New Urbanism – A Critique of Disney’s Celebration – Social Elitism, Developer’s Practicality-Profit

New Urbanism – A Critique of Disney’s Celebration – Social Elitism, Developer’s Practicality-Profit

Celebration: American Utopia or Stepford?

“The building of cities is one of man’s greatest achievements. The form of his city always has been and always will be a pitiless indicator of the state of his civilization.” Edmund Bacon, 1967

The art of city building, after being lost and rejected for over half a century in favor of decentralized commercial strip development and suburban sprawl (the stepchildren of Modernism), is being resurrected in several ‘New Town’ projects cropping around the country. Seaside, Newport, Windsor (all on the East Coast) and now Disney’s Celebration have caught the hearts and wallets of Americans wishing for a middle ground between the infrastructure waste and social isolation of our refined suburbs and the higher density, raucous/ crime stereotype of the big city. A moot (perhaps) bonus is that somewhere in this in-between might be a new-found sense of community.

Millions of Americans in our sterile suburbs allow themselves to be robbed a human necessity: to experience a balanced social/ environmental upbringing (that our European counterparts enjoy day to day). Political isolationism and escapism have a root in our psyche. Throughout our lifetimes, minimal interaction on a daily basis for children and adults with a cross-section of individuals of varying ages with cultural, ethnic, and economic differences limits our world-view and understanding of each other. The core issues of community, democratic participation, and individual responsibility are ignored perhaps because they touch deeper philosophical and social themes that continue to be evaded by the American conscience.

As for New Urbanism, most Americans wouldn’t know it if it bit them in the derriere. Starting with mitigation (a form of legal bribery: destruction of protected wetlands-flora and fauna, in exchange for $15M) Disney has not bettered the typical subdivision in many respects. At Celebration, inhabitants will commute out to their jobs while lower salaried workers in the CBD commute in. The net result is as much auto pollution as ever-even more since the whole mixed-use development is at a higher density. Commons and parks are by-products of tight lots which are improvements over the monotony of the typical subdivision, no doubt.

Celebration is over controlled and lacks social conscience. It is elitist: gingerbread glosses social inequity. There is no evidence of individual contribution by the citizenry nor will there be until ownership (Homeowner’s Association) changes hands one day and Disney will be legally immune. Totalitarian control, as in Haussmann’s Paris under Napoleon III, appears to be the only way that Americans can find a modicum of utopia. Relinquishing the Democratic process is an accepted trade-off in order to gain peace of mind (read ethnic, social, economic cleansing). Our dismal history of failed modern planning and zoning, originally intended to improve quality of life, has proven an antiseptic, deadening social and environmental conundrum where the only winners are bureaucrats and corporate developers.

At Celebration architects have been intoxicated by a power that could only have been relegated by corporate executive mandate. Design omnipotency tied to corporate ends has resulted in a high-brow, overpriced subdivision on steroids. Oddly, the downtown architecture appears to have been a product of weak management control over the imported ‘name’ architects. Pastel banality with a homogenous finish (due to single developer build-out of the entire ensemble and too much STO) is a Disney trademark. You can even spot a tinge of fascism at the entry sequence to the project where Disney Development offices stand abstractly in stark opposition to the truer to period Colonial and Classical Traditionalism of the other community buildings nearby.

On the whole the image of the residential sectors reminds one of the facades of early western boom towns which hide a more meager ‘back of house’. Overblown facades are squeezed side by side on narrow lots while infrastructure is duplicated in the form of back alleys hiding 2-3 car garages. Sociability around the front lawns and curbside is thus dramatically impaired. Screening is allowed only at the rear where most families will spend their down-time in the pool and safe from bugs. They also won’t be bothered by the parades of inquisitive tourists that Disney is planning to draw to the downtown.

While capitalizing on their brand-name and offering total predictability in all aspects Disney has tried very hard to make buying Florida swampland feel good: ‘Utopia on a platter’. Sans serendipity, surprise, mystification, or complexity the overall theme is succinctly “defense by privilege”. While ‘citizens’ are anxious to wake up in Mayberry they may find out to their chagrin that they have really bought into Stepford.

