pulp #30: disney

originally published on Friday, November 24, 2017

For all its possible merits and pitfalls, one thing the Current Affairs article 'Why you Hate Contemporary Architecture' got dead wrong was to act as though classical architecture is dead. The 'Trads' are alive, well, even prolific. To properly understand their world, this week I talked with Stephanie Jazmines who, having gone to Notre Dame, worked for Robert Stern, and studied under Leon Krier, has taken the full tour of the traditional architecture world. Just do not call her a classicist.


Stephanie Jazmines works for Disney, in Los Angeles. Before becoming an Imagineer, she studied at Notre Dame, worked for Robert AM Stern architects, studied with Leon Krier and (former) FAT at Yale, and did a Fulbright Scholarship in Finland.

Notre Dame Portfolio / Projects at Yale / 'Kokoon' Project in Finland

Contextually minded: Stephanie at the Chicago Biennial. Photo by Leo Rubinkowski

Contextually minded: Stephanie at the Chicago Biennial. Photo by Leo Rubinkowski

NK  Stephanie! What are we supposed to do with history?
SJ  (chuckles) That is such a broad question! Well, I don’t think you should abandon it. It is there as a resource. It is something you should build from, but it is not often treated that way.
NK  How did you come to think that way?
SJ  How I think about architecture is a direct result of how I was educated about architecture. I went to Notre Dame as an undergraduate, and when you are 17 or 18 you don’t know what it means, when a program is traditional, or classical. You just go, because you want to go to school, or a good school. So I went to Notre Dame, which gave me a classical education: I learned history, we read Vitruvius, we read Palladio. We learned how to identify, you know, temples. And also design in that way. Everything was done by hand. We did watercolor renderings. It is probably the only school in the country that still runs a program like it is a Beaux Arts school.

Not afraid of columns: Thesis Drawing at Notre Dame, Civic Center in Haiti

The danger with Notre Dame is that everyone wants to label me a classicist – I don’t necessarily label myself a classicist. But I do believe in the value of tradition building.
NK  Why wouldn’t you label yourself a classicist?
SJ  I think part of it is a very real social connotation that is usually quite negative, in an academic sense. I’d rather not be pigeon-holed. Even in Notre Dame you get a range of people who are willing to go full throttle, ‘I am classicist, and I am willing to do this,’ people who question that, and people who reject that completely.
NK  What is this baggage?
SJ  Well, part of it is – especially the way that classicists practice now – a lot of it is reserved for high-end residential and fancy houses for wealthy people. So there is a lot of this idea that classicists are pretentious, or only for the wealthy. And then there is the idea that you are not interested in anything new – because you are nostalgic, or some such business. It is a very stigmatizing topic.
NK  So you now work for Disney?
SJ  Yes. Walt Disney Imagineering. I am an imaginer – how about that?
NK  Paradise. You made it.
SJ  It is! (laughs)
During our orientation, they just talk about how it is our job to make people happy. They tell us, ‘Welcome to your work, where your purpose is the happiness of others.’

There is a subtext of, like, ‘We make a lot of money.’
Prior to working for Disney, I spent a year as a Fulbright in Finland, where I focused on craft. Because to me, regardless of this style talk of the –isms, craftsmanship and material are really key to making a good building. So I spent a lot of time learning how to construct out of wood, make things out of my hands, use real materials. And then I get a job at Disney, after interviewing at a few other places, and it has been difficult to adjust to in terms of construction methods. Because I feel I don’t know anything about how these buildings are made.  They hide everything.

All about craft. The Kokoon: an affordable house project done while at Aalto University School of Arts Design and Architecture's Wood Program in Finland.

