Back to the Drawing Board : Architecture: Walt Disney first made his mark in cartoon features, and the company that bears his name is building a unique shrine to its renewed success in the field.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Someone in the universe may be unaware of the Walt Disney Co.'s renewed success with animated films since Ariel, the Little Mermaid, flippered onto movie screens, lunch boxes and pajamas in 1989. But probably not many people who drive nowadays on the Ventura Freeway through Burbank.

There, freeway adjacent, the word ANIMATION is splayed in 14-foot-high letters across a new building that experts describe both as an instant landmark in the often featureless sprawl of Southern California and as a very public symbol of an art form that has conquered the worldwide marketplace.

How could the Disney studio's new animation building not be eye-catching? Its entrance is topped by a two-story version of the cone hat worn by Mickey Mouse in the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment of "Fantasia." Its freeway side has an enormous, striped facade that reminds some commuters of a film reel with sprocket holes and others of a Mohawk haircut. Lighted at night, it resembles a 1930s cruise ship improbably sailing the adjacent Los Angeles River.

"No matter whatever else the company ever did or will ever do, the contribution that Walt Disney made in animated films is one of the most important things in 20th Century culture," declared architect Robert A. M. Stern during a recent tour of the structure he designed. "So a building about animation should be animated, it should be fun."

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It also should be a place where 625 animators and other employees can continue Disney's primacy in family entertainment, according to Disney Co. Chairman Michael D. Eisner. Since 1986, Disney animators have worked in anonymous and increasingly crowded Glendale warehouses. "I think if there ever was a group that deserved a new building in American business, this group of artists deserve their own building," Eisner said on an inspection visit.

Currently unmatched for corporate patronage of high-profile architecture, Eisner has won attention for commissioning hotels, offices and amusements in California, Florida and France from such superstar designers as Stern, Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi and Arata Isozaki.

Among the startling results is the company's Team Disney headquarters in Burbank, designed by Michael Graves, which resembles a classical sandstone temple with giant statues of the Seven Dwarfs. Graves also created outlandish hotels at Disney World in Florida, one topped by five-story-high swans, another with Gargantuan dolphins.

Some critics complain that Disney-sponsored architecture around the world is hokey, garish and just another publicity tool for an image-jealous company. "Architorture" was one Florida magazine's description of Stern's Disney World casting center, a fun-house version of a Venetian castle covered in gold-and-white diamond patterns. Other reviews have praised such Disney projects as Gehry's planned ice rink in Anaheim, which will look like two hillocks sheathed in aluminum.

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The company chairman concedes that architecture is sometimes part of marketing, although he insists the effect is pleasant.

"I think it makes you smile, which I think is good for our company. If it makes you gag, then I think we've gone too far," he said. "But I think our buildings make you smile."

Experts liken the animation building's hat to so-called programmatic architecture: those wackily beloved Los Angeles structures that announce their identity, such as the hot dog stand formed like a frankfurter, the doughnut-shaped bakery, the Brown Derby restaurant. In the sorcerer's hat, Disney vice chairman and animation head Roy Disney will have a cartoonish office, a 60-foot-high cone with one small window and chandeliers curved like Mickey Mouse's face.

"It's using the identity of a product as a sales device. As far as architecture (goes), we have a long, glorious tradition of that in California," UC Santa Barbara architectural history professor David Gebhard said of the new building, located at 2100 Riverside Drive, across the street from the main studio lot.

What's also unusual is that movie studios, except for the Universal Studios tour, tend to be walled compounds with few hints of interior goings-on, added Gebhard, who is co-author of a seminal guidebook to Los Angeles.

"The whole tradition of studio complexes have been locked enclaves that try to protect their secrets and illustrious personalities," he said.

The new $54-million, 243,000-square-foot building presents a public face, albeit behind metal fences crowned with hundreds of Mickey profiles. In its green, beige and terra cotta colors, its signs and movie theater-like entrance, it consciously mimics the 1940s Disney Studio buildings designed by Kem Weber.