PART 1: An Early Look at Disney’s ‘Celebration’

What if they built a city and nobody came? (An intriguing thought but perhaps not the case here as corporate inertia and massive marketing will guarantee build-out.) In this instance I feel a strange sense of loss even though perhaps at first blush a Classicist’s dreams are about to come true. While many traditional/Classicist architects and designers have decried the Modernist’s indiscriminate foray into the built environment and hoped that the tide would someday turn back to a widespread use of classical or formal design principles coupled with a more traditional and organic planning theory, the concept of a Utopian setting to showcase a ‘return to tradition’ has not been attempted at this scale (except in Leon Krier’s fantasies) in three dimensions. Until now.

In late February this year several local architects and residential designers were invited to a preview of Disney’s ‘Celebration’. This master-planned city of 20,000 will have state-of-the-art health and educational facilities, a town center designed by the usual cadre of ‘important’ period style architects (including a rather surprising modernesque Philip Johnson entry) and approximately 8,000 residential lots of differing types and sizes, the widest being 90 feet with 15 foot side setbacks.

The project manager, a Princeton architectural graduate with an MBA, insisted that the goal of the master plan was to induce a sense of community; the expectation is to achieve a varied mix of age groups and economic backgrounds where families would continue to live there throughout several generations. And there was a meticulously researched and produced architectural control standards manual (based on the ‘pattern’ books of yesteryear) illustrating the acceptable styles for the residential units: Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival, Coastal, Mediterranean, and French.

Architectural control includes inviolable first and second floor heights as well as window and door types, setbacks, massing and materials use per each distinct style. Porch, roof, and facade treatments have recommended design standards as well. The picket fences, common areas, and shady boulevards as shown in the conceptual watercolor perspectives achieve a Mayberry-Savannah-Charleston feel with happy residents apparently enjoying the good life sitting at single and upper story front porches (highly recommended) watching the world go by.

I could not put my finger on what was troubling me except I remember that I felt either God was in the planning or I was hearing the drums of the Third Reich. The Strathmore model of the town center looked a bit contrived. Here were Pelli’s, Venturi’s, Stern’s, and Moore’s little monuments in the form of a bank, theater, apartment, office building, cultural center, lookout tower, etc. all arranged neatly on separate blocks. It seemed like a swell theme park to live in. Everything had its place, the main boulevard was on axis leading by the commercial zone to the lake-front promenade with intersecting streets that allowed a minimum of parking.

Further setback were the residential areas each grouped according to the size of the lots with alleys separating types and also eliminating the unsightly two or three door garage viewed from the front of the main street, no doubt a clear improvement over America’s typical suburban layouts. Everything seemed as perfect as possible. Sometime after 1940 it was pointed out, “…architecture took a right, we are trying to continue the development (of well designed buildings, implied) as if it was never interrupted; we are taking the left fork in the road.” Very true, I agreed, the Modernists surely drowned this country and the world with their banal excess of stripped down functionalism. I was rooting yet skeptical at the same time. A little voice inside me told me to stand up and defend… something–that was missing perhaps.

I asked if the entry points were to be gated. “Not foreseen, we want this to be an open community.” What about security concerns? “No crime anticipated at the moment.” We chuckled at the vision of 40’s black and whites roaming the streets. Will the town center be able to sustain itself? “All space currently pre-leased.” How can you make people sit out on the front porches in Florida’s heat and mosquito swarms, especially since you are not allowing screened enclosures? “The overhead fans will cool and dispel the swarms.” Well, there was nothing more to criticize, Disney had it all figured out. Satisfied we all left and thanked our host.

