The Poisoned Apple Disney at the Gates of Paris
Is the recent proliferation of neo-traditional ensembles a consequence of the conquest operation which began nearly 40 years ago with the establishment of the Disney empire in Île-de-France? Worse still, might this Gesamtkunstwerk of late capitalism be the ultimate manifestation of American resentment towards the European city? Such are the hypotheses developed by Christophe Catsaros in response to
L’Architecture des réalités mises en scène, (re)construire Disney, presented at the Centre d'architecture Arc en rêve in Bordeaux (May 13th—October 29th, 2023, curated by Saskia Van Stein). The exhibition, which stops short of such provocative positions, unfolds in the nuances and grey areas of the subject, whilst pursuing a brazen deconstruction of the Disney machine and its ability to articulate the development of fictional worlds and the lucrative production of the city.
First, this image: Jacques Chirac, his face suffused with the rather idiotic gaiety that characterised him, receives a gift from Michael Eisner, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company.The framed photograph presented to the Prime Minister represents another gift: that of the poisoned apple offered to Snow White by the witch. Immortalised in 1987 at the time of the signature, this mise en abyme has long symbolised the dubious nature of the transaction. The French state invested four times more than the Walt Disney Company to have the privilege of welcoming the flagship of American family entertainment on its territory. Thirty years later, in view of the evolution of the Parisian metropolitan project and the proliferation of neo-traditional ensembles (1) in Île-de-France, another reading of this scene has become possible.
EPISODE 1: WHEN COLONIAL “KNOW-HOW” FINDS A NEW USE IN THE METROPOLIS
Marne-la-Vallée and its eastern sector, Val d’Europe, were not born at the time of the signing of the agreement between the State and the American company. The intention to make it an urban centre dates back to the early 1960s, when Paul Delouvrier launched the new cities project. This masterful plan was to provide the capital with a ring of five satellite cities of 500,000 inhabitants each, located less than 35 km from the capital. Before becoming the backdrop to an amusement park, Marne-la-Vallée was one of those five cities. Delouvrier was no longer in office when the decision was made to create the park, but he did have the “vision” of the great multipolar extension project for Paris. An urban planner, a resistant, this senior ad
ministrator of the 4th Republic planned the five cities in the manner of a conquistador— in a helicopter (rather than on horseback), alongside General de Gaulle who wanted to “straighten all this out.” Read: the anarchic extension of the suburbs.
We had to wait until Samia Henni produced her shocking work about the Algerian regroupment camps (2) for people to remember that prior to being the conductor of the Paris expansion, Paul Delouvrier was the general delegate of the government in Algeria. He also orchestrated the mass displacement of civilians during the war. Displacements intended to empty certain territories of their inhabitants in order to cut off the supply for the Algerian resistance. The end of the war and the repatriation of the French from Algeria led him to switch to other planning endeavours, destined to break away from dormitory towns and build real cities with services and jobs. The idea was to put an end to the ever-longer commutes between residential areas and workplaces. The new towns provided as many jobs as there were inhabitants. Although this quota was not always respected, it gives us an idea of the appeal of Michael Eisner’s apple. Marne-la-Vallée was to become the only one of the five new Parisian cities to finally and fully reach this activity target.
EPISODE 2: WHEN THE ASPIRATIONS OF THE PLANNERS OF THE REPUBLIC MEET THE AMBITIONS OF THE YOUNG WOLVES OF WALL STREET
The 1980s were the conservatives’ counterattack. It is perhaps difficult for us to conceive the extent to which the expansion of the American empire and its arrival in Îlede-France was an ideological act. It was no longer a question of colonising production and the economy, but rather the imagination and everyday life. The 1980s embodied the moment in world history when the United States prevailed over its adversaries by taking control of their desires. Top Gun and Levi’s commercials were as decisive in the victory over the Eastern Bloc as the deployment of the Pershing missiles in Europe in 1983. The arrival of Disney was part of these operations, which lastingly anchored American values in the European imagination. Disney’s boss was no longer just a storyteller. He was received at Matignon as a head of state. His empire functioned more or less as a colonial enterprise at the height of the triangular trade. The theme park was the outpost from which the new development model would radiate.
