Talking With Architect Michael Graves About the Swan and Dolphin

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Michael Eisner, former chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, coined the term "Entertainment Architecture" to define the concept that he wanted the architecture outside the boundaries of the Disney theme parks, but still part of the Disney real estate, to embody the same fantasy and sense of story as the structures in the park. An amateur architecture and design buff, Eisner understood that a company like Disney ought to have a distinctive physical presence in any building associated with the company. Such architecture he felt would bring attention and even future partnerships from others including filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

In the 1990s, Eisner began enthusiastically commissioning these type of buildings from Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, Aldo Rossi, Arata Isozaki, Charles Moore, and other champions of postmodern design especially Michael Graves. Eisner knew architect Robert A.M. Stern, whom he'd met years earlier when Stern worked on a renovation of Eisner's parents' Manhattan apartment, and Stern connected Eisner with postmodern architect Michael Graves, fresh off the triumph of Portland Building, and a perfect match for Eisner's idea of buildings that would grab attention.

"The best design, like the best of any art, needs to be challenging and provocative, even a little threatening at first," Eisner wrote in his memoir Work in Progress. "At the same time, we tried to never take ourselves too seriously. As important as it was to design buildings that were aesthetically pleasing, they also had to be fun and entertaining."

Michael Graves is often described as putting the frequently controversial concept of post-modernism on the map. His works range from large projects such as buildings to whimsical designs for furniture, teapots and other household items.

The dolphin statues are each 63 feet high.

The Swan and Dolphin hotels on Walt Disney World property in Florida were designed by Michael Graves in association with Alan Lapidus and the interior design firm Wilson and Associates. Graves had never designed a hotel before he worked on the Swan and the Dolphin. In his memoir, Eisner stated about the two resort hotels that they had "two huge swans for one and two dolphins for the other. The idea of using these creatures—icons that had classical antecedents but were also lighthearted and accessible—it seemed a perfect solution for a Disney hotel."

Graves was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on July 9, 1934. An architect in public practice since 1964, he was also a professor of Architecture at Princeton University. He directed the firm of Michael Graves Architecture & Design. When he died in 2015 at the age of 80, the causeway connecting the Swan and Dolphin hotels across the lake was renamed the Michael Graves Causeway.

At the Swan, guests walked down lily-pond carpets to rooms whose doors are painted to look like striped beach cabanas.

For the Walt Disney Company, he was responsible for the Swan and Dolphin hotels in 1990, the Team Disney Building in Burbank, California in 1991, the Hotel New York in Disneyland Paris in 1992, and, finally, the post office in Celebration, Florida in 1996. The exterior of Hotel New York is a stylized skyscraper filled skyline that echoes the feel of New York City. The post office in Celebration was influenced by a post office found in nearby St. Petersburg, Florida where the "open air post office" which dates back to 1917 is an important historical landmark.

The Swan and Dolphin hotels were conceived as a single set piece, facing each other across a lake and designed to accommodate convention business at the Walt Disney World resort.

Graves intended the larger Dolphin hotel to represent according to him "a mountain coming out of the Everglades". He also designed the light sconces, the chairs, the carpet pattern and even the china for the restaurants. However, there have been many changes since the original opening.

At the Swan hotel, guests walked down Graves designed lily-pond carpets to rooms whose doors are painted to look like striped beach cabanas.

Graves created a storyline for the resorts to support his design choices. Graves once said he had to design something that would attract "the serious conventioneer, as well as the 8-year-old." His designs for the two iconic hotels earned him an Award of Merit from the New Jersey Society of Architects in 1990.

Graves' architecture met with severe criticism from his peers. Pritzker Prize-winning architect James Stirling didn't like the idea of renowned architects designing for Disney at all.

"We're not very sympathetic to the theme idea,'' he stated in the New York Times. "To me, it seems demeaning and trivial and somehow not profound or important. It's overly commercial."

Project architect for the Swan and Dolphin Patrick Burke said: "Thirty years later, this project remains an important and memorable experience for visitors and Disney fans alike – and one of the most memorable projects of my career. Rather than a literal replication of a historic building type or style, as evident in some of Disney's architecture, we looked more broadly to the history of art and architecture for themes, trying to create an exuberance that complemented Disney's properties and their location in Florida. The Walt Disney Company coined the phrase 'entertainment architecture' to describe what we had created. The Walt Disney World Dolphin and Swan Hotels were early, groundbreaking ventures into considering design as an important part of the hospitality experience."