The next day I communicated the following in part:

I realize that your model incorporates the European traditional building forms in an American town setting, but wouldn’t the more successful model (especially for the viability of the commercial activity) be to complete the circle and re-introduce the classic Italian, French or German prototype? Maybe this will be the theme of Celebration II? The other irony of Celebration is that I recall Walt’s intent for EPCOT was for a viable ‘City of the Future’ which implied real examples of futuristic living and working (technological progress, etc.) nodes and the corresponding buildings. I guess we have looked into the future and really didn’t want where the ‘right-hand’ fork was leading. For now, unless there is a proven better alternative I must agree with the premise that Celebration takes and its intent to re-educate America on what a community should really consist of. You have here a utopian layout that will re-ignite a spark of remembrance and longing in all who visit.”

But that uneasy sensation kept grinding in my stomach. Finally I put it together: First, like Seaside, this community was designed to keep the visitor uncomfortable from just wandering into town and enjoying the sights. Second, with so much architectural control the organic tendency for creative growth was nipped before the bud like an Orwellian injection. Even with six allowable styles that quixotic architectural invention that makes a street-scape so charming and vital was not possible. A Victorian motif grafted onto Colonial Revival didn’t seem credible. Mixing Mediterranean with Classical outlawed Palladio. Why, no Modernist touches were even thinkable! (I was surprising myself pushing for a bit of ‘contemporary’ styling).

“…Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should be positively discouraged.”

R. Venturi, 1966

Although the implicit goals of Disney are to introduce innovation for the better, their master plan has not sufficiently advanced modern urban planning practice in this case except to sterilize further. The free-standing artificiality of the town center reads more like an extension of Universal’s or Disney’s own facade-citecture at their studio lots. I will always prefer the historical prototype of the European (Italian, Greek, German, or French) town square with its natural liveliness and spontaneity that is so completely absent from American CBD’s. (For that matter the caricature replicas of Old World themes in Disney World appear to be more people oriented than at Celebration!) The integration of many urban themes are required to present an enriching environment, especially in the ‘downtown’. For example the infill of many years’ growth, contraction, and rebuilding is vital to establish a thread of continuity and adds an indispensable degree of enrichment to the urban condition.

Everything of age in this country was indiscriminately torn down to make way for economic progress until the preservation movement took hold. What makes the Continental example so compelling is the mix of old (history) and new, the density and mix of commercial and residential, and the evidence of life –as witnessed by people enjoying their walking, chance social meetings, shopping and watching, eating and playing, etc. The main issue under contention is that Celebration isolates and zones functions like so many other modern plans which results in the same automobile centered or formally laid out suburban design. Consider the simple presence of street vendors (outlawed typically) which add so much color to the street life. And when the new Interstates bypassed so many of our nation’s older communities even the opportunity for the tourist, traveler, stranger (gasp!) to enrich the citizenry by the chance meeting in the town square or at the market was extinguished. The complete interaction with the outside world is nullified. The town dies. This dilemma is especially true with planned towns such as Celebration and Seaside and the host of others ‘a l’Americaine’.

You do know however before buying into Celebration that the proper inoculations have been made. I for one miss the smell of the diesel or the horse-drawn carriages down the dusty streets of Izmir, Turkey (where I spent my youth) as I might sit at a corner cafe, hailing a roasted nut vendor to sample the latest crop of sea-salted pistachios, while waiting for my olive oil braised lamb-chops to be served. Not just the smells but the sights and sounds as well of my fellow human beings involved in their daily way of life I miss and the rich environment that cradles this activity. Architecture cannot solve planning issues. Only people united to preserve their humanity can.

The final irony is this: over twenty five years ago Walt Disney created the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (EPCOT) as a showcase to house and employ a viable population; real people in a working environment. This did not come to pass. What materialized was a clever but kitschsy perpetually outdated theme park initially planted with rather exciting (for the youngster in us all) but cornball ‘futuristic’ carnival rides underwritten by corporate America. Now Disney has decided that the past is the key to the future. And they have a totalitarian vehicle to prove they are right. For a while I was rooting for them, now I am more convinced that the wives of Stepford will have a place for their own.