NK  No commitment to honesty of construction?
SJ  Well that is the thing. Say you want to make a building that looks like an old wooden building – an old wooden structure.
NK  Sure.
SJ  So they will do a lot of study about joinery, and how it should look, so that when they make it out of reinforced fiber and resin, the construction is accurate. Visually.
I had been considering working for a New Urbanist firm. But what Disney does, is really a whole aesthetic project. A hundred disciplines, all working together, to do one aesthetic thing. I wanted to see what that was like.
NK  You are not allowed to tell us what your projects are?
SJ  I can’t. My hands are pretty tied in there. But I am working on the Tokyo portfolio, which is about as much as I can say.
There are only about 40 architects on the Imagineering campus. Which is a lower number than I was expecting.
NK  Out of how many imagineers?
SJ  Hundreds.
NK  How is Imagineering organized – say, relative to RAMSA?

Drawings done while at RAMSA: Chongqing City Center, Observation Tower

SJ  O very different. Bob Stern’s firm is run like a traditional firm, where you have this clear hierarchy of principles and junior architects. Here, titles are a little weird. My official title is facility designer, and they are trying to get rid of the word facility, because it sounds pretty banal, compared to what we actually do. But the architects are not actually at the front of a project. It is the creative side, people who do ride layouts, so on.
So a given project will have a dozen disciplines involved – you have people who design rides, people who do lighting, graphics, and architects are – in this portfolio – split between project architect and concept architect. So internally I am considered a concept architect.
While the project architect makes the drawing sets and works with Revit, I work with a six-foot drawing board.
NK  Wow. You are actually drawing with pencils.
SJ  Yes! Yes! Someone came up to me and said, ‘hey, you know how to analogue draw!’ And yeah, that is what I know how to do.
NK  You have found paradise.

Pencil Power. Drawing of Central Plaza Market in Vasteras, Sweden

SJ  (laughs) So that was another very appealing thing about working here. They actually wanted me to draw by hand. And coming from the background I have – in drawing and drafting – and that I am much faster by hand, it has been working really well.
NK  Is that common among the imagineers, that people draw by hand?
SJ  It is common among the concept architects, and people who do graphics and animation – that people draw by hand. Drawing has, at least for a long time, fallen by the wayside in architectural education. I have been told by a number of people I draw like an old man. And that is awesome.
NK  Because old men are good at drawing?
SJ  I think because old men have been educated in that way. A lot of the other concept architects I know who are older, have been drawing by hand this entire time – their entire careers.
And they are at the time they are starting to retire, so they need to find new people who do that, and there are not that many.
NK  Kyle always said everyone from Notre Dame draws like angels.
SJ  (chuckles) Probably not everyone, but a majority. The people who do not feel comfortable with drawing tend to go to CAD much faster.
NK  Do you still think you are going to go back to building?
JS  Well it is building. Just a different kind of building. I think there is something very interesting about this type of construction, which is not really what you would expect. This mimicry.
So I will learn as much as I can here. But it would also be useful, at this point in my career, to go to a more traditional – not stylistically traditional – but you know, like an architecture office.
NK  So were you to start your own office, what lessons would you take from the imagineers?
JS  I think one of the best and most important things they do is design with a narrative. People are starting to talk about that more now. Storytelling. And storytelling is something you do find in traditional and classical buildings, because they are so saturated with symbolism, and things that play with emotion and memory and that sort of thing. But in Disney, the way that you design is completely driven by a story. Working in a traditional architecture firm, that is not really how you would approach it.
Of course we still consider things like program, budget and all of that, but first and foremost is story.
NK  Fascinating. What is an example of where that leads you?
SJ  It kind of reminds me of when I took set design at Yale. I took set design with Ming Cho Lee and every single move that you made, every single decision you made in your set, is called ‘being on stage’ when you are making a scene. Everything you put in there needs to play a part in the narrative. Everything needs to have a purpose. Nothing should be accidental. So a set’s intentional detail is kind of fascinating. Because even the way they say, ‘this joint should like this, because the movie takes place in this time period, in a place that used this method of construction,’ or say a character had a specific job – how would that influence the way the building is made?
I remember one time I got shouted at by Ming Cho Lee, because I was doing a set for Hedda Gabler, and he was looking at it and said, ‘Where is her suitcase, that she throws into the fire?!’ And I was like, ‘O, shit.’ I didn’t put it in.
NK  What is a pitfall of narrative architecture?
SJ  (Pauses.) If you are not familiar, or you do not have a relation to that narrative, then you are going to miss something. There are some projects that I would work on where I did not know the characters well, or I did not know the movie well, so I could not personally see what else I could do. Research is actually a big part of the design process. And it is a different sort of research.
My first day of work here, as an intern – I had interned here before – they told me I was working on Ratatouille, the movie about the rat chef in Paris – and they asked ‘Have you watched Ratatouille?’ And I said, ‘No,’ and they handed me a DVD and said, ‘Okay, watch this right now.’ And so you watch it, and you re-watch it, and you pause it, and you screenshot the stills, what the dormer looks like, the detail, the lead roof – all of that stuff. And you basically pick out everything you can. And if you don’t know it, you are going to miss a lot of things. It is a good thing to know when you design. There are so many layers you can have.