During March 1997, Graves did a presentation at the Disney Institute Performance Center on his projects for the Walt Disney Company. As with many of the guest speakers at the Disney Institute, a small group of animation instructors were able to meet with the speakers at the Seasons restaurant that was across from the Performance Center for dinner or drinks after the presentation.

I was fortunate enough to be a part of the group that was able to meet with Graves that night and asked a few more questions. I was the only one who took notes apparently as I did with all the other speaker interactions and I am sharing them here with readers of MousePlanet.

Jim Korkis: What got you interested in design?

Michael Graves; I spent countless hours drawing. The more I did, the better I got. I really wasn't good at much else. My mother panicked when she discovered I wanted to be an artist and told me that unless I was as good as Picasso, I'd starve. (laughs) However, she did suggest I consider engineering or architecture and I chose architecture.

JK: Do you have a design philosophy?

MG: I want to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Others want to pull it apart.

JK: Can you tell us how you came up with the design for the Team Disney building in Burbank where the Seven Dwarfs seem to be holding up the roof?

MG: Michael (Eisner) told me, "Look, everyone here will have some design priorities for you but I only have one priority. When I come in to work each morning and go up to my office, I'll probably have very little to smile about. So do something that will make me smile when I arrive." My first designs were rejected but I eventually came up with the concept of having the Seven Dwarfs as caryatids (caryatids are sculpted figures serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar supporting horizontal bands). I made that choice because Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was truly the foundation of the Disney Studios and supported the growth of the company just as the dwarves look as if they are supporting the building.

JK: Did it make Michael Eisner smile?

MG: Yes, I believe it did. You know since both of us have the first name Michael, I took to calling him "the real Michael". One day I was talking to Eisner on the phone and he said, "I have to call you back. On the other line is the really real Michael." It turned out to be Michael Jackson. (laughs)

JK: What was the reaction to the final building?

MG: I filled the building with references to Mickey Mouse like a silhouette of his head scattered over the table in the main conference room. One of the top executives from another company attended a meeting there and moaned to me, "There's an awful lot of Mickeys in that building." (laughs)

JK: Were you a fan of Mickey Mouse?

MG: I always loved the Mickey Mouse cartoons. I just can't relate to the three-dimensional costumed Mickey Mouses walking around Epcot. To me, Mickey is two-dimensional. I used to draw him that way when I was six or eight years old. Seeing this three-dimensional figure who never talks, lumbering up to me and raising and lowering his hand, that is not Mickey Mouse.

JK: How did you get involved in designing the Swan and Dolphin hotels?

MG: Michael didn't like those tall, all glass buildings. He referred to them as "refrigerator boxes". He wanted the architecture to tell a story.

JK: Many people mistakenly believe the "black box" in the center of the Dolphin hotel was meant for a monorail entrance similar to the one on the Contemporary Resort.

MG: Oh, not at all. Not at all. It is the heart of the mountain that has exploded. The Dolphin is this mountain that has struggled its way to thrust out of the tropical rain forest. That's why there are banana leaves painted along the side of the building. It is a mountain that dramatically arose and in the process its heart exploded and the water cascades out nine stories down the side of the hotel, passing through the five clamshell basins to a fountain and eventually splashing into Crescent Lake. The walkway from the railings to the landscaping mimic waves that splash onto the side of the Swan.

JK: That seems like a pretty detailed mythology.

MG: Two birds were so awed by this epic spectacle that they alighted on the top of the waves to get a better look and were magically transformed into those frozen swans.

JK: Why did you select dolphins and swans?

MG: I wanted creatures that were not part of the existing Disney mythology and hoped as a result they would then be developed further as Disney icons.

JK: The dolphin doesn't look like dolphins I have seen.

MG: They were inspired by the work of an Italian sculptor, Bernini. Of course, there is one major change. Bernini's dolphins had mouths that curved downward and looked like they were frowning. Michael said that wasn't going to happen on Disney property so I curved the mouths upwards as if smiling.

JK: Did you do the sculpture for reference?

MG: I did the design. Gary Graham did the sculptures used for building them.

JK: While the Swan and the Dolphin are companion hotels, there seem to be some differences in design philosophy.

