Thursday, February 2, 2017

Mediocrity II: The Wonderful World of Agreeable Gray

Disney Springs' Town Center  Photo: Miami Herald
Mall design has been proceeding under the influence of the Disney parks since the 1960s.  Today this legacy has come full circle to the point that now the malls are leading Imagineering.  Industry gossip has it that achieving the look of Disney Springs’ new Town Center’s been-there-done-that result took working through at least five design outsourced firms that had, one would hope, less pedestrian ideas. 

Unlike the careful integration of El Paseo within Santa Barbara’s tradition of stucco and tile tied into the surrounding streetscape, the new Disney Springs Town Center shows little sign of understanding where it is or what it’s doing there.  By way of contrast, the Town Square opening onto Main Street in the Magic Kingdom is designed to welcome with icons held in common through collective memory—the park benches, plantings, firehouse, town hall, gas lamps, soda fountain, and the charm of historic storefronts featuring markers for park memories. 

For any industry evolution, the search for quality may ironically lead to settling for consensus, B-level midrange results.  This is the reason that no matter what the make, cars now look very much alike.  The middle-of-the-curve design point of mutual mediocrity signals the maturing of any artform.  In a way, this midpoint is a mark of quality because it signals an agreed-upon standard of design performance--one levelled down from excellence or inspiration.

The mediocre brand, once accepted, turns into the passing grade for all planning and execution moves, from cars to cookware, national elections to trade shows, classroom to casinos, clubs, convenience stores, and experience spaces of all kinds and purposes.

Experience designs that used to lead the pack by genius and innovative thinking become, after decades as models, just the standard of performance, or given a “Marriott-level finish,” a cringworthy term coined by former Disney chairman Michael Eisner. 

Over time, creative vision seems doomed by the theory of second best.

In economics, the theory of second best holds that systems work better when all elements are designed to operate at less than optimal level.  Integrated excellence costs more because all parts of the system can’t keep up with the top-performing aspects, and if and when these fail, the whole system goes down. Better to maintain everything at an average or second-rate mode.  This is why very ingenious home design, no matter how brilliant, doesn’t sell on the housing market.  Homeowners are just more comfortable with trusting the average—for themselves as well as for the future buyer of their home.

This is also why any responsible real estate agent will tell you to paint over your custom color palette with beige, eggshell, or the latest “agreeable gray” found in any new construction.  In order for buyers to imagine themselves in a new house, the atmosphere must be scrubbed of personality, including the genius type.  The neutral middling aesthetic is the basis of the home-staging ethic. And this gives instant insight into consensus taste in home surroundings.  Agreeable gray carries the day.

But brilliant public spaces are not comparative-market residences, nor is “second best” the quality that made Disney the gold standard for 3-D walkaround design.

When Disney’s first Imagineers invented the theme park in 1955, they had no model to follow except the world’s fairs (now expos), and certainly not the amusement park, which Walt was creating Disneyland to replace. 

The prognosis for amusement parks at that time was dim. Banks and commercial sponsors had a difficult time building a mental file folder for what Disney was pitching.  There wasn’t one handy.  So when we look now at the most popular artform of the last century - the one that initiated more 3-D design than any since - it’s difficult to recall that before 1955 no one knew what a theme park was. It was a journalist from The LA Times, not Disney, who coined the term “theme park” because there just was no existing term to adequately describe the world’s leading experience environment.  That in itself is amazing testimony about the state of the art.

Disneyland could only be defined by what it wasn’t, what people knew at the time—the thrill park.  Six Flags, Cedar Point, Magic Mountain, et al. are defined by physical thrill-seeking, not the narrative-image journeys that now define the theme park industry and increasingly are taking over thrill-seeking in the form of the action story.

Since then, an entire design industry has grown up and matured around the thematic template, which still holds its place as the gold standard.  To such an extent, ironically, that it has become difficult to color outside the lines of that mandate: world’s fairs, expos, malls, resorts, history parks, and museums (last to the theme park table)–all ideation is ruled by the silent standard of the mega-successful template: the giga-park prototype. 

This isn’t just a Disney problem, It’s a systemic problem.  As one of our colleagues at a design school put it, “It’s now designers only talking to designers,” without reference to any wider context.  Disney’s context was his young daughters and their weekly “daddy’s day” outings where Walt sat on a bench on the sidelines to watch his kids ride the carousel.

He decided that, in breaking up the American family, this back-seat routine wouldn’t do. As with his films, starting with animation, he wanted to create a place where generations could have fun together (now we call it inter-gen experience).  And he did just that. He created something rooted in familiarity, but presented in a way we had never seen – or even thought of -- before.

“Family” now can include five generations from great-grandparent on down.  To succeed, design needs to be intergenerational, and that means the whole age-development gamut.  Disney proved that the family audience could inspire ingenious solutions, far beyond a bland canvas compromise.

So…calling something a Town Center doesn’t make it one; people naturally gravitate to a town center. In Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis without a natural center, it was the legendary science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury who noted that Disneyland had become LA’s de facto city center – the one place where everyone meets.

Disney Springs Town Center is not a town center, and not just because the psychological center of gravity is closer to the Disney Store. Nor, unfortunately, is it a Disney Experience. Expensive, and yet nowhere near gold standard.

Can you make a town center that not only looks like one but motivates people to treat it as the town center? Of course, malls have been doing it for decades.  It was only a matter of time before a mall was restyled in the form of the Main Street malls displaced. In 2009 we walked the streets of Town Square. It’s an upscale, open-air shopping, dining, office, and entertainment development in Enterprise, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas. It looks like a well-to-do town center with its mix of architectural styles, but there is no town there; it serves the surrounding sprawling housing developments.

Las Vegas' Town Square   Photo: J.G. O'Boyle
It was less than two years old when we first saw it, but Town Square had already become more than just a place to shop. Along with stores and restaurants, it has three parks that host seventy community events annually, from all major holidays to open-air movies.  And it’s not the only such development, which is why Disney’s Town Center, however pretty, looks like we’ve seen it all before, only better. Town Center should have been what we’ve come to expect from Disney: rooted in familiarity and yet seen through new eyes – inviting, even inspiring, transporting you to a new and intriguing place you want to explore. Walt Disney’s genius was building places that tapped into a deep sense of anemoia in his guests, which means a nostalgia for a time and place you’ve never actually known.
As for Disney Springs’ Town Center, we’ve seen it before, we’ve known it for years. It’s ordinary, uninspiring, intimidating, and surprisingly unwelcoming – and that does not bode well for the future of theme park design. Somehow design ideation needs to start pushing beyond what used to be “good enough.”


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