At a time of such diversity in the visual appearance of buildings it is absurd to enforce conformity which merely degenerates into uniformity. With the acceptance of the principles of the gradual renewal of environment it is desirable to follow the practices of the past in which they were applied: each period putting its new buildings next to those of earlier times and without taking up design elements formerly in use. This is healthy practice, unaffected by lack of confidence or by the morbid desire to let the past control the present. It has protected the urban and semi-urban areas of bygone ages from becoming museums and it makes for the delight of so many English towns where the buildings of different periods stand cheek by jowl together and where the history of the towns can be read from the difference of their buildings. Whoever has walked along the rue de Rivoli, the most depressing street in all Paris, will understand what is meant by ‘living diversity’, small-scale planning, intimacy and other environmental values which are gradually being rediscovered. Therefore no more ‘design guides’, no more control of visual appearance by officials of limited visual education and sensitivity or by neighbours who wish to impose their own tastes or, as estate agents contend, to protect their ‘investments’ and whose ulterior motives bear no examination.”

Walter Segal, 1980


Upon receiving some criticism for the above remarks and after considering the matter further I came across a social study of Pullman, Illinois (10 miles south of Chicago) considered a model community built in 1881 which included housing and basic service amenities (as well as the factory for the Pullman Palace Car Company) where 8,000 people lived and worked. My sensibility was shocked at the parallels. “One of Mr. Pullman’s fundamental ideas” as social critic and economist Richard Ely wrote in his analysis of the town “is the commercial value of beauty”. Pullman commissioned a single architect to master plan and design the entire town. There was a market-house, theater, library, offices, shops, bank, hotel, fire department, educational facilities, etc. In describing the street-scape Ely observes:

Unity of design and an unexpected variety charm us as we saunter through the town. Lawns always of the same width separate the houses from the street, but they are so green and neatly trimmed that one can overlook this regularity of form. Although the houses are built in groups of two or more, and even in blocks with the exception of a few large buildings of cheap flats, they bear no resemblance to barracks… French roofs, square roofs, dormer-windows, turrets, sharp points, blunt points, triangles, irregular quadrangles, are devices resorted to in the upper stories to avoid the appearance of unbroken uniformity. A slight knowledge of mathematics shows how infinite the variety of possible combinations of a few elements, and a better appreciation of this fact than that exhibited by the architecture of Pullman it would be difficult to find. The streets cross each other at right angles, yet here again skill has avoided the frightful monotony of New York, which must sometimes tempt a nervous person to scream for relief. A public square, arcade, hotel, market, or some large building is often set across a street so ingeniously as to break the regular line, yet without inconvenience to traffic. Then at the termination of long streets a pleasing view greets and relieves the eye–a bit of water, a stretch of meadow, a clump of trees, or even one of the large but neat workshops. All this grows upon the visitor day by day. No other feature of Pullman can receive praise needing so little qualification as its architecture.

Indeed he continues: “Very gratifying is the impression of the visitor who passes hurriedly through Pullman and observes only the splendid provision for the present material comforts of its residents. What is seen in a walk or drive through the streets is so pleasing to the eye that a woman’s first exclamation is certain to be, ‘Perfectly lovely!’

But approximately six years after the first spade was dug to begin this utopia a great riot broke out. Despite Pullman’s efforts to maximize his returns through efforts to beautify the town and include as many practical comforts as possible for his workers the inevitable breakdown occurred. It should be pointed out that like many other company towns, the workers did not own their own properties. Strikes, individual initiative, charitable and mutual insurance associations were thwarted, discouraged, or put down. A woman who had been living at Pullman for two years told Ely only three families among her initial acquaintances were still living there. Ely asked ‘It is like living in a great hotel, is it not?’ Her reply was ‘We call it camping out.’

