“The Kitschest Place on Earth”?

“The Kitschest Place on Earth”?

In 1951, months before his death, the Austrian novelist and essayist Hermann Broch gives a lecture at Yale University entitled “Some considerations about the problem of kitsch”. Despite qualifying the movement as “the evil” of art and architecture that arises in societies devoid of values, the author claims not to be able to define the term precisely (1).

Four years later, in July 1955, the considered greatest architectural exponent of kitsch to date is inaugurated: the Disneyland theme park in the Californian city of Anaheim, with the slogan “The Happiest Place on Earth”. Together with some of the most innovative and talented animators from his studios, Walt Disney carries out his ambitious project of urban space for mass entertainment. Disneyland goes beyond the concept of ‘amusement park’, where users experiment individual experiences in each attraction, and the route between them is just a transit without urban or architectural planning. In the park conceived by the first Imagineers – the creators of the Disney parks – the design of the attractions is as important as the urban space between them, establishing the concept of ‘theme park’ (2), and it is designed as a human-scale reproduction of the fantasy worlds presented in their animated films. If Herman Broch had lived during its premiere, Disneyland could have served him to exemplify all his attempts to define kitsch: its architecture is, fundamentally, “a system of imitation” (3), where the exterior spaces are designed to immerse its visitors in an alternative reality that imitates its own imaginary to escape and activate its consumption mechanisms.

There is, however, a contradiction between the final result of the kitsch urban and architectural appearance and the technology behind these theme parks. The very form of organization of the park itself is the trigger for this character: its urban spaces and attractions are organized by theme, and each of these theme park areas represents different topics of interest for its creators. Thus, ‘Main Street USA’ reproduces the traditional American city of the early 20th century, where Walt Disney had grown up; ‘Fantasyland’ is built in the image and likeness of the architecture that was intuited in the most representative films of the Disney studios; ‘Frontierland’ represents the myth of the conquest of the American West; ‘Adventureland’ imitates the image of unknown places that only explorers could access, and that the visitor could only see through documentaries; and, finally, ‘Tomorrowland’ is composed of an architectural and urban image of what “future” meant in the minds of its creators. Although Hermann Broch had not given an exact definition of kitsch, Disneyland could very well represent, if not studied in detail, all his claims.

However, despite the fact that Disneyland is worldwide associated with kitsch as an architectural model for mass consumption, the technical processes that create its architecture and the park experience contradict one of Broch’s strongest arguments. According to him: “As an art with a utopian tendency, kitsch obscures the insight into the future, contenting itself with falsifying the finite reality of the world” (4). The historical look of Disneyland’s commercial streets and the architecture imitating the historical models of its films are indeed pretexts for the technological research of its creators and for the development of new forms of art. We will now reveal several processes hidden behind the kitsch facade offered by the Disneyland theme park, which, in order to manifest the happy and evocative images perceived by the user, entails an immense deployment of physical and intellectual infrastructures.

First of all, in 1963, in the midst of the effervescence of the tiki culture in the United States, Walt Disney proposed for Adventureland the creation of a restaurant with a Polynesian atmosphere that would incorporate birds and other animals in the space. The impossibility of achieving a clean room in a space full of birds forced the Imagineers to develop the first animatronic robots in the history of entertainment. Although robotics was already talked about in science fiction since the beginning of the 20th century, it was not until the end of the 50s when its industry flourished. The Walt Disney Imagineering robots were developed in parallel to this movement, which greatly influenced its improvement. These small automata birds, which moved to the rhythm of a melody composed especially for that architectural space, are the precursors of other anthropomorphic robots later developed by Walt Disney Imagineering for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, such as those belonging to the Unicef pavilion “It’s a small world” or the one belonging to the flag of the State of Illinois, an animatronic robot that represented President Abraham Lincoln. The impact of this technology on the entertainment industry was enormous, and its utility models have influenced robots for military use, space exploration, or search and rescue missions (5). Although animatronics have been developed especially for the entertainment industry, benefits on mental health of this type of robot are beginning to be explored, for example, with animatronic pets meant to alleviate the loneliness of elderly people (6). The robotic arm patents developed for these robots are also, by extension, direct precursors to today’s surgical robots. The first automata parrots, that together made up the exuberant and kitsch image of the Walt Disney’s tiki room, had an enormous cultural and scientific impact.

