Fax agli amici di Disneyland

Sebastiano Fabbrini on a correspondence from Aldo Rossi to Michael Eisner

“It’s clear that I am not the Cavalier Bernini, but it’s also clear that you are not the King of France.” This message was faxed by Aldo Rossi to his “friends at Disneyland” on 11 October 1988.1 Its casus belli was the project for a large hotel at the Euro Disney Resort, today Disneyland Paris, on which Rossi had been working for several months. According to the surviving correspondence, the Italian architect was tired of receiving “minuscule critiques” and abruptly decided to end the relationship. While many narratives could be drawn from this document, the reference to Louis XIV shines a light on a particularly important theme: the balance of power between architecture and its changing patronage.

This reference appears also in Karal Ann Marling’s Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance, one of the most thorough research projects on Disney’s built environment. Although it does not mention Rossi’s fax, this study makes multiple comparisons between Walt Disney and the Sun King. For example, in their essay “Disneyland: Its Place in World Culture,” Yi-Fu Tan and Steven Hoelscher write that “both have vast powers—technological as well as human—at their command.”2 In this case, the analogy revolves around the construction of idealized worlds in the form of heavenly gardens, juxtaposing the royal retreat in Marly and Disneyland. Though the structure of the “vast powers” that supported these efforts is left unexplored, linking someone or something to the Sun King inevitably generates an association to a very specific form of power—a political construct that was defined in Westphalia a few years before Bernini’s voyage to Paris and, over the following three hundred years, operated as the primary engine for modernization: the State. Louis XIV was the embodiment of this idea and recognized himself as such when he stated: “L’État c’est moi.” As noted by Louis Marin, his architecture was the locus where modern statehood was expressed and—in every sense of the word—constructed.3

  1. Aldo Rossi, fax to his “amici di Disneyland,” 11 October 1988. MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, Rome. MAXXI Architettura Collection. In Italian, the message reads: “É chiaro che io non sono il Cavalier Bernini, ma è altrettanto chiaro che voi non siete il Re di Francia.” 

  2. Yi-Fu Tuan and Steven Hoelscher, “Disneyland: Its Place in World Culture,” in Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance, ed. Karal Ann Marling (Montréal and Paris: Canadian Centre for Architecture and Flammarion, 1997), 194. 

  3. Louis Marin, “Classical, Baroque: Versailles, or the Architecture of the Prince,” Yale French Studies, no. 80 (1991): 168. Since Louis XIV, architecture operated symbiotically with the State and the concept of modernity was the primary trait d’union between the two. 

Aldo Rossi, fax agli amici di Disneyland, 11 October 1988. Aldo Rossi Archive, MAXXI Architettura Collection. Image courtesy of MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, Rome. © Eredi Aldo Rossi, Fondazione Aldo Rossi

Marin was also among the first European intellectuals to show interest in Disney. As early as 1973, he began to study Disneyland, framing it as “a degenerate utopia.”1 This was one of the first of a long series of attempts to read Disney’s new “landscape of power.”2 Simultaneous to Marin’s reading of Disneyland, another major discourse on the architecture of power had been developing on both sides of the Atlantic. Its focus was on the dissolution of the modern Nation State, a process initiated from amongst the debris of World War II. Zygmunt Bauman described this process as a “mutilation of the Leviathan,” underlining the demise of the Westphalian model and the emergence of a rift between power and politics.3

In Leviathan 2.0, Charles Maier identified the 1980s with a general reaction against State authority.4 This was the period in which Michel Foucault began to write about statehood as a form of domination, arguing that the problem of the time was to “liberate” society from the State and its institutions.5 On the other hand, there was also a growing resistance toward alternative types of authority.6 Fittingly, in his 1993 “Letter from EuroDisney,” Jean-Louis Cohen presented Disney’s executives as evil witches and had French President Jacques Chirac play the role—of course—of Snow White.7

Rossi’s interaction with Disney reveals a similar tension. As noted by the architect himself, for the majority of his career, his clients were primarily Italian comuni—the local appendages of the State.8 One may even add that most of his key projects were sited in cities administered by the Communist Party, from Modena to Gallarate. In fact, from a very young age, Rossi had been deeply involved in that ideological milieu.9 From this perspective, Rossi’s reference to the King of France speaks to a certain difficulty he experienced in dealing with a major non-State client, which, to make matters worse, tended to operate as a State. After all, the theme parks were often referred to as Disney’s kingdoms.

