Back when Dave Cobb posted his #HomemadeThemePark video of the Men in Black: Alien Attack ride he actually served as creative director for, I joked about seeing other theme park designers' "homemade" versions of their attractions.
I now await Joe Rohde's #HomemadeDisney versions of Flight of Passage and Mission Breakout, as he also's an active participant in social media. (Though I think we're more likely to get from him a five-part, 5,000-word Instagram post series on the anthropological foundations of those attractions. Which I would be 100% down for, by the way.)
Well, that didn't happen. Joe didn't post a five-part Instagram series on the foundations of theme park design. He posted a 37-part series, instead.
So here for your reference, are Joe's posts, in chronological order, taking us from prehistory through Rome, the Middle Ages, Renaissance and on through to today, examining how art, architecture, gardens, expositions, and media evolved to lead us into contemporary theme park design. It's an amazing intellectual and historical foundation for understanding why theme parks are they way they are, and why they work for us.
If you love theme parks, please take them time to read Joe's posts (and subscribe to his Instagram feed). I am sure that you will find them both fascinating and insightful.
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I’m going to switch it up now. Since we’re not going anywhere, “travel” seems like not the way to go. A while back I was posting to art students about the divergence between the Art history that leads to abstraction conceptual art and modern architecture versus the art history that leads to the practice of themed design, film, and to some degree theater. You can start an art history anywhere. But in this case, I’m going to start very early and then make a big jump to Rome. This is a downloaded image of Gobeckli Tepe in Turkey, from the very early Neolithic era, Perhaps 11,000 years ago. That’s a long time ago. Way more than twice as old as the pyramids. England is still connected to Holland by a walkable marsh. People are hunting mammoths somewhere in North America. Several things are interesting about Gobeckli Tepe, but what is salient to our discussion is the tremendous amount of energy expended here on structures not meant for residential, commercial or defense uses. It complicates the principle of form follows function… Unless we extend the idea of function far beyond material concerns...In this case, to ritual. One of the themes that we will see throughout the history is that form does not only follow function, but form also follows desire. These are far and away the oldest major architectural structures known to have been created by humans. I think it is telling me that they are almost entirely made for effect. The feasting functions associated with the site do not require this level of architecture. It is difficult not to reach the conclusion that this is being done purely to say something. That the scale, elaborateness, and difficulty of the architecture is it’s own point. This is the line we will follow...the design of spaces meant to express ideas and the creation of imagery meant to tell stories.
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Let’s try Rome. Monumental narrative architecture has been built all around the world. But the Romans do some weird stuff. A true global power centered around a tiny set of hill towns run by Farmer-Soldiers, they needed an especially convincing narrative to legitimize their rule over older, wealthier and frankly more refined cultures. They manipulated illusion to create a myth of greatness. In Roman placemaking the final surface appearance of a building disguised the nature of its material. Buildings made of brick and concrete were overlaid with marble veneer, or with stucco painted to look like marble. Marble does not behave like brick or concrete. It’s forms are more limited. Concrete is very liberating. This meant that marble-veneered buildings, and what’s more, the Romans who raised them up, would’ve appeared to possess miraculous power. Honesty of materials was not the final concern. The surface of the building was all that the eye encountered, full of propagandistic narrative. That was the design goal. The building was just what held it up. This attitude about illusion led to the diverse mural traditions of Rome, including the first flirtations with perspectival illusionistic space. Between the faux painted marble on the walls, the sculpted stucco “theming” of fluted faux marble onto brick columns, and the veneer of marble on exterior walls, and the scenic backdrop wall murals, the buildings were more like stage sets. Stage sets for a story about the social and political greatness of Romans. A stage set presents the idea of things, not things themselves. In the case of Roman walls this even meant presenting imaginary space in the form of illusory scenes. To the viewers eye there is no difference between real space, faux-finished real space, and faux space itself, because the idea, the narrative of the space, was the chief impression left on the viewer..not a contemplation of structural systems. Space as an idea. More on this next time.
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I’m gonna try this concept of space and the Romans further. Compared to other cultures of antiquity, the layout of spaces and the sculptural shaping of Roman architecture masses is peculiar. This sense of space is uncannily familiar to a person like myself who works in theme park design. It looks like it’s all based on sightlines and the sculpting of space. It’s one thing to look at the sculptural modeling of buildings… But start with our first premise ... that the Romans are preoccupied with theater... which means they are preoccupied with view and surface. In this case, the surface is not the out-facing skin of the building… It is the inward-facing skin of the observable space. Like the inside of a balloon. Instead of picturing Roman buildings, picture Roman space as the primary design feature and the surface as the final edge that tells you where the space is and what it has to say. This predilection for sculpting the actual space was tremendously enabled by the technology of concrete. The Romans invented the best concrete the world has ever seen. Unlike marble, wood, brick, Concrete has no form… It is just pliable mud. That means it will accept any form you pour it into. This means that the premise of “space as an idea” can be turned upside down into an “idea that turns into space.” Concrete liberates the imagination of Roman architects and allows them to sculpt spaces in almost any shape they want. And all of these spaces are shaped with a profound attention to the viewer and where that viewer is in the space… As if it was all designed by a magician for some vast stage illusion. Or by Imagineers. As the theaters, amphitheaters, stadiums and triumphal parades make clear ...the Romans designed for an audience. It is performance architecture.
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