It's a Small World

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‘It’s a Small World’ is a ride at Disneyland. But because the world isn’t really that small, it’s really four identical rides in California, Florida, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo. And they are all a copy of a ride developed by Disney in 1964 as a Pepsi sponsored exhibit at the World Fair in New York.

I’m in Disneyland Paris, an outpost of America in the flat grey fields full of beetroot and the bones of old soldiers. Quietly, like vapour from ether, the theme tune of Its a Small World theme tune rises. Hypnotic and intoxicating, as though sung by munchkin sirens it draws me in until I’m standing in the queue. The facade is a be-bop billboard in pastel blues pinks and yellows. Composed as though it were pieces of card overlaid on an animators copy stand. A jazzy eiffel tower jives with the kremlin.

A row of fibreglass boats wait under a canopy. We board, and the boat lurches off, then slides though a hole snipped in the facade. Everything goes dark. The boat swings into a miniaturised anamatronic world. We drift past Ireland, where robot Leprechauns play harps drunkenly, past a place that is Africa-ish where natives in grass skirts thump drums wearing bones through their noses. Past more cheerfully gross stereotypes and happy insults. I feel like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now – warily watching the shores as we head into the heart of the dark ride.

The ride climaxes as the boat drifts under an arch into a open plan glimmering scene where races and religions join together in a chorus of the Small World song. Swathed in white, spinning and dancing, bathed in a glittering pink light. This final scene of Its a Small World is dreamlike. Maybe its meant as ‘It’s a Small Small Afterlife’. Its a place that’s the opposite of geography, anthropology and sociology. National Dress cast aside in favour of cult-esque robes. Disneys message seems to say: only in death do we escape the confines of circumstance. It says there is something beyond the earthly world where identity dissolves into unity.

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Making a story about life, geography and death starring rubbish robot dolls is ambitious – a kind of cosmic scale made in miniature. Its the kind of ambition that recalls the hysterical storytelling of the baroque and rococo. The Asamkirche in Munich for example, tells the whole history of the world in its 15 meters height. From the base rock of the earths beginning up through caves, into buildings then into the sky, onto the ceiling and into the kingdom of heaven.

Certain kinds of modern building projects have to deal with this bigger-than-architecture programme.

The opposite of the story telling architecture of the Assam Kirch and the ethnic stereotyping of ‘It’s a Small World’ is The United Nations HQ in New York. Built in 1956, and designed amongst others by Le Corbusier, its an International Style building. Which means it’s purged of local or national identity. It’s whitewashed, flat and abstract. National identities are displayed by the row of flags in front and distinctly separate from the building itself. Identity is applied as 2D graphic design.

As part of the Dutch presidency of the European Union, OMA were commissioned to build a tent. Erected in Brussels, it houses an exhibition exploring the European Unions past and its possible futures. The tents fabric is printed with the extruded European flag that was developed by OMA a few years ago. Here, the flag becomes the architecture.

The design of the flag was made by placing all the individual flags of the member states in a horizontal line, then extruding them vertically. Its a flag for an entity that is not quite a nation and not exactly a place. Its a political and economic organisation not a country. If you tried to visit it you would only find something else – like Italy, or Austria or Poland. One federal superstate under a gigantic duvet with everyone tucked up cosily underneath. The EU is a thing that can expand as other countries join – or conceivably shrink. The flag too can grow along its x and y axis. Which makes flat graphic design into something spatial – and architectural. It functions in a different way to a traditional flag. Rather than identifying geography, its more like the jolly roger – a statement of intent. Like mayonnaise, its something of equal consistency that can be spread over the top regardless of what’s underneath. The pattern has a weird optical effect. Like looking at a broken escalator, your eyes make it move. It makes you think of machines which extrude endless lengths of material, or the perverse gloopy mindless pleasure of squeezing out your Aquafresh all in one go. That kind of mind numbing sensation seems entirely appropriate for a body legendary for its beaurocresy.

To get an angle on what its like on the inside of an architecture project , I emailed Tony Fretton. He’s currently designing the British Embassy in Warsaw. Best known for the Lisson Gallery, and more recently the Camden Arts Centre, I suggested that he’s about as far from the Indian Restaurant ethnic-vernacular-counjouring-up-an-image-of-a-place as one can be.

He describes his design as being urbane subtle and sophisticated. Its accessible and visible rather than defensive and protective. Its about being European rather than American in this sense – though Poland is part Donald Rumsfelds New Europe. Fretton suspects that its enough to be a British designer for the design to be British. The brief from the Foreign Office suggested that the building was really about the culture of diplomacy. Frettons design is interested in its local context – the effect is has on the neighbouring buildings and in the way that its acts rather than what it looks like.

As for the Indian restaurant bit – Tony said that he didn’t get it. And maybe I don’t either now. What I meant to say to him was something like this: Isn’t there something about globalism that has changed the concept of vernacular. That its no longer anything to do with local materials and techniques. Are Half Timbered houses the same in Beaconsfield, or Bel Air, or Beijing? When you bite into a Stuffed Crust Pizza Hut Pizza do you feel your teeth sinking into 3000 years of history, migration, war, and technology? Isn’t identity complicated? Isn’t even ‘being’ hard work?

Back in Disneyland, I’m lolling in the back of a boat that keeps orbiting ‘Its a Small World’. Small world days pass every 7 minutes, every one the same. The song repeating like a mantra. Dummies arms banging bongos repeatedly – fixed by their endless smiles.

Architects will often tell you architecture is about function – because function is easy to define, and you can tell if you have done it. But actually, all architecture is about identity – not just when its corporate entertainment, or superstate roadshow or an embassy. Addressing identity means thinking about all kinds of awkward things – like who you are and what you think you are doing. Things that are nothing to do with architecture and everything to do with the rest of the universe.

Architecture remakes a small piece of the world in the image of its creators. It’s the closest you can get to the raw unedited unconscious sentiment of culture. Which is why no architect should be allowed near a copy of Autocad without a rite of passage through the watery caverns of Its a Small World.

First published in Contemporary

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