True to the story: Disney Ratatouille, Paris

 That article – from Current Affairs – they were, for one, talking in a similar way to many of the staunch classicists. The “bow-tie wearing classicists,” as I call them. But they too talked about this idea of layering. That in a classical or traditional building, you do not have to know every single thing in order to appreciate it. That people on all different levels can appreciate the beauty of a classical building, even if they do not have the big academic background behind them.
NK  Right
SJ  And I think that is really important.
NK  Is there any difference then between narrative architecture and traditional architecture – between having a story run through your building, versus having history run through you building?
SJ  I do not like to separate history out, as a thing. Because whenever you talk about architecture and history, when so framed it seems like you can easily push both to lines of ‘This is contemporary,’ and ‘this is historic.’
I think if you know how to look at a building, in that way, and you know some basics about the history of architecture, the history is always there, but it is more legible in a building that is built traditionally. Story telling is really about that representational, ornamental stuff. Even the orders are meant to give character. I always kind of wonder how much of it is learned – I can look at a Doric building and say, ‘Yeah, that is a masculine building.’ But I wonder if that is because I learned that, or if that is how it is actually perceived by people who do not have that background.
NK  It haunts us all. ‘Is there actually something here?’
SJ  Yeah! That is the worst, isn’t it?
Constant, constantly questioning if I actually know anything.
NK  Is there a level of objectivity here, or are we all sitting on a web of our own making?
SJ  How do we even continue to live?
NK  What is the relationship between the imagineers and the movie people?
SJ  Well, we are not involved in making movies. Sometimes we make characters. The reason that the imagineers exist is for the theme parks. We are in control of everything that is part of the physical, built, Disney brand. The movie production house is different – they are in a different campus, they are a different business. But we do work very closely with the people who make those films, to ensure consistency and coherency. To make sure the idea comes through the way it was intended.
I have had meetings with people at Pixar, working on a Pixar project, because they are a separate company, and the movies they make are so personal to them. Pixar movies are very identifiable in their characteristics. So they created a position in their company for a guy who oversees how their movies are turned into physical buildings.
NK  Just to ensure the integrity of the story.
SJ  To ensure it is consistent.
NK  Fascinating. So there is a lot of emphasis on protecting the story.
SJ  Absolutely
NK  And there is a lot of ownership of the stories. By individuals or teams?
SJ  By teams. In the past, Imagineering was so small that you could attribute things to individual people, but we use a lot of different consultants, different architects of record, and we try to collaborate with different architects. In the past they have worked with Michael Graves, with Bob Stern. Because they are very interested in that, too. You read a lot of articles where they talk about ‘Disney-Architecture’ as being this pastiche – ‘You-can-dismiss-this-as-non-architecture’ kind of tone.’
NK  Mh hm.
SJ  But more and more, I think that is changing. It is not as easily dismissed. Because the way the architecture is done, the way the entire theme park is done and treated – it is an incredibly rigorous process. They are so much more involved than you ever see. (laughs)

Because we hide everything.
NK  Has Disney ever considered using their process to take on more conventional commissions? Urban planning, housing development, a tower?
SJ  Well they did Celebration, which is more or less a new urbanist project. But there is still a lot of feeling that Celebration is a fantasy.
NK  Aren’t all cities fantasies on some level?
SJ  (laughs) That is a very different conversation.