Telling the story of the Cavalier Bernini in a fax addressed to the Director of Real Estate Development of the Euro Disney Resort (listing Michael Eisner, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, in carbon copy), was clearly a display of cultural power—a way of demonstrating intellectual superiority. Additionally, the message was written in Italian, further expressing Rossi’s unwillingness to meet them halfway. Notably, this was the period in which Pierre Bourdieu published his work on the notion of cultural capital, forwarding the idea that anyone could acquire a cultural good, but only those with “embodied cultural capital” could fully consume it.10 Eisner undoubtedly prided himself on belonging to the latter category.11 In a recent interview, one of his employees was very keen to share that Eisner grew up in a house with abstract paintings on the walls and, therefore, could cultivate his particular taste in art and architecture from a very young age.12 What is certain is that he did not pass up the opportunity to consume Rossi’s letter: as soon as he read it, he had it framed and hung in his office—just like a work of art.13

The Louis XIV provocation played very well at Disney’s headquarters. Upon receiving the fax, Eisner flew Rossi all the way to the United States on his private jet, told him how much he enjoyed the Bernini reference and, after a long negotiation, convinced him to accept two projects in Celebration and Los Angeles, which would later be followed by other collaborations.14 What sounded like a slap in the face turned out to be Rossi’s passe-partout to Disney’s coffers. Douglas Moreland, one of the project managers involved in Disney’s endeavours with Rossi, explained this U-turn by arguing that people want what they can’t have, especially at Disney: Rossi’s rejection of Eisner made him a must-have. But Moreland also noted that Rossi perfectly fit the profile of Disney’s ideal architect. In corporate jargon, those belonging to this typology were labelled “black-cape architects”—an expression that alluded to the motif of the one-of-a-kind artist, the visionary genius in the footsteps of Frank Lloyd Wright.15 From this point of view, Rossi’s trajectory can be understood as that of a red architect turned into a black-cape architect and then quickly assuming the status of a blue-chip architect.

As for the framework in which this transformation unfolded, there is an important indication at the beginning of Rossi’s message: “I just read the last facs [sic] sent to my friend Morris Adjmi about our project for Paris.”16 Notwithstanding the misspelling of the word “fax,” this note sheds light on how Rossi’s practice was set up at the time: Rossi’s “friend” Morris Adjmi was actually his business partner and managed the American side of the operation from the satellite office Rossi opened in New York City in 1986. Rossi also had a network of smaller offices in other countries, such as Japan, Germany, and the Netherlands. His projects, clients, and even employees were becoming increasingly international. As such, Rossi’s back-and-forth with Disney should be read as a dialogue between two multinational organizations that were operating in similar markets.

At the time, the fax machine was the primary trait d’union.17 And it wasn’t just a technology to communicate with clients and collaborators. In the last decade of Rossi’s career, most projects were actually developed on the Milan-New York axis, with the two offices sending drawings and other documents back and forth via fax. For example, if one wants to research Rossi’s project for the hotel at the Euro Disney Resort, most of the material is only accessible on long scrolls of fax paper. This speaks to an important transition from working in multiple nations to developing the projects within a multinational framework. While the digital revolution evidently transformed the entire scenario, the fax machine points to a peculiar inter-mediate phase during which architectural design began to undergo a process of globalization, all while paper was still the discipline’s indispensable medium.18 No traditional authority could fully exert control over objects that, while being tangible, existed in the form of infinite possible copies, in multiple locations.19

Notably, while Rossi was writing his polemic letter in 1988, I.M. Pei’s renovation of the Louvre had just been inaugurated. It was the crown jewel of a broader renovation of Paris promoted by François Mitterrand. And, again, the protagonist was a non-French architect. Even though Mitterrand was a socialist, he envisioned the Louvre as the symbol of power par excellence and as a key device in his policy of grandeur, to the point that a large section of the public accused him of reviving an old royalist tradition. According to Irving Lavin, in the face of such criticism, the President did everything he could to reassure his architect: “I will not abandon you as Louis XIV abandoned Bernini!”20

  1. Louis Marin interpreted Disneyland as “a fantasmatic projection of the history of the American nation.” Louis Marin, “Dégénérescence Utopique: Disneyland,” in Utopiques: Jeux d’Espaces (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1973), 297–324.  

