Shall we talk about theme parks. Not necessarily those of thrill rides and greasy food vendors but rather urban concepts cities adopt to tie an otherwise broken visual narrative. Leavenworth is an example. Having become a ghost town in the 1960s, two businessmen from Seattle suggested that the town adopt a Bavarian alpine village theme to resuscitate itself. The ploy worked and today the town boasts 2 million visitors a year, attracted to the coherent look of the place but also while there to the bounty of nearby outdoor recreational activities. Nothing about Leavenworth’s architecture is particularly beautiful but it does speak to a unified aesthetic language, which, just like any other language, when shared compels people to congregate and enjoy time together.
The tactic is not unique to the Northwest or even the United States for that matter. Consider the town of Portmeirion in Gwynedd, North Wales. Modeled after the Italian village of Portofino, South of Genoa, it sought to appeal to people’s love for bright colors, religious forms and a contrasting choreography of narrow and wide spaces, among other Mediterranean compositions. Here too the copy and paste method worked, attracting people from distant places to spend top dollar doing pretty much what every other happy tourist does when traveling — lodging, dining, shopping. So convincing is the fake of Portmeirion, some have dubbed it “authentic,” without a hint of irony or sarcasm.
Should Pullman follow a similar path, not necessarily looking to Bavaria or Italy for help but to themes more indigenous to the area, say farming or collegiate or those which speak to our techy reputation? Why not? After all, nothing else has worked. Perhaps since the 70s the town has slowly disintegrated into a jumble of visual nonsequiturs, each building rising as if on a planet different from the one next to it.
Between the attorney’s office building on one end of Main Street and the accountant’s on the other there is little or no aesthetic level ground. The difference is not so much one about variety, for that would be welcome, but the machinations of a schizophrenic mind, unable to piece together disparate thoughts. This is no place to come together and share note but drive through and exit as fast as possible.
There is nothing proud about capitulating to ideas and themes foreign to one’s own. Indeed, much ridicule has been heaped on tactics of this sort over the years, often labeling those who engage them as cultural imbeciles. Michael Sorkin, the New York architecture critic, put the danger in this way, namely that “the new city,” the one that models itself in the image of a theme park, “has the power not only to bypass the traditional scenes of urbanity but to coopt them,” reducing them in effect to mere window dressing, obsolete and ridiculous.
“Every necessary or organic action,” Emerson said, “pleases the beholder.” Such as “a man leading a horse to water, a farmer sowing seed, the smith at his forge.” But “done (just) to be seen, it is mean.”
So much is true but what is the alternative. Even well admired cities such as Portland and San Antonio are at bottom copies of remote places and distant pasts, say nineteenth century, New England, or Venice, Italy. Is there such a thing as an authentic American town?
Of the virtues of a theme park, comfort may be the most valued. Erecting a town in the image of another, more famous and well-established, helps build more than an agreeable image. It creates a moral equivalency between a known and an unknown entity, ultimately assuring travelers and migrants alike that should they make the trek to an unfamiliar destination, that place will be safe, not least because it resembles one that is familiar. When Leavenworth plastered white stucco and green shutters to the face of its old facades, it did not only seek to beautify the town but hitch its reputation to one that is lovely and agreeable. In one fell swoop, the distant and strange seemed understood and reliable and the rest was history.
Reinventing a town in the image of a theme park may be offensive but the method does raise an important question, namely how does a town unify? Unfortunately, in a capitalist society where everyone is unto one’s own, each building and space a manifestation of one’s own individualistic flare, unity is no rule but an exception, the product of a conscious effort to mobilize and organize to make it happen. Walt Disney felt the frustration and went on to recreate Main Street in the image a small Missouri town, and so should we. Whether that means draping Paris or Rome over downtown, or Battlestar Galatica for that matter, it does not matter. What does, is the realization that it is time to piece together a broken image, restoring belonging and giving people a reason to invest in place, emotionally and financially.
Ayad Rahmani has been with Washington State University since 1997 and is an associate professor in the School of Design and Construction.