Ely concludes: “There is a repression here as elsewhere of any marked individuality. Everything tends to stamp upon residents, as upon the town, the character best expressed in ‘machine-made.’ Note that in this passage his reference is not to the social problems which no doubt had a deep negative impact on the people but alludes more to the architectural and planning characteristics which had been previously described as idyllic! He finishes in a more political strain, “…the conclusion is unavoidable that the idea of Pullman is un-American. It is a nearer approach than anything the writer has seen to what appears to be the ideal of the great German Chancellor. It is not the American ideal. It is benevolent, well-wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such way as shall please the authorities. One can not avoid thinking of the late Czar of Russia, Alexander II., to whom the welfare of his subjects was truly a matter of concern. He wanted them to be happy, but desired their happiness to proceed from him , in whom everything should center. Serfs were freed, the knout abolished, and no insuperable objection raised to reforms, until his people showed a decided determination to take matters in their own hands, to govern themselves, and to seek their own happiness in their own way.” How much of the unrest in Pullman was due to negative social factors and how much could be attributed to the apparently utopian physical infrastructure?

“The more influence a person is able to exert on his surroundings, the more committed he becomes.”

Herman Hertzberger, 1980

A free people must freely adopt their choice of habitation in terms of style, materials, costs, etc. In many areas where over-legislation occurs under the guise of protecting the integrity of the community a boring repetition results due to restricted size, height, materials, and style. In addition to floor area ratios with attendant design restraints the resulting structures (which desperately seek to find any loophole through which a mote of individualism may be imposed) are often hideous attempts to exert originality or personality into an oppressive architectural milieu. Rather than so completely legislating the total design, especially the style, why not leave it to the individual (and his architect!) to select, innovate within a better resolved set of guidelines?

Sometime after 1940 it was pointed out, “…architecture took a right, we are trying to continue the development [of well designed buildings, implied] as if it was never interrupted; we are taking the left fork in the road.”

“There is a repression here as elsewhere of any marked individuality. Everything tends to stamp upon residents, as upon the town, the character best expressed in ‘machine-made’…

Understandably, shoddy construction and ill conceived schemes should not be allowed but rejection because the strict canon of ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘French’ was not followed ‘by the book’ limits creative growth and experimentation which in the long run, if permitted, provides a fertile diversity, freshness, yes even controversy at times which can only enrich the built environment and ’empower’ the individual with the right of free expression. Style should never be legislated. Bad architecture should be eliminated.

“A good architect will always do original work. A bad one would do bad ‘modern’ work as well as bad work (that is imitative) with historical forms.” P. Johnson, 1961

It is unfortunate that in newly developing towns and smaller communities the rich texture of classic urban models cannot be convincingly replicated. Given the choice between a pasteurized and homogenized model town with its inherent philosophical anomalies I will take the path of worn cobblestones down dusty winding streets past antique, crumbling and weathered edifices with gnarled wooden doors of enchanting designs, where the smell of the baker’s bread permeates my being in the morning, past markets where one can inhale the smell of fresh tomatoes, grains and meats, brought in from the fields where even the pungent odor of pack animals mix with exotic perfumes, where the hordes gather to banter over the price of goods under open air canvas canopies and with merchants tucked into the niches of mighty stone relics, where the smell of fresh ground coffee is served in sidewalk cafes, and where even the odor of an imperfect sewer mixes with diesel fumes. Above all it is the people who bring these places alive, like stage actors on a set in which they have had a chance to personally paint and by which they can remember their own history.

The key to urban vitality, as L.M.Roth describes the views of the prominent writer and editor of Architectural Forum in the early sixties Jane B. Jacobs, is “diversity and complexity.” Leonard Kip wrote of Genoa in The Building of Our Cities (1870): “With what joyous contentment he (the traveler) wanders through its winding alleys, finding new surprises at every corner!” Of Paris he describes the feeling of “Losing ourselves…with the full knowledge that we cannot be disagreeably led out of the way…”

Americans have for too long accepted the fruits of modern planning principles which breed monotonous city-scapes erected by rote to planning manuals designed with dispersive (instead of implosive) zoning with the resultant isolation of its parts, suburban and infrastructural waste. If ‘a house is like a city’ we would be all living in extravagant wastes of space, empty corridors leading to distant rooms whose only functional connections can be comprehended through a mapping system. Kip aptly describes our characteristic new communities and neighborhoods: “…when the resident can see the whole street rolled out before him as a diorama, he soon ceases to feel any spark of individual taste, but, catching the spirit of others, builds and rebuilds in the same style as every one around him, and so, in having a house, becomes the owner, not of a home, but merely of a certain number of lineal feet measured off from a rule.”

