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Mr. Gwathmey and his deference to the Serious Architecture of Walt Disney: A Critique of Bay Lake Tower

Mr. Gwathmey and his deference to the serious architecture of Walt Disney

In the autumn of Charles Gwathmey’s life controversy beleaguered the architect and his design for the addition to Paul Rudolph’s New Haven masterpiece, the Art & Architecture Building at Yale. Negative reviews of the addition by architectural critics overshadowed the concurrent design and completion of several projects by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects. One project lost in the shadows of this polemic was Disney’s Bay Lake Tower in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The project would further freefall into obscurity due to the premature death of Charles Gwathmey on August 3rd, 2009, one day before the resort would officially open to the public. The Art & Architecture Building and its “sadly conventional”[1] design will be remembered by many as the disappointing final work of an architect made famous for designing buildings that successfully compete with, seamlessly blend and sometimes gracefully defer to the existing architectural monuments and masterpieces that they adjoin.

The posthumously completed Bay Lake Tower is a major addition to the existing Contemporary Resort, a complex of several buildings that includes a postmodern convention center designed by GSAA and the Contemporary Tower. The resort is within walking distance to Magic Kingdom theme park and its impact on the reality of the fantasy that is Disney World places extreme importance on future development. The existing Contemporary Tower was completed in 1971 and designed by forgotten modern master Welton Becket. The tower’s signature A-frame profile has been an icon to the eclectic Walt Disney World skyline since its completion.[2] The experience of zooming through the boundless atrium while aboard the futuristic monorail is instilled with the spirit of Walt Disney himself and for that reason it is loved by all guests.

Instead of competing with this experience, Mr. Gwathmey wisely chooses to politely defer to the existing tower and its unique experience. Deference, as a design tactic, transcends mere recognition of the need for visual relief, or the difference between background and foreground. It is an egoless discipline of designing a building or series of buildings in a way that defers to a focus, and imparts to the inherited structure a stronger expression. Could you imagine if Cinderella’s Castle were surrounded by structures from the other Disney animated epics, and lacked the formal clarity that it currently has? It would be visually chaotic. For each signature structure added the others are made less impactful. The baroque boulevard of Main Street U.S.A. with its mélange of design periods (19th century Americana meets medieval castle), and surrounding landscape are all elements that act deferentially to Cinderella’s Castle and thereby enhance the overall experience.

Mr. Gwathmey uses deference as an architectural tactic at the Guggenheim but not at the Yale Arts Complex

Figure 1.1(Left) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Mr. Gwathmey’s design for his deferring addition.
Figure 1.2(Right) Paul Rudolph’s New Haven masterpiece, the Art & Architecture Building at Yale, Gwathmey’s addition neither denies or embraces the existing building.

Deference as an architectural tactic is also the prevalent theme in Mr. Gwathmey’s design for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum addition, completed in 1992. The orthogonal forms and patterns of Mr. Gwathmey’s addition defer to Wright’s curvilinear design. The juxtaposition of the treatment between the two structures clearly distinguishes the difference between Gwathmey and Wright, and Wright’s design is comparatively enhanced by the subdued addition.

Mr. Gwathmey’s mastery of deference as a compositional device is most evident at Bay Lake Tower. Unlike his design for the Guggenheim addition, at Bay Lake Tower he defers to the existing structure by engaging Becket in a sophisticated architectural dialogue, using the formal language established by Becket for the Contemporary Tower. Similarities in aesthetic design exist between the two towers, but Mr. Gwathmey avoids vapid stylizing by understanding the causal orders that shape each design element, and then positioning them in a manner consistent with each element’s function and purpose.

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The Dialogue

While most buildings are characterized as having a front and rear elevation, the two towers of the Contemporary Resort dispenses with this norm with their visual interplay of exterior and interior façades. The Contemporary Tower’s A-frame structure encloses an expansive fifteen-story atrium in which the eastern and western walls of the atrium appear as if they are elevations belonging to separate yet identical structures. Similarly, the horseshoe configuration of Bay Lake Tower creates the appearance of an exterior and ‘interior’ façade. The exterior façade of Bay Lake Tower faces outward towards Magic Kingdom and the Contemporary Resort, while the inward facing façade frames a contemporary version of a classical courtyard that rivals the scale of the Contemporary’s atrium.

Diagram depicting the dialogue between the interior and exterior facades of Bay Lake Tower and the existing Contemporary Tower at Walt Disney World.

The incorporation of exterior and interior façades in the design of Bay Lake Tower is the catalyst to a more complex visual dialogue between the two designs. A critical reading of the towers’ elevations reveals that the architectural language is developed in response to the following orders: views of Magic Kingdom and Bay Lake, structural forces, and the horizontal movement of the monorail. The exterior façade of the Contemporary Tower expresses the building’s repetitive steel A-frame structure, while the interior façades feature streamlined horizontals that exaggerate and embellish the speed of the monorail as it enters and exits the vast atrium.

Bay Lake Tower & Contemporary Tower horizontal response to movement of the monorail.

Figure 2.1(Left) Up close the horizontal lines of the Contemporary Tower blur together to emphasize the movement of the monorail.
Figure 2.2(Right) Mr. Gwathmey further exaggerates the horizontal at Bay Lake Tower through the expression of the structure’s flat slab construction.

