are delightfully art deco), so there was no need to consider a troubling remodel after 9/11. it’s perhaps fitting they are now absent from both reality and the vegas representation.
there is less staging area out in front and around the perimeter of the casino property than resorts like the venetian or bellagio. the one exception is a massive, downscaled and compressed span of the brooklyn bridge, simulating its real-life walking path (complete with the proper wooden planks), that runs parallel to the strip—although this area is comparatively shallow and does not recede very far from the street.
behind this bridge, below the upper skyline hotel towers, sits a more street-level simulation of a vaguely new york neighborhood, complete with the appropriate advertisements and a broadway-esque theater marquee.
here is all of downtown new york in one single breath, much the way that paris combines multiple icons into a singular essence. yet here, the combined effect is that of a booster postcard; almost a cartoonish caricature of exaggeration. at paris, the eiffel tower, arc de triomphe and other landmarks are indeed scaled-down—but this is done with particular care, almost a stoicism (it feels even more so that way at the venetian).
in contrast the exterior of NY, NY almost looks as if it was assembled in a toy store, like one of those giant lego displays of the U.S. capitol or mount rushmore. it’s more cute than anything else, and that’s probably why the hotel casino draws more of a down-market (though still middle-class) crowd.
inside, the casino floor and all adjunct areas have a nighttime indoor-as-outdoor effect. this works surprisingly well; it just feels more like a city at night, strange as that sounds. many of the gaming areas contain manhattan landmarks; you can play blackjack outside central park’s tavern on the green, for example.
it was particularly enjoyable to sit for a few hours in the “greenwich village” section, which is the retail and dining district adjacent to the main casino floor, and listen to the comments of some new yorkers visiting vegas on holiday. it ranged from incredulity (”this is [expletive deleted] weird“) to amazement (”i can’t believe they actually did [insert particular replica or special effect here].”)
in particular, one guy—who sounded like he was from queens or the bronx (or at least a gangster movie taking place there)—marveled at a detail that had escaped me initially; the forced-perspective tenements even had appropriately-scaled air conditioners hanging out of the windows.
although the urban setting was not particularly exotic for me, i did appreciate many of these other small touches—the designers here have done their disney homework. parking meters, mailboxes, trash bins and street signs were all suitably authentic.
prop vignettes abound, such as this neighborhood hardware store display.
and let’s not forget a healthy does of filth and decay. great effort was made to distress, mar and otherwise “trash-down” the city to make it believable—a crisp, clean, “new” new york would be laughed at instantly. this tenement is nice and shabby.
i had read that in the early years, the NY, NY branded manhole covers on the streets actually steamed, but i talked to some employees in the area, and apparently the effect hasn’t worked (or been turned on) in some time.
even for those who have never visited new york, it lives in the american imagination through its continual portrayal in film and television. curiously, the city’s actual streets are far cleaner, and much safer, than they were even fifteen years ago (and light years ahead of the nearly broke murder capital that NYC was in the 1970s).
yet the thematic representation here in las vegas is modeled after those old stereotypes, perpetuated through gangster and action movies. it might be more pop than the real manhattan, but it’s also a shade darker.
upstairs is an amusement area that pays tribute to the historic attractions of coney island in its heyday, complete with a video arcade.
the signature attraction, however, is a large, steel roller coaster—themed like the city’s infamous classic checker cabs—that winds its way atop the outside of the resort for a fantastic view of the strip, day or night.
the new york, new york casino hotel demonstrates a few things about urbanism as a thematic archetype. firstly, the appeal of the theme is limited to those who aren’t city dwellers. this works in las vegas, where scores of visitors flock from the desert, the mountains, and the plains. to someone coming from los angeles or chicago, however, it’s considerably less exotic. no big deal, though; the diversity of the strip negates this shortcoming—arthurian england and ancient eygpt are just a bit further down the block.
secondly, the urban theme draws just as much upon the popular and media conception of a particular time and place as reality. cities may be dirty, crowded and noisy—but it’s more exotic and engaging to play up the dissonance and danger, and thus the drama. new york might seem like a rough—yet exciting—place for someone who’s spent their entire life in nebraska to visit, and a thematic environment representing this fantasy must capitalize on urban stereotypes to deliver the anticipated impression.
some may argue that the venetian is just as elaborate, or just as classy, or just as lavishly detailed—to this i say, fine, “i’ll always have paris.”
granted, paris and its italian cousin down the street do share many design techniques; the painted sky, the indoor-as-outdoor setting, the replication of internationally famous icons, and the striking attention to architectural and typographic detail have made both resorts very popular with the public.
yet paris exudes a particular quality that the venetian lacks—a sense of domesticity, a feeling of the familiar, and a charm best be described as quaintness—in details as small as this windowbox full of flowers.
designed by world-renowned hospitality and leisure architecture firm wimberly, allison, tong and goo (WATG), the venetian reaches out to her audience with majesty and provokes, above all, awe. the towering monuments of st. mark’s square, the rialto bridge, the grand canal (complete with singing gondoliers); all contribute to a feeling of “other” (”ah, europe”) and simultaneously, intrigue (”how did they do that?”).
it’s the same overall impression i had of the venetian in macau, although it seems magnified here. themerica reader brad beacom commented that the diversity of attractions on the las vegas strip contributes to a sense of wonder and discovery—in macau on the cotai strip there was no competing thematic design surrounding the resort, and thus no diversity.
