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Disney World

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.

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Remember every year in undergraduate school how it seemed that there was always one kid who gets the bright idea to create a ramping system, which serves as the major vertical circulation system in his design? And do you remember when that one kid is told during a critique that his design does not meet the requirements of the building codes? He is also told that ramp slopes cannot exceed 1:20, and that the maximum run without a 5 feet landing is 30 feet? Do you remember what happens after he stares blankly at his drawing and realizes that his design does not work? In case you forgot, he comes back the next week with a design that he claims fully satisfies the requirements of the building code.

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Glass block is a great building material; I believe that if Louis Kahn would have had the opportunity he would have made his arches out of glass block and not bricks. Don’t believe me check out his unbuilt design for the Memorial to Six Million Jewish Martyrs. When is the last time that you asked glass block, what do you want? Has anyone ever?  Glass block is one of those materials that have only had part of its potential exploited.  Before I die, I’ll have to build a glass archway as a tribute to the deceased master architect, but until then let’s look at some glass block details.

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Disney World in Orlando, Florida is for many reasons worthy of architectural study. While walking through the parks one can study how the environment has been designed to handle large masses of people and apply these principles to plaza or park designs.  One could also study how the signage has been designed to communicate to anyone regardless of the language they speak, and apply these principles to way-finding design in hospitals.  Or one could simply appreciate the reality of fantasy that Disney has managed to create, which after all is very similar to the reality that we as architects attempt to create every single day.

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These images are the result of a walking tour at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin resort hotel designed by Michael Graves.  Construction of this massive complex was completed in 1990 and is sited between two of Walt Disney World’s parks: Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.  Disney’s Hollywood Studios is inspired by the heydey of Hollywood from the 1930’s-1940’s.  The resorts are also adjacent to Disney’s BoardWalk Resort which is reminiscent of Coney Island circa 1890’s-1930’s.    Although Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened its doors on May 1st of 1989, almost a year before the Swan & Dolphin. 

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