Fantasy, or urban planning? Elevation for a New Haven Capitol for Leon Krier's studio.

They have done hotels and things that are not theme parks. And if my hands were not tied, I would say more… They are interested in other projects. But theme parks are what they do best. Where their passion is.
NK  And where the economic model is all set up.
SJ  Yup. It has been working very well, (laughs) for the past few decades.
NK  It is legendary. A way to really make sure people pay for the design part of design. Nobody is just going there for shelter and HVAC.
SJ  HVAC! You can’t even see the hvac! (laughs)
It is really about the creation of an entire experience. The buildings are just shells - warehouses with sets in them. Once you enter the door, you are into interiors, and set design. So the interior is usually not the architect’s responsibility. We do not do the interior of the ride. We just make the space for it.
NK  So now being some distance out of Notre Dame, and having been brought up in this particular mindset, where are your peers? How do you see the future of the Beaux Arts tradition in architecture?
SJ  I have been thinking a lot about that – did you guys come to the Chicago Biennial? The whole theme is ‘Making New History’ – it is all about precedent. That is one of the foundational things you get from Notre Dame. The ability to look at precedent, to really analyze it and see how that informs what you do. Because it is nonsense to think you can make something out of nothing. In architecture, especially.
Seeing the work in that show, it seems like people have gotten a renewed appreciation for what they can get out of precedent. Using ‘history’ as a sort of springboard to something else. Instead of saying, ‘We can just wipe it out, and do a glass tower.’
NK  So you think you have the upper hand right now.
SJ  I would never say that. (laughs) But one of my first year professors in Notre Dame, Thomas Gordon Smith – who was actually the one who turned the program classical – he would talk to us, and he would tell us we were the ‘underground counter revolution.’
NK  So how are your fellow revolutionaries doing?
SJ  Well there is of course a range. There are the people who are working in places that do high-end residential, and are making very fancy places that are incredibly well detailed. But there are also the people who are doing more commercial, doing the sort of normal stuff that you might expect. And then there are people who are looking to really dig deeper. (pauses)
That is what I am trying to do. Dig a little deeper, about the role history can play.
I am always going to put “history” in quotes, but my question is, ‘How deep can you dig, and where will that get you? Without being an archaeologist, without being a historian, how can you bring that into contemporary practice? And actually matter in the society we live in? And maybe you do not. Maybe it does not matter. I do not feel like I have to make a fancy sleek building that is all white and has really cool LEDs and all that. Really if I had a choice, I would be making… pyramids.
NK  (laughs) The dream.
SJ  (laughs) That is the dream!
NK  All mass no program.
SJ  Well, also a bunch of secret rooms inside!
NK  Of course, that was unfair.
SJ  Have you ever sesen a section cut through the Matterhorn?
NK  No!


A mountain. The ultimate commission? The Matterhorn Section

SJ  It is amazing! You see all these weird passages, and storage spaces – and one labeled as a basketball court inside.
NK  The mountain in Switzerland?
SJ  No! (laughs) The mountain in Disneyland!
NK  O of course, I need to keep my realities straight.
SJ  The pyramid is essentially a built, perfected mountain.
NK  Now it seems here the danger of narrative architecture is you may be living in a story, as opposed to reality.
JS  Sometimes stories are much better than reality. Isn’t that why people go to Disneyland?
NK  True, but the question is if someone is willing to live there all the time.
SJ  That is why people retire in Florida (laughs).
NK  It just seems there is some kind of obligation to reality, against which such a life flies. It is unsettling.
JS  Yeah, but the unsettling thing is what makes it so interesting.

