Welcome to Issue 55.1 of Digestable, your thrice-weekly mouthful of real things happening in the world, minus alarmist pandemic news.
Today’s news, fermented:
No news from me today other than battling a strange outbreak of hives.
Unlike said hives, fairy circles are becoming less mysterious.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
These next couple of weeks I’m going to continue the theme-park-futurism vibe with two pieces that, in different ways, center around Tomorrowland. Tomorrowland is a section of the standard Disney theme park layout that is meant to showcase future technologies and ways of living. In the early days of the park this meant giving exhibition space to industrial giants like GM, Monsanto, and Dutch Boy Paint’s National Lead Company to showcase how their technology would shape the future. Again I must direct you to Kevin Perjurer’s excellent Defunctland series if you want a deeper dive on 1955 Tomorrowland. Though car manufacturers still sponsor rides at Disney, Tomorrowland is now more known for being where Space Mountain is than a place that promises any specific type of future.
This is due to what has been dubbed the “Tomorrowland Problem,” the tendency for today to catch up to tomorrow any for technology deemed futuristic to eventually seem ubiquitous ridiculous, or in the case of Monsanto, lead paint, and GM, dangerous. It’s the reason we now recognize “retro-futurism” as a distinct style. The jet age musings of Eero Saarien’s TWA terminal (now a retro-chic hotel where you can breathe jet fumes for $250/night) and shows like the Jetsons seem distinctly “retro” because the technologies and aesthetics they predicted have either been incorporated into our present, or have been relegated to the past. So when the Disney company decided to build a movie around the Tomorrowland concept in 2015, they had to find a visual language for the film that would resonate with the Tomorrowland of yesterday while still reading as “futuristic” to today’s viewers.
So of course, Tomorrowland was filmed at the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain: a complex of museums and venues designed by architect Santiago Calatrava. Calatrava’s designs, especially the CAS complex, have become visual shorthand for the future. In addition to Tomorrowland (corresponding images are listed from top to bottom), Calatrava’s buildings are the setting for the Doctor Who episode Smile, which I’ve previously discussed in this column, along with Westworld, Guardians of the Galaxy, the 2020 adaptation of Brave New World, and National Geographic’s Cosmos series. But of all the starchitects, why is Calatrava and not Hadid, Gehry, or Ingles seen as the unofficial architect of the future?
There are some aesthetic reasons of course. Calatrava’s repeating white symmetrical curves seem somewhere between organic structures like an eye, a ribcage, or bird wings; and artificial machinery. This along with the kinetic elements he often incorporates gives his buildings a very sleek cyborg quality. The fact that everything is made of white concrete and glass is very austere and connects to other future-y architects like Saarinen and Niemeyer whose structures have come to define retro-futurism. But I think there’s something else that has allowed Calatrava’s architecture to endure as a symbol of the future, its impracticality.
As lauded as Santiago Calatrava is for his aesthetics, he is just as equally hated for the cost overruns and maintenance difficulties that come with his projects. The infamous World Trade Center hub he designed for New York ran over budget by two billion dollars and was completed seven years behind schedule. The CAS complex went almost three times over it’s proposed budget, did not include any accessible elevators, and 105 seats in it’s opera house ended up with obstructed views. Though it’s guaranteed to stand out, commissioning a Calatrava often involves taking on more risk than most cities and organizations can handle which, in a way, has kept his aesthetics from entering the mainstream.
We also need to talk about exhibitions and attractions, because Calatrava’s buildings are often linked with them. Because of their otherwise prohibitive cost and logistics, many of Santiago Calatrava’s well known buildings were built for grand exhibitions like the 2004 Athens Olympics complex or the “Museum of Tomorrow” for the 2016 Rio Olympics. The CAS complex is itself a collection of museums and venues. Movies and television that use Calatrava to depict the future also carry through this exhibition idea. The Tomorrowland film opens at the 1964 New York World’s Fair before it whisks us to its main Calatrava setting. In National Geographic’s Cosmos, Niel DeGrasse Tyson talks about his experience at the same 1964 Fair before taking viewers to an imagined 2039 World’s Fair “where the future became a place,” which is set, of course, at Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences. Doctor Who’s Smile and Brave New World both focus on prototype communities, and Westworld is centered around a future Disneyland type attraction. Calatrava’s designs aren’t a future you imagine living in, they’re a future you visit at a fair or a theme park, a spectacle meant for passing through.
This inaccessible showcase of Calatrava futurism sits in stark contrast with Tomorrowland’s original thrust, to demonstrate future technologies intended to become globally ubiquitous and all encompassing. By setting the Tomorrowland film in a Calatrava wonderland, Disney solved the Tomorrowland Problem by swapping out a future based on industrial speculation for one centering on an inaccessible spectacle. Through the lens of Santiago Calatrava’s projects, Tomorrowland becomes another kind of Fantasyland, or maybe a Never-never-land, and the tomorrow it promises is more science fiction than impending reality because it focuses on a future that will never come. As George Clooney’s character puts it in the film, it’s “an invitation that never got sent out.”
Back soon from the superb Latifah Azlan.