With that giant pink castle overlooking it, cartoon chipmunks roaming around like over enthusiastic community support officers and buildings that hark back to everything wholesome and good about 1950s mid-America, I imagine Main Street USA at Disneyland Paris is the antithesis of what most architects aspire to. But are the nay-sayers and detractors missing a trick? Could we learn something from the dreaded Disney experience?

While the kids are chasing around after some beleaguered soul in a Donald Duck costume, families are unknowingly experiencing and enjoying a rigorously planned environment in which everything is designed to provide the best possible human experience. Take the scale and layout of Main Street USA. The wide thoroughfare has a spacious feel even when crowded with people. Buildings stand back from the pavement edge. Covered boardwalks offer shelter but the buildings don’t seem to loom over the street like they do in modern town centres because they are limited in height to three storeys or less. There is a square with lawns and a bandstand that provides a ‘breathing space’ from the hustle and bustle – at this point try to block out a band of seven dwarves playing oversized instruments.

Then, there is the grandiose pink castle. It may seem ridiculous to all but the mind of a six-year-old girl but it is the focal point, the reason for this street’s existence. If this castle, all towers and turrets, were not a pastiche – if it was four hundred years old and overlooking a quaint village street in southern Germany – it would be one of the most visited historical tourist attractions in the world. As it is, Disneyland does quite nicely with its plastic version, thank you.

Look too at the variety of the streetscape. No two shop facades are the same. There is a quirkiness to Main Street USA that is so often lost in the real world. The faux shops of Disneyland are the same ones that action groups are battling to save on our high streets. The barber, butcher and greengrocer: little stores that draw you in with enticing window displays and views of customers happily consuming within. The very opposite of the faceless branded frontages of building societies or blank frosted windows of supermarkets that are now so dominant in our villages and towns.

And, with this variety comes colour, too: a changing palette of admittedly planned colours but one that is good on the eye. Buildings, balustrades, signs and street furniture come together in a clever collaboration to form a view that we recognise from films and television, a recollection of happy times and places, so often imagined but rarely experienced.

This may all sound like an architect gone Goofy but there is logic behind the designs of Disney and that is to place the uppermost importance on making it enjoyable and engaging for everyone who visits. Undoubtedly, the Disney architects, set designers, planners, whatever you want to call them, have to work to a strict brief but what they produce has a lack of architectural pomposity that appeals to millions. It incorporates elements that all good urban public realm design should have – defensible space, good signage, well thought-out views, visual variety, a human scale, ease of access and a focal point – but it also has something that the protagonists of the art or science of architecture have forgotten: familiarity.

While architects and masterplanners look to create dramatic new buildings and places that are iconic and environmentally sustainable, they so often relegate social sustainability, the question of whether people will like what they are designing, to somewhere near the bottom of a list of tick boxes. So while I would not expect anyone, other than Mickey and Minnie, to live in a place that looks like Disneyland, the basis on which it has been designed is important to examine.
Why are places like Upper Street or Notting Hill in London, the Marais in Paris or SoHo in New York so well liked? Why do people choose to live in a quaint village rather than a Le Corbusier-inspired housing block? Because they like the variety, they don’t feel overawed; they feel a connection, a familiarity with their surroundings.

Disneyland’s Main Street USA should not be transplanted into Middle England but the significance and value that its designers place on the human experience can be learned from as we architects strive to design for today and future generations. Perhaps Donald Duck costumes are the answer.

Laurie Chetwood is chairman of Chetwoods Architects whose current projects include a proposal for a world leaders’ retreat near Las Vegas.

AT192/October 08 p96.