Perception


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At the Walt Disney Studios Park portion of Disneyland Resort Paris, something’s not quite right. Note the curiously flat column on the left, the shadow over the “1” at the top of the building, and the blockiness of part of the sky. This is not, in fact, a façade—this is a custom-printed cover, hung over scaffolding and set 3-4 feet forward of the actual front of the building. (You can see the scaffolding most clearly at the top of the frame, just to the right of the “1”.) The cover exactly duplicates the façade of the building it’s hiding. This is pure Disney: Renovate, but don’t let anyone know about it. The cover not only masks renovation work, it also protects the public from dust or dropped tools.

The seams of our reality, the messages we convince our buildings to send or mask. The messages we are meant to receive, the details we are meant to notice: In an artificially constructed reality, the commonplace or unremarkable messages become all the more important, because they, too, are fraught with meaning, even if they purport not to be.

Last Disneyland Paris post. Back to the city of lights!

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Boardwalk Candy Palace is a candy store in the Main Street USA section of Disneyland Park. The store is an example of the park’s culture of caricature, a result of the park’s filtering of information. Disneyland Resort Paris (1) filters out information incompatible with the resort’s family-friendly image, (2) heightens information in line with the narrative it is presenting and (3) tints the information to make it palatable (or more palatable) to a European audience. You see all of this in Boardwalk Candy Palace—which is essentially just a candy store in a pedestrian mall. 1, incompatibility: The store is decidedly upper-middle class (poor people are very un-Disney, unless they become rich through grit and determination) and the candy presents no health risks. 2, heightening: The neo-Victorian styling is over-the-top, but not out of place in a Disney theme park; the staff wear exaggerated versions of early-20th-century American garb. And 3, tinting:

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American flags in stained glass, wall-sized Atlantic City murals: The store is a testimony to the enduring power of American capitalism (or something). It’s not clear what the store’s message is, just that it is unquestionably American—because America sells. Boardwalk Candy Palace is also an example of the complicated, overlapping influences felt throughout the park: It is a French store (Disneyland Resort Paris) sponsored by a Swiss company (Nestle), selling an American product (Disney candy) to an international audience. Pico Iyer would have a field day.

The entire resort is this weird blend of Europe and America: Ornately and fastidiously detailed (to counter prevailing European concerns that the park would be merely cheap Americana) but selling hyper-Americanism (because cheap Americana sells, and sells well.) It’s a fascinating mish-mash of cultural and aesthetic concerns, manifested as they so often are in architecture.

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Sign in exit corridor at the Star Tours attraction. The attraction is themed as a spaceport, complete with travel posters for Bespin and Endor—and, of course, a consistent signage  system, with its own pictograms.

What’s interesting about this is that the suspension of disbelief only goes so far: The audience’s experience with the Star Wars universe is limited to the movies, so the pictograms for “ground transportation” and “droids” have to reference the movies, not the internal history of the Star Wars universe in order to be properly read. The landspeeder looks like it’s referencing an XP-38 or the X-34 (Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder), while the droid pictograms looks like it’s referencing an R2 unit (like R2-D2). But these are not the only form-factors possible for landspeeders or droids, and while it’s possible that the pictograms representing them are idealized abstractions of the most common type (much as the DOT pictogram for “car” is an idealized abstraction of a sedan) it’s more likely that the sign is meeting its audience half-way.

The landspeeder and droid are not DOT standard (naturally) but the baggage is:

Even in fantasy, the grains of reality; the enmeshment of lies and truth to build a compelling world. It’s theatre—complicated, three-dimensional theatre.

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This sign is fresh: The medium of hand-chalked blackboard is intimately bound up in its message of daily specials. We know (or assume) the information on the sign is fresh because we read the sign as being easily modifiable, and therefore the information it presents necessarily transitory. (Check out those crazy French ‘1’s!)

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And that’s the problem with this sign. It looks static, and we therefore read it and the information it presents as static. This, in turn, led me to do a double-take when presented with the following message: 

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If the medium is static, the message is static. The content of the message becomes obscured under a visual conflict between medium, message, and meaning. This visual contradiction is all the stranger because it’s clear that this sign was developed to always look professional and polished, no matter the message it presents—that’s the point of the slide-in-slide-out placards. Once you realize how the sign works, though, everything clicks into place and the Disney standard of service shines through. The investments that go into making a spatial product; the effort we pour into short-lived worlds.

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A newsstand near the Marais, in central Paris.

Newsstands and billboards across Paris display dynamic advertisements, in which a display panel vertically scrolls through three advertisements. These are similar in concept to the American rotating tri-panel billboards. From a technical standpoint, this is a clever way of maximizing advertising revenue while also saving space—the above newsstand can display three times as many advertisements by using scrolling billboards as it could by using static posted advertisements.

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The same newsstand, moments later. Notice that two of the advertisements have changed.

With all of their activity, urban spaces are necessarily places of staticness and dynamism. When we regard urban spaces four-dimensionally, we can see the different time scales at which urban elements operate. At one end of the scale are geographic features (site is eternal!); at the other, the people moving through space. In between are slung all sorts of quirky elements, from cars to parks to monuments to food carts. These elements are quirky because they mix staticness and dynamism: Traffic, for example, is reliably dynamic, static in its dynamism. Food carts offer a dynamic, temporary spatial product by occupying the same location at the same time of day for a set period of time. (This is a theme I’m planning on exploring more in future state-side posts.) From one side, their positioning is static; from the other, dynamic.

These newsstand advertisements fall into the mix, too. Like traffic, they are reliably static in their dynamism. Change is the only constant.

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Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, early morning.

A trip to another country or region has the power to dig into assumptions and provoke questions about how we choose to structure our lives. Why do our buildings look this way instead of that? How can the alien swap places with the banal, and so quickly? What elements go into forming the complicated, bubbling stew that is our daily existence? The differences are found in the minutiae (power outlets, laundry procedures, elevators) and the substance (city planning, legal codes, methods of communication) of our lives.

This Material World was in Paris visiting friends this last week, a trip that included ample time for on-the-ground research. Paris is a city rich in history and culture, and its information architecture is just as interesting to examine as the architecture of its monuments and museums. Over the next two weeks or so, I’ll be compiling my photos and notes into full-fledged posts, on everything from the Paris Metro to constrained-choice systems. After exhausting the Paris material, the blog (and custom header) will return to its usual more inclusive (American) lens.

A modified version of this post will be retained as an indexed page on this blog, and will include a list of links to Paris-specific posts.

This modification of fence sheeting is clever because it (a) anticipates a problem, (b) recognizes human needs, and (c) responds with restraint. It’s so simple as to inspire awe: Of course people might crash into each other, of course they will want to be able to see around the corner to prevent that, and of course only one perspective matters.

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This hack reminds me of forced-perspective parking garage signage. The signage is perfectly readable only when you need to read it, and disappears as soon as you no longer need it. (Axel Peemöller was the artist for the project.) In other words, instead of looking at plan and perspective drawings of our buildings, I think we should consider them in human-scale four-dimensional terms. The space should change as we move through it. This isn’t a new idea—human circulation engineers talk about altering ceiling height or lighting to subtly inform wayfinding decisions—but the level of detail in these two specific cases is incredible. There is a fineness to them, a smoothness, that comes with correctly anticipating human wants or needs. And isn’t that what we want our spaces to do?

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