After twenty years, Michael Eisner stepped down last month as head of the Walt Disney Company. He leaves a substantial, if mixed, legacy. On his watch, Disney created a worldwide empire of theme parks, launched a cruise ship line, bought a television network, and joined the first ranks of Hollywood movie studios.
And, along the way, they built a town in central Florida called Celebration, where nearly 10,000 people live today, inspiring at least three books, dozens of websites, and — uniquely, to my knowledge, among American communities — one song by the leftist agitprop band Chumbawamba ("Social engineering/It gives you that fuzzy feeling/Down in Celebration, Florida").
I worked on the graphics for Celebration, Florida. To this day, it remains one of my favorite projects.
Celebration has its origins, some say, in Walt Disney's original vision for EPCOT, an acronym with a largely forgotten source: the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Disney conceived it as a real, albeit futuristic, working town with actual citizens commuting by monorail to a town center housed under a geodesic dome. This vision proved more durable as theme park than working town, but the dream lived on. And when Disney's real estate experts decided that 10,000 acres of undeveloped swampland immediately south of Disney World might be worth more to the company as residential development, the time was right for Eisner to make Walt's fantasy real.
Celebration, however, was a fantasy more suited to Andy Hardy than Buck Rogers. The city was to be the most fully-realized expression of the principles of New Urbanism, the planning theory that seeks to reinstate the virtues of early 20th-century American town life by making small, pedestrian-scaled communities that mix a variety of housing choices with retail and business. This is not a radical idea, but only seems so in a country single-mindedly dedicated to replicating the economically convenient tropes of suburban sprawl. A successful model already existed just to the north in the Florida panhandle town of Seaside, where New Urbanist pioneers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk had first developed their town planning ideas. In Celebration, Disney was in effect mounting a major-studio remake of DPZ's surprisingly profitable indy feature, complete with serious budgets and big name talent. Planned by Robert A. M. Stern and Jaquelin Roberson, Celebration would bring together many of Eisner's favored architects: in addition to buildings by Stern and Robertson, the town would feature a bank by Robert Venturi, a post office by Michael Graves, a movie theater by Cesar Pelli, and a town hall by Philip Johnson. Houses would be built according to an old-fashioned pattern book, with models for six different styles: Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival, Coastal, Mediterranean, and French Normandy. (Notably missing: "Gehry-esque.")
Our job was to create the signage. It was a fascinating challenge, trying to create a coherent sense of place without overwhelming the residents with "branding." There were only a few useful models to go on. Forest Hill Gardens, in Queens, New York, was my favorite; there, anonymous signmakers had created a charming consistency without succumbing to sameness or cliche. We worked with so many different architects that the early choice of Cheltenham as the "town typeface" seemed prescient, since it too was designed by an architect, Bertram Goodhue. We ended up designing not only street signs and shop signs, but manhole covers, fountains, golf course graphics, park trail markers, the sales center and even that pattern book for the houses. We resisted invitations to design a logo, arguing that towns didn't have logos; finally, an unused manhole cover design featuring a silouetted girl on a Schwinn-style bicycle and a dog became the "town seal." Everyone was amazingly idealistic; the true believers managing the project would make many of the my non-profit clients look crass and cynical by comparison. We were building the future! It was one of those rare occasions when I felt like I got to design the whole world. It has not happened since.
Celebration turned ten years old this year, and it has worn well despite some bumps at the start. (Many of these involved the town's school, a well-funded progressive institution that was a powerful lure to homebuyers but which turned out to be a bit too experimental for many parents.) Real estate values there are far above the national average, and as Witold Rybczynski has observed, "While Celebration was artfully designed to return to small-town values, it has suffered the fate of many attractive small towns, such as Aspen or Nantucket: Its downtown has become a tourist destination." Yet when I lecture and describe any number of projects I've worked on, nine times out of ten the first question is about Celebration, and the question is usually some version of: But isn't that Disney town sort of, you know, creepy?
Creepy. Well. For many, the relentlessly cheerful monoculture suggested by the Disney imprimatur provides an inescapably Orwellian aspect to the entire enterprise. Yet, as a place to live, particularly in central Florida, Celebration is relatively benign. Consider, instead, the kind of Floridian residential development where more than one of my close relatives make their homes; its archetype is familiar to any viewer of Seinfeld: Del Boca Vista Phase 3, where Jerry's parents spend their time golfing, fighting over the air conditioning and engaging in condominium-centered political intrigue. On the face of it, Celebration compares favorably. The community is not gated; the mixture of houses and apartments, of small yards and well-planned common park space, is lively and convincing; you can actually having a pleasant experience walking around. And of course, if Disney creeps you out, you can remember what might Eisner said at a press conference before the town's ribbon cutting: "The first principle of Celebration is that no one is actually required to live here."
Of course, designers are always eager to talk about authenticity, or the lack thereof, at Celebration. Here I find myself confused. The styles proscribed in Celebration's pattern book — Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival — are viewed with suspicion, if not outright contempt, a recipe for stagecraft and fakery. But authenticity is a slippery thing. I live in a 1909 house that the realtor said was Victorian but I'd more accurately call Craftsman Style. Far from "authentic," to me it looks like it was built by someone who had seen some pictures of Greene and Greene houses and thought one might look good in Westchester County. It's surrounded by equally inauthentic hundred-year-old houses, all of which look swell today because they're so old. New Urbanists often say that nostalgia is the Trojan Horse in which they deliver their radical planning ideas: small lots, mixed use, limited parking. Jacque Robertson once said in Celebration's early days, "This will look great when all these trees grow in." I suspect he's right.
What unnerves me most about Celebration is actually what is not Celebration. Despite the increasing popularity of New Urbanist principles, the country's vast scale means that places like Celebration will remain anomalies, isolated Brigadoons dropped into bleak exurban landscapes. I remember an early planning meeting for the project, where, after hours of talk about picket fences, paving patterns and live oak trees, the discussion turned to the design of a "vertical entry feature," a tall landmark that would provide a target to guide people to the town. We were considering relocating a historic water tower to the site. Then someone said, "Wait: how tall would it be compared to the water slide?" Water slide? What water slide? Well, across the street from the town's entrance was a completely unquaint, moderately tawdry water park, populated by screaming kids and rowdy teens drinking Mountain Dews and eating twist cones. And we suddenly remembered what so much design was being deployed to help us forget: that real life, in all its uncontrolled, aggressive profusion, would be transpiring as usual right across the street from, and indeed all around, this carefully planned precinct.
In the cult novel Time and Again by Jack Finney, the modern-day protagonist is enlisted to serve in a secret time travel experiment. But the experiment doesn't involve molecular transmutation, black holes or oscillating tunnels. Instead, the hero (oddly enough, a commercial artist who happens to be obsessed with the past) is moved into the 19th-century New York City landmark Dakota, and is gradually surrounded with all the details of 1882 day-to-day life, down to the daily delivery of facsimile newspapers. Finally, with the illusion seamless and complete, it becomes reality: one morning the hero simply wakes up in the real, unsimulated world of 1882, as easy as that. Celebration, I believe, speaks to that same yearning, that same science fiction fantasy, and the same promise that one day the fantasy will be made real.
Time travel is only science fiction when it happens suddenly, and compared with most places we like, Celebration happened suddenly. But we travel through time every day of our lives. It's simply at a pace too slow to notice. Ten years old, Celebration may still seem like a fantasy. But eventually, at a rate too slow to notice, those trees will grow in.