The design of the exterior façade of Bay Lake Tower posed the greatest challenge because it had to respond to both the horizontality of the monorail and the verticality imposed by the structural system, which is dominant in the Contemporary Tower’s exterior façade. Mr. Gwathmey resolves all of these issues by designing a façade that changes in appearance according to the viewer’s proximity to the building. Up close the cream colored horizontal lines establish the composition, while the sweeping curve of the building’s plan creates a distorted perspective that exaggerates riders’ sense of speed on the moving monorail. From afar the horizontal curves defer to the staccato rhythm of verticals created by the alternating placement of glazed surface and recessed balconies. Although the exterior façade of Bay Lake Tower is subordinate to the Contemporary Tower, its interior façade is a dynamic composition of vertical forms that cast dramatic shadows and maintain a stately presence on Bay Lake. Mr. Gwathmey hints to the verticality that remains hidden on the interior façade with the two strategically placed vertical spires on the exterior façade, which frame views of the Contemporary Tower to the East and Magic Kingdom to the West. These two spires are the only moments of relief on the exterior façade from the zooming horizontal lines.

The solid vertical masses that comprise the interior façade serve as an expression of the building’s mechanical systems and service areas, while large vertical reveals are glazed, permitting views out toward the lake from the corridors. One of the most exciting moments in the entire design is the transition from interior to exterior façade which is ornamented with two   ‘crystalline blades’ that function as the egress stair towers,.  Without the spires the transition between exterior and interior façade would be anticlimactic.

Bay Lake Tower & Contemporary Tower Composition Transition

Figure 3.1(Left) From afar the vertical structure becomes the dominant feature in the composition of the Contemporary Tower.
Figure 3.2(Right) Likewise at Bay Lake Tower the composition shifts, the horizontal remains present, but the verticality of the structure as an expression is stronger.

The play of horizontals and verticals at Bay Lake Tower is executed with such rigor and originality that Mr. Gwathmey creates a structure that is technically superior in its execution to the original Contemporary Tower with the exception of the structure’s apex, the Top of the World Lounge. This is the only moment that the design appears to replicate the original without deference to the elements’ origin of being. Despite the similarities between the apexes of the Contemporary and Bay Lake Towers, the top of Bay Lake Tower feels foreign and obtrusive. It neither denies nor accepts the vertical or horizontal, and this indifference is its weakness.

While the apex of Bay Lake Tower is the weakest moment in the design, the pedestrian bridge that connects the existing tower to Bay Lake Tower evinces his mastery of dealing with difficult relationships to existing structures. The bridge acts as an independent element and helps to distinguish the two towers as separate and distinct, and is a departure from their established aesthetics. The lack of resolution in connection between the two towers is intentional, implying that the bridge is its own structure, belonging neither to the Contemporary or Bay Lake Tower. The bridge is a referential departure from the architectural language of the Contemporary Tower and is instead a playful interpretation of the monorail and its concrete structural system. This correlation in formal language between the monorail and the bridge is validated by their shared function: both structures move people. The pedestrian bridge serves as another instance of Mr. Gwathmey’s ability to understand the source of a language and reinterpret it in a manner that is appropriate yet consistent with its origin.

Photograph of bridge between Bay Lake Tower and Contemporary Tower, and Bay Lake Tower unique stair tower.

Figure 4.1(Left) The pedestrian bridge is a reinterpretation of the language established in the design for the monorail. This reinterpretation is validated by Mr. Gwathmey’s understanding that both structures move people.
Figure 4.2(Right) The crystalline stair tower of Bay Lake Tower marks the transition between exterior and interior facades.

The Serious Architecture of Walt Disney World

Architects in professional and academic circles often lack a critical appreciation for the great architectural experiment that is Walt Disney World. The buildings and environments constructed in the Reedy Creek Improvement District are often dismissed by professors as not “serious architecture”, or are slandered by architects and critics as “theming”. The truth is that the architecture of Walt Disney is serious and precise, and the environments found there are executed at such a high level of sophistication that the scale and spirit of this place can never be recreated. Mr. Gwathmey respects this, and it is evident in his design of Bay Lake Tower.

It is unfortunate that the addition to the Art & Architecture Building at New Haven will leave its mark in history as Mr. Gwathmey’s final work, because Mr. Gwathmey was an architect capable of producing memorable works of architecture that hold their own against some of the best buildings ever constructed. Bay Lake Tower will never be loved in the same way that visitors love the Contemporary Tower, but because of his deference he makes one of Disney’s oldest icons (and the unforgettable experience of riding on the monorail as it speeds through the atrium towards the Magic Kingdom) that much better. The forgotten Bay Lake Tower is classic Gwathmey, and stands as a deserving grand finale for an architect who never backed down from a challenge and always understood that sometimes it is better to defer than to receive.

The above article was featured in the Winter 2010 issue of Florida/Caribbean Architect Magazine.


[1] New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff’s description of the GSAA designed addition to the Art & Architecture building at Yale, as published in Yale Revelation: Renewal for a Building and Its Original Designer.
[2] Wikipedia