American animation is an entire cosmos, with as many different styles as narratives. The architecture inside these worlds is also incredibly complex and diverse, offering never-ending possibilities and enchanting new perspectives. Want to live inside a mushroom? You got it. How about a magic castle in the sky? Sure thing. A secret city in the sewers? Say no more!
Walt Disney Studios Animation
American animation is not necessarily different from animation around the globe, as many stories and world-building points are shared. However, it is indisputable that it is in the United States that some of the most iconic examples of animation have been created, with Japan being its only major competition for this distinction.
It would be difficult to take the spotlight away from Walt Disney Animation Studios, as they have defined what we think of as American animated cinema from the very start, with Snow White in 1937. Disney Animation is rooted in classical narratives, and they have presented time and time again a vision of an enchanted world of magic through their stories. Many of their narratives are based on or inspired by European folklore. As a result, medieval cities and castles appear in many of their works. Disney excels at presenting the audience with a familiar vision of what these kingdoms of old might have looked like. But, like the sanitized, sugar-coated princess narratives in many Disney movies, the buildings on celluloid often lack in-depth, shadow, and realism.
Even when the reference point for Disney stories is non-European, the representation of the architecture of cultures like China (Mulan), the Middle East (Aladdin), and Polynesia (Lilo and Stitch and Moana) is Disney-fied, given an American gloss that makes them seem more colorful, shiny, bright and saccharine. Almost like how America takes the foods of other cultures and creates its own saltier, sweeter, more supersized versions for the global consumer.
The real-world implications of Disney’s sanitization and simplification of other cultures reach their peak with the retro-futuristic architecture of Epcot Center in Orlando, where the iconic geodesic dome of Buckminster Fuller is accompanied by a series of attractions representing the culture, architecture, and food of various nations. A log flume with trolls represents Norway. An indoor pagoda with trinkets and dumplings for sale represents China, and so on. Unfortunately, this is one of the key contributions of Disney to the collective imagination and how it envisions global patterns and styles in architecture: it dumps them down, replacing in many people’s minds the authentic original with a 2D, shiny plastic simulacrum.
Superhero Animation: DC Comics
But not every animation in the US is as pastel as Disney’s animation. A lot of dark and adult-themed animation has emerged, showcasing violence, inequality, corruption, drugs, and sex. We can see this in superhero animation. The constant fight between good and evil that is portrayed in superhero shows and movies often takes place in the depths of the archetypal city. Often inspired by New York City, fictional places like Gotham, Metropolis & Central City (to name a few) were created by visionary comic artists like Joe Schuster, Jack Kirby, and Frank Miller. In a simplified animation style closely following its origin in comic books, the city is an overpopulated yet paradoxically empty place.
Skyscrapers are often collateral damage in the fights between good and evil that take place on the streets and in the skies of these fictional cities. We see Superman being punched through two buildings yet recovering quickly enough to save the city. This kind of portrayal might seem insensitive in the post-9/11 world, especially with the destruction of skyscrapers within the city. But here the magic of animation allows the spectator to enjoy these fights without guilt, as the buildings suddenly turn into movie props, uninhabited and inexpensive. Animation allows us to experience both architecture and violence vicariously – without the real-world costs.
Magic in Animation: The Surrealism of Cartoon Network
A very large group of today’s American animation studios is to be found at Cartoon Network. Owned by Warner Bros. (the same owner as DC Comics) this network specializes in animation for children and young adults. The general style of these networks is surrealistic and fantastical. The worldbuilding here follows the simple rule that there are no rules. We see in shows like Adventure Time and Rick and Morty architectures of the imagination and of the impossible. In the former, there are kingdoms made out of such unlikely materials as candy, slime, ice, and fire; animation allows us to imagine what such architecture might look like in the real world, without having to actually invest in licorice skyscrapers and gumdrop toll booths.
The adult animation “Rick and Morty” takes the architecture of the imagination even further, envisioning entire parallel universes and timelines where styles of design and construction change on a dime. In one plot line, a metropolis inside a space station is inhabited entirely by clones of the two main characters, and we see the way this society’s strange structure is represented in its gritty 1980’s style architecture.
Once again, American animation is giving us a window into what architecture could be – if physics and cost were no object.
- Gibbs, L. (2020) 10 Disney castles from the movies to see irl, ScreenRant. Available at: https://screenrant.com/disney-castles-movies-real-life/ (Accessed: November 1, 2022).
- Smurfs Village.ⒸWikipedia Commons [online] Available at: https://smurfs.fandom.com/wiki/Smurf_Village
- Flushed Away Sewer City ⒸDreamWorks Animation [online] Available at:https://www.alternateending.com/2006/11/flushed-away-2006.html
- Disney Castles ⒸDisney Animation Studios [online] Available at: https://screenrant.com/disney-castles-movies-real-life/
- Epcot Center China Pavilion ⒸDisney [online] Available at: https://wdwprepschool.com/china-pavilion-epcot/
- Batman Animated Series: Gotham City. ⒸWarner Bros.[online] Available at: https://dcau.fandom.com/wiki/Gotham_City
- Adventure Time: Candy Kingdom.ⒸWarner Bros.[online] Available at: https://adventuretime.fandom.com/wiki/Candy_Kingdom