NK  Is there anything you took issue with in the Current Affairs article?
JS  The tone was a little much. They are trying to talk about how Modernism is more pretentious and all this stuff, but they were the really derogatory ones. And I really do not hate all modern buildings. It also sounded very familiar. It is a tone I have heard before from people who are on the classical side of the pendulum. 
But there were many things in it with which I agreed.
NK  Such as what?
SJ  What the article does successfully is talk about traditional architecture as the more humanistic approach. Which is the way we are educated in it. The reason you do these things, the reason you talk about ornament, and scale, and proportion, is because you are relating everything back to the human body.
So I think that that was a good thing that they played up a lot. But the actual content of the article, I personally found very familiar. But that has to do with my background.
NK  You have seen these arguments before.
SJ  I have seen these arguments before! Traditionalists are always trying to get into the architectural conversation. They introduce themselves as a necessary part of the conversation as a whole. Because, to be honest, they always feel left out. It is always seen as something that is not part of academia.
In one of my reviews in Yale my critic apologized for me, saying that I compartmentalized rooms because I had gone to Notre Dame. I could not just leave an open floor plan.
Like last month I met David Ruy, and eventually I mentioned I had gone to Notre Dame, and that was how I knew who Mark Foster Gage was – because he was talking about him – and he said, ‘O, you went to Notre Dame?’ and there was an automatic look of pity in his eyes. Like ‘O, did you do watercolors?’
NK  Well, you did do watercolors.
SJ  Damn straight. Asshole.


How does a starchitect deal with a hostile critique?

The setting for the November 15th discussion of Herzog & de Meuron’s winning design for the extension of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin was dramatic: onstage at Werner Düttmann and Sabine Schumann's Akademie der Künste, in the Hansaviertel, with the audience (sold-out, standing-room-only) facing the panelists from both front and back. A potent metaphor for what was to come: a critique from all sides.

The Swiss architects’ design for the extension of Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie—and future neighbor to Hans Scharoun's Philharmonie and library as well as the historic church of St. Matthäus—is a long, low gable building characterized by a monolithic texture. The structure is relatively simple; the architects themselves compare it to a barn, a warehouse, and a railway station. Their museum in Colmar, the Parrish Art Museum, the Vitra Schaudepot, and the Basel Schaulager: large gable buildings are right in Herzog & de Meuron’s wheelhouse.

Their design for Berlin appears heavy, but Herzog emphasized how it is transparent and light-infused, supportive of creativity and flux, and how their team has considered not just the potent immediate context, but also the Alte Nationalgalerie by Schinkel student August Stüler, whose gable proportions are retained in this new construction.

The first shot against the project was fired even before the discussion was opened to the public: “What are we even talking about, though? ... What are you talking about?” yelled a man from the audience. Why all this talk about the soft factors (secondary uses of the building, creating a neighborhood in the forum), instead of the actual design? The audience broke into applause.

The moderators managed to keep control, but only barely. In typical town-hall fashion, many people just wanted to hear their own voices—one “question” clocked in at over a minute and a half—but excavating the prose, one could get a sense of the people’s legitimate worries.

Among them were questions of proportionality and focus, and a concern that the design would further commit Berlin to the daunting six-lane road that severs the Kulturforum from Potsdamer Platz. How absurd it is, noted one questioner, that they were about to spend 500 million euros on a building, but could not move the street a mere five centimeters.

After making a show of stern impartiality through the show, one of the moderators, Wilfred Wang, revealed his true feelings as the evening concluded. “The building is not optimal,” he proclaimed, noting “a big difference between desire and possibility.” Wang presented his critique as a plea for reconsideration rather than a final judgment, promising the pair he did not want to co-design, but rather to “co-think”. 

Yet while Herzog and de Meuron gave thoughtful answers about how architecture can only do so much (Herzog noted that it’s not the building, but people and planning that must infuse the building with life, hence the desire to provide flexibility), it appears that this discussion may not change much about their plans.

As Herzog shrugged, der Bauplatz ist der Bauplatz—“the site is the site.” He started to check his wristwatch near the end of the discussion. The starchitects are old hands at this game. For all the talk, it is they who will make the drawings in the end.