Tuesday, February 18, 2014

amerikan arkitecture: even realer than the fake real thing?

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My wife, on her first visit to Disneyland (specifically, Tiki Room):  "It's all fake!"
Me: "I think that's the point."

Below excerpt from pp 36-38 of   The Experience Economy (updated edition here )

... Note that the Rainforest Cafe, which combines the dining room with a retail shop and bills itself as A Wild Place to Shop and Eat," is not out to simulate the actual experience of being in a rain forest . Rather it aims to stage an authentic-and esthetic-experience of the Rainforest Cafe.

 Another wild place to shop can be found in Owatonna, Minnesota, at Cabela's, a 150,000-square-foot outfitter of hunting, fishing, and other outdoor gear. Rather than add elements of entertainment to the store, Dick and Jim Cabela turned it into an esthetic experience, centered (literally) around a thirty-five-foot-high mountain with a waterfall and featuring more than a hundred stuffed taxidermic animals, many of them shot by the two brothers or other family members. This part of the store represents four different North American ecosystems. Elsewhere, two huge dioramas depict African scenes that include the so-called Big Five big-game targets: the elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, and cape buffalo. Three aquariums hold a number of varieties of prized fish, while almost seven hundred different kinds of animals in total are mounted in and around every department of the store. Truly, as Dick Cabela told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "We're selling an experience."" So much so that more than 35,000 people visited the refurbished store on the day it opened, and the company expects more than one million visitors every year

The esthetics of an experience may be completely natural, as when touring a national park, primarily man-made, as when dining at the Rainforest Cafe, or somewhere in between, as when shopping at Cabela's. There's no such thing as an artificial experience. Every experience created within the individual is real, whether the stimuli be natural or simulated. Extending this view, renowned architect Michael Benedikt discusses the role he believes architects play in connecting people to a "realness" within their created environments: 

Such experiences, such privileged moments, can be profoundly moving; and precisely from such moments, I believe, we build our best and necessary sense of an independent yet meaningful reality. I should like to call them direct esthetic experiences of the real and to suggest the following: in our media-saturated times it falls to architecture to have the direct esthetic experience of the real at the center of its concerns

 . While architects may lead, it really falls to everyone involved in the staging of esthetic experiences to connect individuals and the (immersive) reality they directly (albeit passively) experience, even when the environment seems less than "real." Benedikt would likely call the Rainforest Cafe and similar venues "non-real," and insist that its architects address "the issue of authenticity by framing [displaying the inauthentic as inauthentic], by making fakery honest, as it were."Z3 To stage compelling esthetic experiences, designers must acknowledge that any environment designed to create an experience is not real (the Rainforest Cafe, for instance, is not the rain forest ). They should not try to fool their guests into believing it's something it is not. 

Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable makes a similar distinction when she says "it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the real fake from the fake fake. All fakes are clearly not equal; there are good fakes and bad fakes. The standard is no longer real versus phony, but the relative merits of the imitation. What makes the good ones better is their improvement on reality. " To illustrate the difference, we'll consider two invented envi- ronments Huxtable spends considerable time critiquing: Universal City Walk and just about anyplace Disney.

 City Walk in Los Angeles is a collection of retail shops, restaurants, movie theatres, high-tech rides, and low-tech kiosks, each with a distinctive facade. Controlled exaggeration abounds, as in the four-story guitar adorning the Hard Rock Cafe. Visitors lazily stroll through a water fountain that shoots up at well-timed intervals. Guests pay an There's no such entrance fee for parking (nobody walks to anything in L.A., thing as do but here they pay admission to walk around) that's reim- artificial bursed only if they spend money at a dining or movie experience (purchases of goods merit no reimbursement). Part experience theme park and part public square, City Walk primarily imparts an esthetic experience, Huxtable confirms, as it "is being used for its own sake."" The realness of its fakery evidences itself from the very moment you park your car in the ungarnished lot. The back of the buildings greet arriving guests, who thus see the unadorned undersides of the facades as they walk in. Outside you see the inside of the mask; inside you see its outside. Adjacent buildings, unassociated with City Walk, remain visible through alleys and other off-shoots to the main drag. Its esthetic acknowledges its fakeness. Through framing, it's truly a real fake.

 The esthetic of most Disney experiences, on the other hand, seeks to hide all things fake: No one gets to see behind the curtain. Parking lots smoothly flow into shuttle buses, welcoming booths, and turnstiles. Facades seamlessly integrate into one another, lest some guest detect the trickery in the dimensional downsizing. Mickey Mouse never takes off his mask, lest we see the pimply faced kid inside. It's the fake fake that Huxtable and other critics decry, not being true to what they deem it really is. 

Or is it real fake fake? Other critics laud Disney for creating wholly immersive environments, consistent and engaging within themselves. One writes "that from whatever angle, nothing looks fake. Fabricated, yes- fake, no. Disneyland isn't the mimicry of a thing; it's a thing.... I'm convinced the genius of Disneyland isn't its fancifulness, but its literalism."" On the subject of Disney theme parks many people (including coauthors) disagree. But one thing remains clear: an esthetic experience must be true to itself and come off as real to its guests.  - pp 36-38 of   The Experience Economy 

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