Another inspiration for its swooping forms, Stern said, is the Pan Pacific Auditorium on Beverly Boulevard, an icon of Streamline design destroyed in a 1989 fire. "I love the modernism of L.A. around the 1930s and '40s . . . so we tried to bring that back to life. And it's nice to do out here, because it's disappearing pretty rapidly," said the New York-based architect, who is on the Disney corporate board.

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Fifty-seven years after Walt Disney revolutionized entertainment with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Eisner stressed that "the company has a right to say we're here. We don't have to be hidden in a warehouse anymore."

But except for invitation-only visits to its 139-seat screening room, the building will be closed to the public to shield projects, Disney officials say. A reporter was guided through its three above-ground floors, but was not allowed into the basement, where high-powered computers and video equipment are being readied for the animators' move-in, which is to continue through January.

Three hundred miles of fiber-optic lines will link artists' desks to help produce at least one animated movie a year, including the upcoming "Pocahontas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and a sequel to the 1940 "Fantasia."

"As much as you can, this is set up for the satellite, computer, electronic world," explained Eisner. "But you know what? With all of that, you still have to have a guy sitting there drawing a picture and doing a gag and saying, 'Is that funny?' There's never a computer or satellite or a fiber-optic thing that's going to tell you whether there's an emotion, whether it's funny and whether there's a beginning, middle and an end. And without that, I don't care how many computers you have."

He should know. Disney's four animated megahits since 1989--"The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King"--have grossed more than $1.4 billion in domestic and international markets.

That does not include home video sales or the seemingly endless merchandising deals on toys, T-shirts and towels. In the past decade, the animation department in California has increased fivefold, to about 800 employees.

Animation's continuing success has been a bright spot in an otherwise painful year for Disney, one marked by financial troubles at Euro Disney, a retreat on plans for a history theme park in Virginia, the death of company President Frank G. Wells in a helicopter crash, the bitter resignation of studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Eisner's own bypass surgery. So, with the animation building about to open, Eisner seemed relieved to discuss his love of architecture for a change.

Under exposed insulation and air-conditioning ducts, animation employees will have loft-like work spaces that are less expensive to build than traditional offices and intended to encourage interaction. Two-story-high glass atriums, vaulted windows and a towering glass lobby flood in natural light still prized by artists in this Macintosh era. Lounges are furnished like 1939 living rooms and picture rails are everywhere for hanging sketches.

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"I think this building has its built-in funkiness, and once the animators and the story people and the computer people and the artists all come in, they will put their personality on it," Eisner suggested. "Come back in a year and there will be Ping-Pong tables and Frisbee games. And if somebody draws Pocahontas on the wall, we are not going to have a breakdown."

Architect Stern, who teaches at Columbia University, added: "This is a very high-tech building in which the high-tech is kept very much in a recessive position. No one wanted to be inside a kind of rocket lab."

Stern's UC Irvine fine arts building and Pasadena police headquarters quietly echo Mediterranean palaces. His elegantly shingled Long Island beach houses revived and exaggerated old East Coast styles.

His Disney projects are larger, like the monumental hotels in Florida and France that mimic turn-of-the-century beach resorts and a cowboy movie set. He previously placed a giant "Sorcerer's Apprentice" hat atop Euro Disney's now-demolished preview center.

Robert Harris, director of USC's master's degree program in architecture, thinks such styles might be wrong for a church or an insurance company. "But this is an entertainment company, so it seems to me like an appropriate thing," Harris continued. "I think Disney Studio wants to be associated in peoples' minds with upbeat, fun, positive, if not kitschy, kinds of feelings."

Press reviews of the animation center are not in yet. Meanwhile, local reaction is mixed. A nearby Burbank homeowner denounced it and the dwarfs' statues as proof that the studio now wants a "glitzy" presence: "I think Walt would be twirling in his grave," the resident declared.

But the Burbank Chamber of Commerce lauded it, with a spokeswoman predicting that people will pull off the freeway to take photographs of the hat. "We expect it," she said, "to be quite a tourist attraction."

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