DREAM FACTORIES : Cartoon Character

<i> Aaron Betsky, curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is the author of "Building Sex," to be published this spring by William Morrow</i>

As if with the sweep of a magic wand, the Walt Disney Co.'s Animation Building has materialized in Burbank. In case you missed it, it’s the orange-and-red-striped structure arcing skyward next to the Ventura Freeway and emblazoned with the word ANIMATION. Like a big exclamation point, an 85-foot-tall Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat marks this world of fantasy. But it’s more than just another studio addition. Designed by New York architect Robert A.M. Stern, it’s a giant sign inhabited by the Disney division that started it all and produced some of the company’s recent blockbusters, including the animated features “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”

Here, the beauty of the sign has tamed the beast known as the office building. Behind a facade that unspools like a strip of film out of a projector (the celluloid theme also guides visitors along a pathway from the front door to the main atrium) stretch acres of vaulted, stucco-covered space where more than 600 animation employees work their movie magic. Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, who worked closely with Stern, a Disney board member, is pleased with how the building gives economic necessity a fantastic shape: “This is a cheap building, not because we’re cheap but because we believe in putting the money on the screen, where you can see it,” he says of the $54-million project. “My theory has always been that backstage should be a dump, so our instruction to Bob was to make it look like his offices in New York.”

Taking Eisner’s wry directions in the spirit in which they were intended, Stern created generous spaces filled with light and order. Walk through the marquee-like entrance under the conical hat (Vice Chairman Roy Disney’s vertiginous office), and you find yourself in a canting atrium space that soars the equivalent of five stories to the top of the billboard-like arc. Beyond this grand gesture--which turns out to be filled with ventilation equipment--a stripped-down aesthetic takes over, complete with exposed ducts and blank walls where animators can hang their storyboards. Topping off these bare bones is a ceiling of black insulation tacked up with silver-capped brads. Though the ceiling was supposed to be painted white, Stern decided the sheets of insulation evoked “a starry night” that made the whole workaday interior look more like a movie set.

“We thought of it as a little city here, complete with streets, intersections and buildings on major squares,” Stern explains. The “buildings” are small meeting spaces where Eisner says “creative people rub shoulders.” The spaces are identified with streamlined graphics that mirror those in the 1940s-era Disney lot across the street. Soft colors temper what Stern calls the “culture of creative clutter,” while Mickey stamps his round-eared silhouette on everything, including the reception desk, tables, chairs and lights.

“I was inspired by the Disney cartoons of the 1930s and ‘40s,” Stern says. “They drew cities of the future in the background, and so we built that place.” Now the animators occupy the fantasy environment they helped inspire, and Stern, a postmodern sorcerer, has satisfied his clients, from the rank and file (now united under one roof) to the chairman of the board.


“This building proves that you can make good things without being crazy,” says Eisner as he surveys the newest part of his Magic Kingdom. “Look, even the freeway looks aesthetic from here.”