Kenneth Hitchens

Commentary on Architecture + Urbanism.


TEAM DISNEY BUILDING, 1986-1991, Burbank, CA, United States

The project known as the Team Disney Building consolidated Disney’s corporate offices on one quadrant of the studio lot in Burbank, California following MGA’s 1985 master plan for the property. The program included a 350,000-SF office building facing a pedestrian plaza, a 1000-car below-grade parking garage, and a new entrance gate. The office building, organized in several 4- and 6-story sections, wraps around the corner of Alameda Avenue and Buena Vista Street. The entrance façade features statues of the Seven Dwarfs, making reference to Disney’s first feature-length film and the founding of the company. The executive dining room, located in a central rotunda, is surrounded by a colorful mural of colliding patterns designed by Michael Graves and is furnished with custom-designed chairs and tabletop items featuring Mickey Mouse. With a mandate to make the company executives “smile on their way to work,” the project captured the spirit of entertainment for which the company is so well known.

Song Do’s and Don’ts

The last few projects I’ve been working on would be classified as mega-projects due to their size and scope. They have been subject to non-disclosure agreements preventing me from publishing ‘lessons learned’ for the benefit of other practitioners. Creating community under cloud of secrecy seems to be at odds with the intended result, yet this seems to be standard practice outside of North America.

Another annoying standard practice, now that every architectural firm considers themselves urban planners, is that of clients choosing a firm for urban design services based on whether or not they like their skyscraper designs. This has dire consequences for the discipline of urban planning and has the potential to derail or bankrupt the economies of developing countries.

As luck would have it there is a plan proposed in South Korea which exhibits many of the ills found in plans I’ve inherited on the mega-projects. Because I’m not involved with this project I am not familiar with the particulars of its genesis, as such my critique will be guided by my experience on similar projects. The level of detail shown in the Songdo plan is limited so my assumptions may be incorrect and this particular project may thrive, however, these same techniques used in similar plans have led to the complete collapse of the project. In essence, I’m using Songdo as a foil to set the stage for a general critique of mega-projects.

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The Simple Stick


Ken Segall has an excellent book out detailing the time he spent working as an advertising executive. As the title of the book implies he has done extensive work with Apple Computer including lots of interaction with Steve Jobs. Actually Ken worked with Steve at Apple and NeXT while at different ad agencies, so he has insider knowledge on how the obsession that drove Steve Jobs wound up driving NeXT, PIXAR, and Apple. His experience with other companies during that same time period — such as Intel, Microsoft, and Dell — allow him to draw some comparisons between the approaches of these very talented organizations.

As far as design and brand loyalty are concerned Apple has clearly won. Many try to emulate that success yet they don’t understand what it was that led to their success. It wasn’t just clever marketing. Even though the other companies hired the exact same ad agencies as Apple they couldn’t mimic their success. This is also why the iPhone 5 is selling out even though it has been panned by the tech press.

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Yes, We Can Use Panels

Exterior cladding panels have been around for a long, long time. They’ve predominantly been used in commercial construction, though some architects have been using them in residential construction for decades. Think of all the houses Richard Meier has designed with his enameled metal panels. With the advent of cementitious fiberboard panels by reputable manufacturers like Hardie, these systems are now quite popular for general residential construction, not just high-end custom work.

This is great since these systems provide many benefits in cost, time, and quality. The architects, however, have struggled to find an attractive way to design with these systems. The results have looked cheap or bizarre. This doesn’t need to be the case. It is quite simple to design an attractive home that takes advantage of the benefits without incurring extra cost.

Yes, We Have No Porches

You could do quite well without building a porch. There are many lower cost solutions, depending on the location, that can provide a usable front yard space, privacy, and security. More to come.

Formal Composition

Open concept floor plans when properly executed have multiple benefits, especially when space is at a premium. Yet large scale buildings that utilize this technique, such as airport terminals and shopping centers, tend to be confusing for the intended audience. In the case of shopping malls the confusion caused by the design may be done purposefully as a means to effect greater sales. In the case of terminals the confusion is attributed to the complexity of the design problem. Indeed, managing the flows of passengers, flight staff, support staff, luggage, and catering in a secure environment is no simple task.

I do not accept either purposeful confusion or extreme complexity responses to the critique. If buildings with confusing circulation patterns, poorly defined entrances, and questionable aesthetics were limited to the aforementioned two building types then that might be acceptable as the truth. However, this poor usability is pervasive in modern architecture throughout the world, I’m sad to report. Signage and Wayfinding consultants can attest to this fact. Their services have never been more in demand than now.

As a keen observer of how humans use buildings I’ve had a good chuckle, I must admit, when I’ve seen poor souls lost in a building and desperately looking in vain for their destination. I’m laughing at myself as much as them since I’ve been in the exact same predicament. Truth be told, it’s not the fault of those that are lost that they can’t find their way. Any rational human would have followed the same route they did. The design of the building led them down this path and didn’t provide any clues that there was a detour they needed to take to get to their intended destination. They are left there, abandoned by the architecture, to seek a sign illuminating their location.

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