Disney in the Desert
No, it's not a mirage
It’s a warm, sunny day in Southern California. You’re sipping wine with friends alongside a crystal-blue lagoon in the middle of a Disney paradise.
But you’re not surrounded by rides, carnival games, or Mickey Mouse. Instead, you’re just over two hours east of Anaheim in Rancho Mirage, in the center of Disney’s new desert community, Cotino.
It’s the first of many communities they intend on building across the United States in a new initiative they’re calling Storyliving.
In addition to condos, single-family homes, and neighborhoods for residents ages 55+, Cotino will feature hotels, shopping, dining, and entertainment, centered around a 24-acre “oasis” that will include a beach park and water activities.
It’s the company’s first foray into the Palm Springs metro area, but they’re no stranger to its allure.
Just a couple hours outside of Los Angeles, the Coachella Valley was a celebrity mecca in the 20th century, affording celebrities the opportunity to relax and socialize outside of the public eye.
Stars like Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Liberace frequented Palm Springs. And some, Western fans especially like Walt Disney, made it their home.
Disney visited the Coachella Valley for the first time in 1938. He belonged to a group called The Desert Rancheros, a group of “cowboys” who’d ride horses through the desert and camp under the stars at night. And like many who visit the Coachella Valley for the first time, Disney was hooked.
He’d return frequently to play polo and relax by the pool, and years later in 1946, he’d build his first residence in a community called Smoke Tree Ranch, a 375-acre enclave in the desert.
The house, built of redwood and glass, was designed by William Cody, a pioneer in mid-century and desert modernism who designed some of Palm Springs’s most notable buildings like the Del Marcos Hotel, his first independent commission.
Disney’s approach to Cotino is not unlike the philosophy of mid-century modernists like William Cody.
One of the key tenets of mid-century modernism, especially desert modernism, is the idea that buildings should embrace their environments, not only in form – mid-century architects embraced local stones like Arizona Flagstaff, and created low rooflines to preserve the views – but in function too.
Indoor outdoor living was widely popularized in the 50s and 60s, especially in Palm Springs, where it enabled residents to enjoy the scenery and weather that was so unique to the area.
Some architects believe this approach encourages a sense of mindfulness and appreciation for the environment, a reminder that the house wasn’t constructed on top of the land. Rather, it was a part of it – an extension.
While much isn’t known yet about what the homes will look like or how expensive they’ll be – a Disney spokesperson said “market price” – Disney says they’re committed to embracing this approach to celebrate the environment, nature, art, and culture that makes cities like Rancho Mirage so unique.
Over the last 50 years, Palm Springs has seen ebbs and flows. Times of luxury and opulence, and times of neglect and decay. If what I’ve seen on my latest trips to Palm Springs are any indication, we’re in an exciting time of renewed interest and appreciation for the desert.
Historic homes and neighborhoods are being restored, events like Coachella and Modernism Week draw crowds of thousands, and just as the Hollywood Elite did in the 1950s, visitors from everywhere, from Los Angeles to New York City, seek out the desert for refuge and relaxation.
I’m excited about new initiatives like Storyliving that have the potential to reshape communities and act as a catalyst for revitalization while appreciating what makes the environment so unique.
I’m also excited more broadly about what communities look like in the 21st century, and it’s hard to think of a better team to dream up something magical than Disney’s team of Imagineers.
Some light reading
This week, I’m reading “A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams,” by Michael Pollan. It’s a story about Pollan’s pursuit to build the perfect place – a cabin on his land to write, to daydream, to think. I’m captivated by his lessons on philosophy, more practical lessons on designing buildings, and his humorous stories about attempting to build it himself.
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I took a bit of a hiatus while I wrapped up the acquisition of my startup and started the new job, but I’m excited to get back to the grind and use this as an excuse to learn more about architecture, share some of my own works with you, and improve my craft.
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