Friday, October 02, 2009

There's No There There

"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.


jimmycrackedcorn said...

We'll be there in June, our first visit in 11 years. Glad the blog is back!

Anonymous said...

The only thing I liked about Innovations Plaza was "Club Cool" & the Segway exhibit.

"Club Cool" was nice because it was free soda (hint: Avoid "Italy" - You'll know what I mean when you get there).

The Segway exhibit was nice but WAY too short - We took the free version (Apparently, if the scene is dead inside Innovations, the Segway people dole out a "free" version of their demonstration, as opposed to the $98 dollar version that they normally provide).

I went through the "House of Innovations" & was thoroughly underwhelmed. It took too long to get in (It's a demonstration showcase so you just can't "walk through" at your own pace - Make sure you empty your bladder before you get in line), took too long to show & there wasn't much "wow"-worthiness to it.

All the other exhibits in the Innovations plaza were geared towards 1st graders & their ilk. Toyed with some of those exhibits just to verify how ridiculously retarded they were & then moved on.

Overall, the Innovation plazas (both sides) was a huge disappointment for me. This is yet another example of Disney's way of "dumbing down" Epcot so that the kiddies aren't crying 30 minutes into the park.

If you're 6-8 years old, then maybe Innovations has some merit for you because that's the age group that Innovations is going after. However, everyone else need not apply.

Andy JS said...

I remember visiting Communicore between 1988 and 1993 and it was fascinating. What I liked about it were the big empty spaces. You had to kind of search around for the attractions. I remember when we tried to find the Backstage Magic show once - it was some kind of tucked away in a corner of the building. I loved that. When they changed it in 1994 everything had to be filled in with gizmos.

I wish I could find some of our photos of Communicore - they seem to have got lost.

Unknown said...

You know, I remember your posts from before. I always remember the negative attitude that you have toward EPCOT, and it continues today. I worked as a WDWCP in 1995. I love the plaza then, I love it now. The music, the fountain, the buzz of the people, the fiber optics in the concrete. I respect the nostalgia for days gone by. But we don't need any more negativity in this world. Celebrate what is today.

Anonymous said...

Brad, it really is not about nostalgia. I brought someone to Epcot last year who never had been there. She commented on the "messiness" of FutureWorld and she did not leave with a good impression or a desire to return.

Additionally, the point of Epcot is/was/should be less about the indulgence of celebrating today than it is/was/should be about the embracement of a courageous future.

I'm sorry but a pin trading tent is a sad commentary on the fact that we would forgo a courageous vision for the future for the materiality and triviality of pins today.

The "evolution" of Epcot during the 90's is a microcosm of the thinking that had infected both our leadership and everyday people in America. It's the "all about me" mindset that had companies making grossly profit laden, gas guzzling SUVs instead of pushing the boundaries of engineering, and had consumers mindlessly buying them up without thinking about any consequences to the collective whole of our future.

EPCOT Center, if it had been allowed to follow the courage of its inception, could have been a shining counterpoint to 90's "me" thinking. But unfortunately, profits instead of ideas were king, which is why we have the problems we are facing today. Now that is what's negative!

Epcot82 said...

Brad, I appreciate your stance. It's hard to celebrate what is today when "what is" isn't as good as it could be. As you'll remember from the glossy history lesson in The American Adventure (which I love), change and progress comes from not being content, from not accepting compromise -- and from having vision. Epcot is fine and still the best of the four Florida parks. But EPCOT Center was wonderful, and I believe Epcot could rework itself into "EPCOT Center 2.0" and be truly extraordinary.

David Landon said...

There may be some reason for hope here. According to a thread in the forums, back in August Disney obtained a permit for "Promenade structure removal" at EPCOT, which has led to rampant speculation that the tarps are at last coming down.

The area is definitely in the process of getting some kind of facelift; the breezeway entrances to Future World East and Future World West have been painted shades blue and green that clash with the whirlygigs and stuff from the 1990s. I've got a feeling the new paint job is the first step of a wider redecoration of the area. After all, the tarps and whirlygigs may have looked up-to-date in the 90s, but in this decade the clean, open design aesthetic that EPCOT Center started with is back in vogue.

Anonymous said...

That green and blue is HIDEOUS. I mean, cutesy purple was bad enough, but those colors that they are (hopefully) testing are atrocious. Unbelievably ugly and almost offensive. They're trying WAAAAAAAAY too hard to make Innoventions Plaza "whimsical," when stately or timeless would work a lot better. Also, do you think they'll get rid of or at least REPAIR the stage by the fountain? It looks awful. Sorry to sound so critical, but there's some really ugly stuff happening in this area, along with some really nice stuff like the new railing around the fountain.

David Landon said...

I'm not really a fan of the blue and green myself, but compared to the tarps and whirlygigs it's the lesser of two evils.

Anonymous said...

But couldn't they just take down the tarps and whirlygigs, paint the buildings a uniform color and restore the original concept? I mean, couldn't they? After seeing what has become of Hollywood Blvd., I can't imagine that even if people complained, they'd care.

Anonymous said...

Im sorry but the Future is WHITE dang it WHITE! Epcot should be gleaming hite utopia full of timelessness and fantastic Disney magic. Dont try to update it Ever...

Digital Jedi said...

Brad said:
>>>You know, I remember your posts from before. I always remember the negative attitude that you have toward EPCOT, and it continues today. I worked as a WDWCP in 1995. I love the plaza then, I love it now. The music, the fountain, the buzz of the people, the fiber optics in the concrete. I respect the nostalgia for days gone by. But we don't need any more negativity in this world. Celebrate what is today.

So do you have a reasonable argument as to why what we have today is quality, well thought out craftsmanship and have reasons why it resonates with audiences of today, or is this just a case of you like, he doesn't, so that means he must be wrong?