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 Can I buy CBD Oil in Walmart) in three dimensions. Until now.