What was Eurodisney’s urban planning the sign of? In 1988, in a rare burst of creativity, the Walt Disney Company brought together a college of architects to reflect on the project’s architecture: Michael Graves, Robert Stern, Frank Gehry, StanleyTigerman, Antoine Grumbach, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Some of them designed the theme park hotels.The contest organised at the time was a real postmodern manifesto. The American company couldn’t get this wrong. Although it entrusted the hotel that overlooks the entrance of the park to its own teams of designers, it also called upon several great figures of American and European architecture. Some, like Hans Hollein, even had the audacity to believe that this commission could be the subject of a critical response. Hollein proposed a hotel in the shape of an aircraft carrier, suggesting that capitalism can sometimes be consistent with critical self-analysis. Gehry, with his own variation on “main street,” did his best to bring some coherence to the new American colony. The most conceptual European projects (Rem Koolhaas, Aldo Rossi, Jean Nouvel, Christian de Portzamparc) were not carried out. Yet the park was not devoid of architectural intentions. Michael Eisner, however reformist he purported to be, did not betray the original concept of Walt Disney’s plan. In Paris, we find the same incongruous mix made up of the American pioneer imagination and a fantasised Europe, a sort of distant memory on behalf of the man who travelled through it as an ambulance driver
during the First World War. Disney’s distorted Europe may also have crystallised the resentment inherent in the American perception of the Old Continent. The distorted vision is also that of the emigrants who arrived at Ellis Island with the hope of a new world and the unavowed desire to leave the societies they had cut ties with behind. Oedipus applied to the territory: kill the country of origin and mate with the host land. Nothing other than this pent-up desire can perhaps explain the violence with which the American squadrons destroyed the jewels of European urban planning in their legitimate effort to defeat Nazism during the Second World War. Incidentally, it is to the Walt Disney teams and their cinematographic war effort that we owe the most virulent plea for aerial bombardment against enemy cities.(3) The New World unconsciously resented the Old and never missed an opportunity to attack its supposed superiority.
As a result, Walt Disney’s theme parks remodelled the city as if they had previously crossed it off the map. They are the setting that was born when all form of urbanism had been erased. They thereby re-enacted the conquest of the West, when the massacre of the natives was followed by the time of edification. The settlers created their wooden city crossed by a wide, straight road: “main street.” More than a camp and not yet a city. There, between the saloon, the church, the
Éric Tabuchi et Nelly Monnier. Vue de view of Serris. Projet Atlas des régions naturelles, depuis 2017 post office and the general store, life reclaimed its rights. Disneyland’s “main street” is one of those acts of colonial urban planning whose virulence is not sufficiently estimated. An act of acculturation concealed within infantile joy; a shock treatment under general anaesthesia. It was not just a new beginning on any old ruin. It was a new beginning on the fresh corpse of the reviled archetype: the European city.
EPISODE 3: WHEN DISNEY’S “FAKE OLDFASHIONED STYLE” COLONISES THE WHOLE OF ÎLE-DE-FRANCE, UP TO THE GATES OF PARIS
The reactionary style of the proponents of the new urbanism (4) has lost some of its radicalness. No one tries to substantiate the choice of classicism by referring to the master thinkers of the movement. No one whips out the weapon of ideology to defend the controversial model. There is no longer any need to mobilise architects such as the Krier brothers or Ricardo Bofill to build freakish variants of the neoclassical city, as in Cergy. No, the time has come for the generalisation of the mediocre pastiche. The city generated by an algorithm indexed on clients’ bad taste and developers’ lack of audacity. The client must be given what he expects, and since he has been awash with triviality from an early age, he can only wish for the worst. The cornice and colonnade ensembles of Val d’Europe have been widely emulated. The first ensembles with picturesque decorations from the 1990s paved the way for others. They were initially to be found in the Hautsde-Seine, then just about everywhere. Clamart, Châtenay-Malabry, Le Plessis-Robinson, Puteaux, Le Blanc-Mesnil and even Saint-Ouen. We have lost count of the cities that are sliding into this uninhibited neo-traditionalism. The idea that a neighbourhood might be the bad copy of a stereotype is no longer shocking. The theme neighbourhood is becoming the default mode of a speculative form of urban planning based on the builders’ lack of culture and the buyers’ indifference.
In the early 2000s,Tianducheng, the Chinese replica of Paris, was mocked. Nowadays, leading groups of promoters offer similar ensembles in their sales catalogues. You can choose a contemporary or a neo-traditional district, as in the past you could choose a Provençal or a modern house. The incoherence lies not in the choice of the oldfashioned style, but in the idea that it can be reduced to window-dressing.The dishonesty lies in the necessarily failed attempt to camouflage the car park under the building, the prefabricated structure under the concrete cornice, the 5G antenna in the chimney, the video surveillance system in a lamppost and the defects under the coats of paint. The dishonesty lies in the fact of renewing a suburban lifestyle in a city-centre setting, but without any of the real qualities of the city. The crime, finally, lies in the regression of a society that prefers the illusion of a badly-built stage set to the imperfection of reality. Instead of correcting the errors of the major ensembles, we cover them up with a thick layer of reactionary illusion. In this new simulated landscape, Paris is no more than an empty shell. A stage set for selfies whose function is none other than to serve as an archetype for the pastiche cities that surround it, offering variants of its atmospheres like so many motorway restaurants. A theme park in the midst of an area inhabited by 10,7 million people. A Disneyfied city. ■