Welcome to our Disney Architecture Analysis series, where, every Tuesday, we’ll spotlight another Disney architectural structure and analyze what makes it work, what doesn’t, and its storytelling and design merit. The first installment in this series, this article will analyze the Michael Graves masterpiece, the Team Disney building in Burbank, California.
At Disney, storytelling is key in everything that the company does; every project must be grounded in a spectacular story in order to work and create something meaningful. Similarly, storytelling is at the heart of great architecture. Architecture is not only a product of function and necessity, it is a three-dimensional expression of a collection of form, color, and material. Good architecture not only serves a purpose (i.e. “we need a new office building”), it rises to the level of art and challenges people to think and or evoke emotion. Iconic architecture is synonymous with the famous Michael Graves, and it’s hard to think of any other architect who has made such a splash upon the art and science of architecture as he did. One person who understood this was another brilliant storyteller, named Michael D. Eisner.
Michael Eisner was the CEO of The Walt Disney Company from 1984-2005, but immediately upon his assignment to the role, he began to look for ways to reinvigorate the company and situate Disney as the ultimate powerhouse in media and entertainment, theme parks and resort destinations, and more. Within his first decade, he quickly began work on massive growth at Disney parks around the world, dramatically increasing resort and park offerings at Walt Disney World, where, by the suggestion of Disney legend Wing Chao and Eisner’s friend Victor Ganz, he was introduced to the idea of contracting the famous architect, Michael Graves, to design what would become the Swan and Dolphin Resort at Walt Disney World. The solution came out of a complex discussion with the Tishman Hotel Corporation, which required a design worthy of the Disney brand without expressing a Disney-esque feel. Recognizing the importance of good architecture, Eisner wanted ambitious, which is exactly what Graves provided, launching a series of Graves and Disney masterpieces.
Team Disney in Burbank is the official corporate headquarters of The Walt Disney Company and stands within the company’s studio lot. It is the building in which the leading executive team of the company’s offices is located, which overlooks all of the Disney studio. Team Disney Burbank opened in 1991 and has been an iconic cornerstone of the company ever since. It is a brilliant work of architecture and artistry that evokes meaning and story and utilizes varying shape and color to convey emotion and depth. Those who have been lucky enough to stand in what is known as Legends Plaza, the courtyard outside of the building, can attest to the sweeping beauty of this building, which represents imagination and power. Graves uses his building to evoke these meanings by utilizing varying shapes and leading lines that convey these two themes; for instance, in a structure that would otherwise be enormous, towering, and perhaps even intimidating, Graves incorporates the whimsical Seven Dwarfs in the place of where pillars would have gone. This now represents two things; the incredible media powerhouse that Disney has become, as well as the creativity and imagination that it was built upon.
The Team Disney building has an even deeper and literal meaning to it. Graves’ use of the Seven Dwarfs is not only for fun, but it is a celebration of Disney history, as the very land that the current Walt Disney Studios stands on, was first purchased after the roaring success of Walt Disney’s first feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt had used his earnings from the film to purchase land and finance the development of the studio in the location it stands at today. To iterate, Snow White was directly responsible for the existence of this studio, and Graves included that in his work. The Dwarfs holding up the building in place of the pillars is quite the literal meaning; the Seven Dwarfs were the pillars of this company, and this studio could not have been possible without them holding up the company. Who said architecture was just about designing buildings? This is pure poetry in the form of a physical structure!
According to Building a Dream, a previously published book about the work behind classic Disney architecture, the idea to include the Seven Dwarfs on the structure came from the feedback Graves received from then-CEO Michael Eisner.
Eisner, upon seeing the initial concept, similar to the finished design, but at the time only included a Mickey Mouse at the top, made the building “look like a bank”, and that he should add more classic Disney iconography to the building. Graves revisited his concept and later included the Seven Dwarfs into its signature look, omitting Mickey Mouse altogether from the original design. (Ironically, Eisner would also discourage Arata Isozaki, who would design the Team Disney building in Orlando, from using any Disney characters in his design).
Team Disney is also a magnificent work in composition and structure. Not a surprise for anyone familiar with the work of Michael Graves, the building uses its space and geometrics that immediately inform you of where your eyes should be looking. Michael Eisner once described Graves “as the Spielberg of architecture”, and this building is the perfect example. Like a movie sequence framed by the rule of thirds, The Team Disney building, along with the entire Legends Plaza is so perfectly framed using leading lines to inform its design and theme. There’s no moment of confusion – only synchronicity that works with all of its entities and its surroundings.
As the primary representation of The Walt Disney Company, the Team Disney building represents all that the company stands for, showcasing its heritage, whimsicality, and dedication to great artistry. Thanks to the innovation and the collaboration between Eisner’s Walt Disney Company and the illustrious Michael Graves, the Team Disney building will continue to stand for everything that Disney represents at the home of where the magic is made each day.
Learn more about the work of Michael Graves through his biography, Michael Graves Design For Life, and his collaboration with Disney, including the Team Disney building in Michae Eisner’s autobiography, Work In Progress.