Apres Mickey, Le Deluge

When Mickey squeaked, Aldo Rossi lost his cool. The prizewinning architect was designing a hotel for the new Disney theme park opening next Sunday 20 miles east of Paris, when Robert Fitzpatrick, the urbane president of Euro Disney, made some criticisms. As Fitzpatrick tells it, a fuming Rossi wrote him a letter in which he told the story of the King of France who commissioned Bernini to build a palace. When the king's chamberlains asked for modifications, Bernini balked: build it the way I designed it, he said, or I quit. He quit. "I realize that I am not Bernini, " Rossi wrote. "But you are not the King of France. I quit. "

Actually, given its flourishing patronage of brand-name architects, Disney might as well be the King of France, or the pope, Bernini's big customer--even if in this case, the client isn't infallible. Michael Eisner, chairman of Walt Disney, is a nut about architecture. So, at Florida's Walt Disney World, the company has commissioned two Michael Graves hotels, two Robert A. M. Stern hotels and the witty Stern Casting Center, a convention center by Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel, and the stunning offices of Team Disney by Arata Isozaki. In Burbank, Calif., Graves designed the company headquarters, with its pediment "propped up " by 19-foot-high figures of the Seven Dwarfs. Now, on 5,000 acres of once lush sugar-beet fields in France, Disney is about to open its most ambitious design project yet: the six new hotels, entertainment center and Magic Kingdom park of Euro Disney, at a cost of $4.4 billion. "I just think if you're going t build something like a building or a park, " says Eisner, "for the same amount of money you can do it well as you can badly. "

Most architects can't resist the high profile of working for Disney-especially in a recession. (Even Rossi and Disney have made up; his hotel never got built, but he's doing the company's European headquarters.) But Disney is a tough client: budgets are notoriously tight and the hotels outside the theme parks have to be "themed, " too. "Disney is an entertainment company; it's about pleasure and fun, " says Fitzpatrick. "You want to develop something compatible but different from the theme park to carry the theme park outside the walls. " So postmodernism, drawing on familiar historical motifs, has become the style of choice for the company that creates miniaturized Main streets and itty-bitty Eiffel towers for family entertainment.

With Euro Disney, Eisner and Co. at first seemed more adventurous, inviting hotel proposals from more than a dozen top international architects, including Rem Koolhaas, Robert Venturi, Bernard Tschumi, Hans Hollein and Peter Eisenman (who wanted to put his hotel underground). A lot of these guys are so avant-garde they could even be termed-quelle horreur!-deconstructivists. Their schemer, weren't exempt from the Disney dictum to tell a story with your design. This was especially tough on the French intellectuals. When Fitzpatrick asked Jean Nouvel to explain his model-an abstraction in steel and glass-Nouvel replied, "This is the Hotel of Rational Thought. "

In the end, Disney decided, probably sensibly, to stick with down-home Americana for its first foray into Europe. What you'll see if you arrive at the Euro Disney train station is the Disneyland Hotel, gateway to the Magic Kingdom. It's a fussy, pink, turreted confection designed by the Disney Imagineers, along with a Newport, Calif., firm. But turn away from the theme park, and walk through Festival Disney, an entertainment arcade designed by Frank Gehry, and you'll reach a fake lake, with three huge hotels at water's edge, each "themed " to a region of America.

Unlike Walt Disney World in Florida, Euro Disney has a nice urbanistic plan--you can walk from place to place around the man-made lake, a formal French pool (un-like Florida's, with its brineless, waveless faux sea). Unfortunately, the hotels on the pool are ungainly and uncomfortable with each other. The clunky facade of Graves's Hotel New York is supposed to evoke skyscrapers and town houses, but only suggests the city's bad modern architecture. Inside, though, the interiors are wonderfully stylish, with fruitwood detailing and rich furnishings in Graves's trademark po-mo tones of teal and coral. (One corridor has a trompe l'oeil painting of a subway station-without graffiti, of course, which was ruled out for the squeaky-clean world of Disney.) The scale of Graves's 575-room hotel is demure next to the gargantuan 1,000-room stone-and-wood Sequoia Lodge, by French architect Antoine Grumbach, a tribute to mountain lodges in the West ( "For a Rocky Mountain high without leaving Europe, " says the press release). Next to it, even bigger (1,100 rooms), is Stern's hulking clapboard Newport Bay Club-your basic New England resort architecture overblown to preposterous proportions.

Beyond the lake, the two budget hotels are better conceived: each is a colony of small buildings. Antoine Predock, the quirky Albuquerque, N.M., architect who did the Hotel Santa Fe, may be the designer best able to interpret Disney's demand for story architecture. He first unfurled his ideas in a diagram on 30 feet of white butcher paper in Eisner's Los Angeles backyard; it read like a movie storyboard. "I wanted to get at the intensities of the West that depart from nostalgia, " says Predock. "Otherwise it becomes an airport-gift-shop mentality. " He took his inspiration from Wim Wenders's film "Paris, Texas. " It's an evocation of the weirdness of pop culture and the desert: drive-in movies (a big screen with Clint Eastwood hovers above the entrance), the endless highway (a receding yellow-painted strip), abandoned pickup trucks, a UFO crashed into the sagebrush. But the plain reality of his stucco-coated structures (some could be grad-school housing at a Midwestern university) don't live up to the poetry of his vision.

So the Oscar for best idea for a hotel embodying the Disney spirit goes to Stern for the 1,000-room Cheyenne. Stern, who sits on Disney's board of directors, based his design not on an old Western town but on the set of an old movie Western. With its dirt street, false fronts and hokey names painted on the buildings (The Calamity Jane, The Chuck Wagon), the Hotel Cheyenne is more honest in its fakery than any of the other hostelries. Stern has dodged the bugaboo of counterfeit architecture by designing a movie set. But is it great architecture-provocative, original, with a fine sense of space and scale? Nope.

Even before the company was heavily into the prime architecture biz, Disney gave postmodernism a bad name. Critics of the style invariably hurled the epithet of "Disneyish. " And under Disney's patronage, some of the worst aspects of postmodernism keep surfacing, with the company's emphasis on image over materials or structural expression. At the Victorian Grand Floridian Hotel at Walt Disney World, designed by the Imagineers, the first floor of the building is clad in real wooden clapboards; the upper clapboards are a synthetic composite. "It's about perception, " says Wing Chao, senior vice president of Disney Development Co. "We're designing to people's expectations. " At Euro Disney's Newport Bay Club, all the clapboards are synthetic. Yet Disney executives agonized over just the right shade of pink to paint the Disneyland Hotel for the Northern European light. The look matters more than the experience of place.

In fairness, Disney is running a business. "We are a public company, " says Eisner. "We are not building to create some sort of statement about immortality. We are also not overspending to impress people. " But Eisner has proved the company can build great architecture on a budget: Isozaki's Team Disney in Orlando is a magical synthesis of the playful and poetic, with big, colorful shapes on the exterior, and serene work spaces inside. (The central cylinder is a giant sundial; Eisner says this building, too, has a theme: "Time. ") And Disney has also commissioned the clean, modernist designs of Gwathmey-Siegel. But mostly, when Disney thinks of architecture, it reverts to Fantasyland and the nostalgia of fairy tales and Victoriana. But it could be inspired by Tomorrowland (or Discoveryland, as it's called at Euro Disney) and push for design innovation. The company has big plans for more building in California, Florida and France. It has commissioned good architects but hasn't built great architecture. Disney could choose to become a great patron; it could redeem Bernini's King of France.