"The trouble with Oakland," Gertrude Stein wrote, "is that when you get there, there isn't any there there."
Oh, Ms. Stein, would that you could see Epcot, and in particular what's now known as "Innoventions Plaza."
Take a look at what was intended for EPCOT Center's overall design aesthetic.
Then look at how the design was realized, circa 1986.
And now we come to 2009:
Now, there are many who say that in its original incarnation -- as it existed until around the mid-1990s -- EPCOT Center presented a vaguely sinister, totalitarian vision of the future, sterile and monolithic, lacking humanity and personality.
But they're wrong.
In its starkly futuristic, monochromatic, mid-century approach to the future, EPCOT offered a sort of reassurance. Everyone was equal; what was on the outside was far less important than what's on the inside. By its very sameness and sleekness, the design reinforced that the promise of some advanced, technologically driven future was within our reach, even if we knew in our hearts it was an impossibility.
Across the World Showcase lagoon was our past, the mish-mash of styles and designs that led us to our current place; but Future World indicated that all of those individual cultures would soon coalesce into a unified whole. Our past was always going to be preserved and protected, but our future was ours to imagine and create in whatever way we wanted.
CommuniCore was the center of Future World, quite literally, and by extension the heart of EPCOT Center. Its design was perhaps the most important element of this highly themed theme park, because it did something no other park had ever attempted: It closed off the guest. It loomed on all sides, hiding what was behind it.
There was no other way to get to the pavilions that ringed CommuniCore, or to World Showcase itself. Every single EPCOT Center visitor had to pass through CommuniCore. This was the core of the community created by guests. Unlike the "hub" of Disneyland or The Magic Kingdom, which could be bypassed, CommuniCore was inevitable.
The two massive buildings that created the circular CommuniCore were both human in scale (they are about four stories tall) and overwhelming in size. Though lined with glass, it wasn't possible to see in; to know what was inside, you had to explore. Even if you chose to start your visit to EPCOT Center with a ride on Spaceship Earth, you would be deposited safely into the middle of CommuniCore.
Cleanly in design, bold in execution, simple in concept, and easy to wander, CommuniCore reminded us that the only way we could COMMUNIcate, the only way we could exist as a COMMUNIty, was to interact with each other. Guests would wander CommuniCore, but with an odd sense of purpose, to get through it and find out what was on the other side. It wasn't warm and welcoming like Main Street, that's for sure, but it also wasn't hostile or scary.
Visually and thematically, this concept of a central "core" defined EPCOT Center. It had trees and flowers (all neatly arranged), was spotless in appearance, offered the reassuring and very natural sound of running water amid the curious design. Our future, it seemed to say, would still contain the simple elements -- water, land, sky -- that have always sustained us ... but what we could achieve with our minds and hands would be what built the world that awaited.
CommuniCore was vital to EPCOT Center.
Now, it's just a jumble of color, noise, visual distractions and aggressive signage. Gone is its stunning uniformity, its promise of a tomorrow just like the one we used to imagine. Returning "Innoventions Plaza" (keep the name if you insist, it's not bad) to its original design would not be tremendously difficult ... but would require a certainty of vision, a confidence of design, that seems to be lacking in the still-sometimes-magnificent theme park that lower-case Epcot has become. Like our own world at large, it wants us to notice it ... not notice ourselves and our responsibilities to guide and shape our own tomorrow.