  2. The expression “landscape of power” was introduced by Sharon Zukin. Sharon Zukin, Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). 

  3. Zygmunt Bauman and Carlo Bordoni, State of Crisis (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014). 

  4. Charles Maier, Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 303. 

  5. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry, 8, no. 4 (1982): 785. 

  6. Robert Cooper, The Post-Modern State and the World Order (London: Demos, 1996), ix. As noted by Robert Cooper, by the mid-1990s, more than half of the world’s largest economies were companies, not countries: more specifically, they were multinational corporations, like Disney. 

  7. Jean-Louis Cohen, “Letter from EuroDisney,” ANY: Architecture New York, no. 1 (1993): 54.  

  8. Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, “Colloquio con Aldo Rossi,” Domus, no. 722 (1990): 17–28. 

  9. Rossi was involved with the Communist Party and even wrote several articles for the newspaper Voce Comunista

  10. Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. John G. Richardson (Westport: Greenwood, 1986), 241–258. 

  11. Disney repeatedly tried to present itself as “the new Medici for our time.” Kathy Privatt, “Modern Medicis: Disney on Broadway,” in Angels in the American Theater: Patrons, Patronage, and Philanthropy, ed. Robert A. Schanke (Cardondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), 259–275. Even The New York Times ran an article praising Eisner for his “capacity to commission culture.” Peter Applebome,
    “The Medici Behind Disney High Art,” The New York Times, 4 October 1998. 

  12. Douglas Moreland, phone interview by the author, 28 March 2016. Douglas Moreland is an architect and used to work as a project manager for Disney. 

  13. Morris Adjmi, phone interview by the author, 10 April 2016. Morris Adjmi was Rossi’s business partner and managed Rossi’s New York City office. 

  14. Ibid. 

  15. Douglas Moreland, phone interview by author, 28 March 2016. 

  16. Aldo Rossi, fax to the Director of Real Estate Development of the Euro Disney Resort, 11 October 1988. 

  17. In this pre-digital world, the fax machine was undoubtedly the key technology for both internal and external communications. For example, the “minuscule critiques” that irritated Rossi were first voiced in Disney’s Burbank headquarters by the company’s uppermost executives, who then sent a fax to the Director of Real Estate Development of the Euro Disney Resort, who then sent a fax to Morris Adjmi in Rossi’s New York City satellite office, who then sent a fax to the architect’s studio in Milan. Rossi’s polemic response was delivered as a fax too. The original version of the Bernini fax—the one with Rossi’s handwritten signature—never left his studio, until it was moved to the MAXXI as part of Rossi’s archive. 

  18. P.L. Knox and P.J. Taylor, “Toward a Geography of the Globalization of Architecture Office Networks,” Journal of Architectural Education, 58, no. 3 (2005): 23–32. In their study of the globalization of architectural practice, Knox and Taylor have discussed the development of global office networks in the early 2000s, pointing to multinational organizations that, thanks to digital technologies, could claim to operate as one virtual office. The fax machine partly anticipated these phenomena and from very early on started to pose difficult questions regarding architecture’s allegiances. 

  19. Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe, “The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original through its Facsimiles,” in Switching Codes, eds. Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 275– 298. Faxing also raises a number of questions regarding reproductions. In one of his drafts of his Scientific Autobiography, Rossi noted: “The original—real or presumed—will be an obscure object that identifies with the copy” (Aldo Rossi, Typescript of A Scientific Autobiography, 1981. The Aldo Rossi papers, 1943–1999, Getty Research Institute). Notably, this was exactly the period in which his practice start-ed to operate through machines that literally produced facsimiles. 

  20. Irving Lavin, “Bernini’s Image of the Sun King,” in Past-Present: Essays on Historicism in Art from Donatello to Picasso (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 374. In this context, particularly relevant is Lavin’s postscript, titled “Louis XIV: Bernini = Mitterrand : Pei.”  


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