Also, the creators of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion can be considered the inventors of ‘video-mapping’. This concept brings together a series of heterogeneous techniques that consist of projecting images onto an architectural structure that acts as a three-dimensional projection screen. In the Haunted Mansion there are numerous techniques associated with traditional magic or illusionism that produce a whole series of visual effects throughout the ride. For example, to give visitors the illusion that some stone busts moved their faces and sang along with the melody accompanying the attraction, the Imagineers developed a short-distance projection system that adjusted to the size and volume of the faces.

The development of this space-transforming technique was so innovative that, thirteen years later, in 1980, when Nicholas Negroponte’s research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was carrying out a research on Video-mapping and its transformative capacity at the hands of Michael Naimark, Negroponte and Naimark visited Disneyland to learn first-hand how the talking machines worked (7), and took them as references for a project seeking to integrate this technique in the field of architecture. It is especially interesting to highlight the capabilities of this technique to transform almost any space or architectural volume with minimum requirement of material consumption and energetic waste, compared to the quantity of content that it is capable of displaying. At present, video-mapping is used mainly for educational or informative purposes. In the image and likeness of the Disney parks, which also use this technique to transform the nocturnal image of their iconic castles, the facades of historical monuments are often transformed to commemorate their history (as is the case with the facade of the Toledo Cathedral, enriched with images of the different architectural styles present in the city). Video-mapping is also currently used in awereness-raising campaigns, such as the one launched in Indonesia in 2021 to preserve some marine species (8).

Broch would have considered Walt Disney “an ethically abject being, like a villain who wishes evil” for promoting the kitsch scenario par excellence. The superficial result of Disneyland is an urban and architectural space filled with imitations and representations, sometimes literal, of some of the most popular themes of mid-20th century American culture. However, he would not have been correct in his affirmation that “kitsch imposes on the artist the obligation to do not good work, but pleasant work” (9), because for the creation of Disneyland, behind its kitsch, capitalist and postmodern façades, a whole system of technologies with a greater social and cultural impact are hidden like gears.


1. Hermann Broch, Kitsch, avant-garde and art for art’s sake , 2nd. ed (Barcelona: Tusquets , 1979). P.15

2. Kathy Merlock Jackson and Mark I. West, eds., Disneyland and Culture: Essays on the Parks and Their Influence (Jefferson, NC ; London: McFarland & Co, 2011).

3. Broch, Kitsch, avant-garde, and art for art’s sake. P.7

4. Broch. P.10

5. NG Hockstein et al., “A History of Robots: From Science Fiction to Surgical Robotics,” Springer London, 2007. P.113.

6. Rifky Tkatch et al., “Reducing Loneliness and Improving Well-Being among Older Adults with Animatronic Pets,” Aging & Mental Health, 2021.

7. Michael Naimark et al., Talking Head Projection, 1980, Video-mapping, 1980, MIT Council for the Arts annual meeting.

8. AM Fajri, “Video Mapping for Sea Turtle Preservation Education Campaign,” Turkish Journal of Computer and Mathematics, 2021.

9. Broch. P.8


Ana Sabugo Sierra is an Architect and Master of Advanced Architectural Projects from ETSA Madrid, where she is a Ph.D. student. She has been a Visiting Researcher at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research has been exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 and 2018, or the Chilean Architecture Biennale 2017. Her architectural work has been awarded in competitions such as Europan 13, 14 and 15, Future Architecture or the competition for the restoration of Puerta del Sol in Madrid.