In the mid-twentieth century Lewis Mumford decried the result of increased appropriation of space for the automobile in America’s towns and cities claiming that the city existed for the ‘care and culture of men’ rather than for compromise to the mechanical monster. Los Angeles is the epitome of the ‘consummate insensitivity and deadly efficiency’ (Leland M. Roth, America Builds) of the Federal Highway Act’s tenets and provisions gone mutant. Mumford asked: “Why should anyone have to take a car and drive a couple of miles to get a package of cigarettes or a loaf of bread, as one must often do in a suburb? Why, on the other hand, should a growing minority of people not be able again to walk to work, by living in the interior of the city, or, for that matter, be able to walk home from the theater or the concert hall? Where urban facilities are compact, walking still delights the American: does he not travel many thousands of miles just to enjoy this privilege in the historic urban cores of Europe?…Nothing would do more to give life back to our blighted urban cores than to re-instate the pedestrian, in malls and pleasances designed to make circulation a delight!”

On this point Celebration misses the mark. Although alleys hide the automobile the overall layout does not truly compel the pedestrian to leave his clinically ordered street and venture for even the smallest item. Corner groceries were once evident in the zone-free organic town of yesteryear but are absent here. The planning looks good from the aerial perspective but in reality does not deliver. The look of Charleston and Savannah is being attempted here but the activity and vibrancy will be absent at least as a product of its own citizenry. (Oh yes, the lights in the homes of Celebration’s absentee occupants will be timed to turn on and off at night should the homeowners be at their Swiss time-share during the months of May through October.)

“The building of cities is one of man’s greatest achievements. The form of his city always has been and always will be a pitiless indicator of the state of his civilization.

Edmund N. Bacon, 1967

Does Celebration propound to be the quintessential American town? Charles Moore (one of Disney’s selected icons for one of Celebration’s downtown structures) characterized the American attitude in describing the ‘contemporary North American vernacular’ as: “the work of a nation composed of people who at one time or another, in greater or less degree, have eschewed tradition, to strike out on their own.” But he concluded: “Some of our most lively and convincing places in fact, are fantasies, Williamsburgs or Disneylands.”

Disney must be applauded for their grand efforts, and meticulous attention to detail as always but to attempt the ideal and miss the mark so clearly by organizing the layout of their dream town to exclude the components that constitute the soul and lifeblood of any community (as experienced in historically viable models of living cities) will only result in a sterile aggregate of construction to be possibly abandoned like the American towns whose main streets have been bypassed, shopping relegated to the peripheral super-malls, and inner core left to decay. If not abandoned by virtue of the elect who will sign their names on the mortgage papers, vacated on the streets more likely. Architect James Marston Fitch has described the Italian street as “the most delicious experience of embrace and enclosure of any space on earth”. The satisfying people/streetscape that Disney has created in EPCOT is a fantasy enjoyed by millions. There the effect was achieved that Bernard Rudofsky describes as having streets made “into oases rather than deserts.” Cities like Charleston and Savannah are perfect models for the living community. They reflect what Edmund Bacon has characterized in ancient Greek cities as “the intimacy of inherited tradition…maintained.” Why not match more closely the example of their and other cities of similar vitality and charm by rethinking our sterile zoning regulations, reducing the size of wasteful private residential lots, compactly integrating the living and working areas, and adding green space at the most beneficial locations? Encouraging pedestrian traffic will be no problem if services and entertainment are nearby, if during a stroll to the park you could also pick up some groceries, if on your way to work you could easily buy a newspaper and a snack from the vendor on the street. Does this sound like utopia? It has been done. It can be done. Only the mindset and status quo –and our 90 year love affair with our cars prohibits this healthful and economic alternative.