The giant green fiberglass swans atop Disney World's new World Swan hotel set the tone for the architectural extravaganza that greets guests as soon as they enter the lobby.
Swans are everywhere, spouting in fountains, floating on bench backs, pressed as outlines in the ashtray sand. The gracious birds are joined by a host of cutout, painted parrots, sea horses and other creatures swinging from lamp shades or hiding among the huge yellow pansy petals in the wallpaper.
On the carpets, a riot of vivid floral motifs appears; the hotel's favored, somber palette of turquoise and terra cotta fights a losing battle with buttercup yellows, corpuscle crimsons and meadow greens.
The total effect, as one visiting architect remarked, is rather like spending the night with a friendly Venus flytrap.
But lest there be excessive jests about its design extravagances, it is worth noting that the Swan leads a new wave of "entertainment architecture" commissioned by Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner.
Designed by Michael Graves, the noted Princeton Post Modern architect whose Southern California work includes the San Juan Capistrano Library, the Swan is the first of four new resort-convention hotels set to open this year in Orlando's Walt Disney World theme park.
The buildings are part of an ambitious Disney World expansion program, which Eisner, on the Swan's Jan. 13 opening, described as his company's plan to "do nothing less than reinvent the Disney theme park and resort experience in the next 10 years."
Eisner commissioned designs for Orlando and for the ambitious Euro Disneyland project outside Paris from some of the world's leading architectural innovators.
Besides Graves, who also designed Disney's new corporate headquarters in Burbank (scheduled to be dedicated this summer), the architectural Mouseketeers include: from Los Angeles, Frank Gehry; from New York, Robert Stern and Gwathmey Seigel & Associates; from Albuquerque, N.M., Antoine Predock; from Japan, Arata Isozaki; from Italy, Aldo Rossi; from Holland, Rem Koolhaas, and from Austria, Hans Hollein.
"Yesterday, every architect in America dreamed of building office towers for enlightened developers," said New York design critic Suzanne Stephens. "Today, they want to work for Michael Eisner."
The hottest personal trophy awarded to Disney "starchitects" is a gold Mickey Mouse watch handed out by Euro Disney chairman Robert Fitzpatrick. The watches have become emblems for those who contrive Disney's "entertainment architecture."
Graves, who has taken much ribbing and even derision from colleagues for his Disney designs, said he is proud of the Swan and the Dolphin, an adjoining Orlando hotel that is capped by 60-foot dolphins frolicking on the skyline. It is scheduled to open in July.
"I've tried to walk the line between the whimsical and the jokey here," he said. "I've striven to navigate between the chasm of the cute and the abyss of easy irony, while serving the needs of the hotel operators."
When told that one local wit had described the Swan as "a cross between a big playpen and a Babylonian brothel," Graves smiled enigmatically, then replied: "I can't really argue with that when you consider the two main kinds of clientele the hotel is meant to attract--kids and conventioneers. The design has to appeal to partying podiatrists and the children who come to visit Disneyworld. I feel I've exploited the Swan theme to satisfy both categories."
Graves' experience in designing for Disney reveals the kind of future fantasies the company's roster of gifted architects may be urged to develop.
For example, Graves, not Disney, chose the Swan and Dolphin motifs. All Disney insisted on was that the hotels express some major theme.
(Disney, in fact, holds only a 10% stake in the hotels' ownership, along with Tishman Realty & Construction Co. of New York, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and Japan's Aoki Corp. The World Swan is run by the Westin company; the Dolphin will be run by the Sheraton hotel chain.)
But Disney retains all aesthetic control over architecture in its resorts. "We want to be able to protect the designer and coordinate the architectural theme of our parks," a Disney official said. "That is our overriding concern."
But many design professionals object to Graves' Disney World work because of its "theming."
To theme a building means to subordinate its formal order to an artificially imposed concept, such as the swan or the dolphin. This imposition tends to trivialize architecture's seriousness, some critics assert.
Graves, however, objects that all architecture is themed, in one way or another. "Every design, from the Sistine Chapel to Frank Lloyd Wright's Mayan houses in the Hollywood Hills, expresses a theme," he said. "Pisa's Leaning Tower is themed, as were the Pyramids, so why make such a fuss over a simple swan and a dancing dolphin?"
The principal difficulty critics have with the Swan and the Dolphin is the literalness of the visual metaphors that control the designs. Serious architectural themes are usually more abstract and subtle; they seldom knock the observer's eye out quite so directly.
Oddly enough, considering Graves' status as an East Coast design mandarin (he made his reputation with controversial designs, such as the 1982 Portland Public Service Building in Portland, Ore., and the 1986 Humana Tower in Louisville, Ky.), the themed architecture of the twin hotels draws much of its inspiration from two powerful Los Angeles design traditions.
These are movie set design and "programmatic" architecture--in which buildings mimic shapes of things they sell or house, as in the famed hot dog-shaped Tail O' the Pup fast food stand near the Beverly Center.
The Dolphin and Swan hotels copy programmatic architecture in their use of out-size namesake creatures crowning their facades; their movie-set design inspirations include their paint and wallpaper evocations of tropical paradises populated by fabulous animals.
Some critics have said the kind of fantastic fakery that inspires designs such as the Swan and the Dolphin cannot be judged by conventional architecture's canons. The tongue-in-cheek designation "hokey-tecture" has been suggested as an alternative to apply to everything from the mock reality of the Epcot Center to the Egyptoid colonnades of the latest Post Modern mini-mall.
Hokey-tecture notwithstanding, leading designers everywhere are eager to work with Disney. Architect Predock, designing hotels for Disney in Orlando and Paris, describes the experience as "a kind of guerrilla theater. You make hit-and-run forays into the arena to defend architecture, and retreat with commands that can crush you. The whole experience is wonderfully unpredictable."
Graves said that working for Disney has stretched him: "It's made me more lighthearted, less pompous. The Disney projects are a lot of fun, and architecture needs fun if it isn't to get too portentous."