the interiors are so richly laid with gold leaf, the replicas of art so breathtakingly beautiful, that it is hard to connect in any meaningful sense with the venetian; instead i’m in a mode of reverence. this worshipful awe is very similar to that felt when viewing italy’s actual cultural masterpieces, such as the sistine chapel.
instead of the riches of empire and the grand artistic tradition of the italian renaissance; i felt the relative smallness of europe, the traditional way of life, the emphasis on food, on family, and on the simple pleasures.
this is wholly different europe. instead of awe and wonder, it’s nostalgia i felt most urgently. strolling through the dining and shopping district (which, like the venetian, has painted skies and the indoor-as-outdoor effect) i couldn’t help but long for a more provincial existence.
this nostalgia was more comforting—and comfortable—than anything that the majesty of the venetian (or bellagio, for that matter) could offer me.
the residential feeling at paris extends onto the main casino floor, which—unlike the venetian—utilizes the faux-sky design from the shopping and dining district throughout, with no break in the indoor-as-outdoor illusion.
instead of alternating to a traditional ceiling in certain areas, roof arches link one large area to the next, providing a seamless alternative to traditional pedestrian doorways. the sky can thus continue all throughout the resort.
emphasizing this and linking the interior spaces with the monumental exterior, the massive feet of the eiffel tower replica atop the casino descend through the ceiling and onto the floor.
paris also places considerable emphasis on landscaping and foliage—something that the venetian, even throughout its grand canal shoppes, is completely devoid of. notice how the green tree (this particular one is real—i saw a gardener trimming it in the early morning) adds verisimilitude to the scene and even makes the painted sky above it seem more natural.
i think the lack of (even fake) plant life contributes greatly to the grand canal’s sense of claustrophobia—which was even more urgent at the sister resort in macau.
the only time at paris that this pleasant rural setting is broken is in the main hotel lobby; this massive hall has all the regal glory of versailles. yet contextually, this is appropriate—it is where official business is conducted, and guests are made to feel pampered and welcome (like royalty). because it’s the only staging of opulence in an otherwise very down-to-earth small village-like atmosphere, the lobby doesn’t overpower. at the venetian, this wealth and grandeur is all you see, and it sort of washed over me as result.
i think the paris resort is a more effective thematic environment than the cold, distant venetian because it draws you away from awe and brings you closer to emotions you wouldn’t normally associate with the glitz and glamor of las vegas—family, simple times, a quiet life, the country, food and wine. for me, this personally was a welcome respite from the bustle of the strip.
yet i suspect that it also lulls visitors into that soft place that—like well-designed malls and parks like disneyland—allows them to part with more money than they had perhaps planned.
conversely, the overt displays of wealth and power throughout the venetian are somewhat imposing—not quite as intimidating as the towering, modernist wynn, perhaps—but still distancing. i felt less engaged and consequently, less inclined to spend; it certainly doesn’t look like they need the money.
i think this imposition works perhaps only when viewing the original masterpieces in italy; after all, it was reverence that the medici family was hoping for in commissioning so many key works during the renaissance. the awe is directed towards the artist and his paymaster.
here in las vegas, one marvels at the exactitude of the replication, the detail of the deception, the cleverness of the con. and behind it all, a casino; games of chance, hopes of the big win, so much more fallacy and put-on. in essence, as nixon once said, “it’s the lie that gets you.”
mandalay bay has one the most exciting non-gambling attractions on the las vegas strip—the shark reef aquarium. developed in consultation with canada’s leading vancouver aquarium, this 95,000 square foot facility’s main tank holds 1.3 million gallons—the third largest in north america (and the only one not located anywhere near an ocean).
all this reminded me very much of disney’s animal kingdom in florida, which is easily the most lavishly designed zoological park in the world. ancient-styled carvings add to the mystery and adventure of the venue. the sense of “other” is greatly enchanced; we may not know where we are, exactly, but it is far from present-day civilization (and certainly the las vegas strip).
interestingly, even though the roof of the structure is a glass conservatory-style dome, the designers painted a fake clouded sky on the walls leading up to it, above the walls of the temple ruins. i found this to be a jarring distraction; better to embrace the theme within the exhibit, and let the glass atop be a natural barrier containing the overall design. but as i’ve already mentioned, vegas is a bit weak when it comes to successful transition zones.
once you leave the temple ruins, you descend into a breathtaking plexiglas tunnel in which sharks are swimming right above your head. this in and of itself is not new; several zoos and aquariums around the world employ the same device, such as sea world in san diego, california.
even the creaks and groans of the ship are heard through a surround-sound speaker system from time to time. fortunately, the loop pauses long enough for you to forget about the effect; the next time you hear the ship move it is a pleasant surprise.
i was musing all the while at the shark reef about the power of thematic design to provide an engaging educational experience for younger children. nearly all the kids i observed were completely fascinated by not only the animals they were watching, but the environment in which they were in.
for a seven-year-old, going to an ordinary zoo can seem like a chore. the animals might be fun to look at, but the design of a zoo itself (san diego being a delightful exception) usually isn’t.
obviously there are cases where theming has contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes, and the obfuscation of understanding. but at mandalay bay’s shark reef, i think theming has made a positive impact. theming is often underutilized in educational venues, such as museums; this is a shame. immersive environments can provide context and engage children on multiple levels, making for memorable learning experiences.