MG: At the Dolphin, the sculptures are three-dimensional where the guests can't touch them and two-dimensional, like in the indoor fountain, where they can be touched. At the Swan, it is reversed and the sculptures are generally three-dimensional where they can be touched by guests (except for the roof, of course) but two dimensional like the monkeys and parrots where they can't be touched.

JK: So that's why the dolphins in the outdoor fountain are two-dimensional because in theory the guests could reach out and touch them?

MG: I had designed the dolphins for the outdoor fountain to be three-dimensional but it was felt that being so large, they obstructed the view of the Swan. So I made the fountain smaller and sliced the dolphins into dolphin fillets and so I was able to keep them exactly where I wanted them but opened up the space. I made the fountain smaller so the guests might be able to touch them.

JK: The Dolphin and Swan have similarities but are very different. I find the Dolphin to be disorienting.

MG: That was a deliberate choice because it was to be a hotel for conventions and when you attend conventions, what do you want the participants to do? You want them to think differently, to see things from a different perspective. So the design is encouraging that.

JK: To really "think out of the box" as they say.

MG: Exactly. Most people are right-handed but the check-in desk is on the left. The rotunda is disorienting because there are no landmarks or icons so the person will have to really concentrate on what direction to go.

JK: The rotunda is like a circus tent or a balloon or someone said the inside of a genie's bottle.

MG: It's supposed to be fun. Both inside and out, the hotel was designed to echo the tropical Florida landscape, as well as the fun and whimsy of the nearby Disney attractions and an aura of fantasy that appeals to guests of all ages.

JK: But the Swan is very different.

MG: Yes, the check-in desk is on the right hand side and the hallways are very angular and short so that it is easier to locate where you are and where you might want to go. Something for everyone.

JK: And now the post office in Celebration.

MG: Yes, I think it is amusing that I am responsible for the largest building on Walt Disney World property (the Dolphin Hotel) and now also the smallest building on Walt Disney property (in the city of Celebration).

JK: Thank you for sharing these stories.

Designed by Graves, the swan statues (like the dolphin statues) were created from steel, wood and fiberglass, and were believed to be the largest structures of their kind in the world at the time. Since there were no existing samples to work from, Disney artist Gary Graham, following Graves' design, sculpted the swan models out of Styrofoam. These were then computer-photographed (photogrammetry) in a process that turns the shapes into a digitized database.

The photogrammetric information was then sent on to a shipbuilding company in Wisconsin. There it was put into a computer that automatically cut the wooden ribs to exact specifications and imprinted the ribs with numbers and location directions. The ribs were then delivered to the statue site, where they were fitted to a steel frame. Once assembled, a fiberglass covering was carefully brushed on and then covered with five layers of laminate. The swan statues were then sanded, painted and ultimately lifted into place in May 1989.

Completed, the swan statues, referred to as "heroic" statues, are each 47 feet high. And at a combined weight of 56,000 pounds, they required a multi-ton, 70-foot crane to lift them and place them atop the hotel. They were placed on specially constructed pedestals at either end of the hotel's roof, which support and display them.

The dolphin statues are each 63 feet high. All the roof sculptures are hollow inside, except for the structural beaming, and they have internal staircases and trapdoors for maintenance purposes.

At the Walt Disney World Dolphin, Graves intended that the sculptures are three-dimensional where guests can't touch them and two-dimensional, like in the indoor fountain, where they can be touched. The dolphins in the fountain facing the Walt Disney World Swan were supposed to be three-dimensional, but Graves was told to space them out wider because they obstructed the view. Instead, Graves simply sliced the dolphins, making what he called "dolphin filets," and keeping them exactly where they were but opening up the space. He also made the fountain smaller since the dolphins are now two-dimensional and needed to be able to be touched.

At the Walt Disney World Swan, it is reversed and the sculptures are generally three-dimensional where they can be touched by guests (like the interior fountain), but two-dimensional (like the monkeys and parrots in the trees) where they can't be touched.

Where is the entrance to the Walt Disney World Dolphin? No, it is not at the porte cochere where cars drop off their passengers. According to Graves' concept, it is facing the Walt Disney Swan.

When you enter a hotel, the check-in desk is usually on the right-hand side because most guests are right-handed. In the Walt Disney World Dolphin it is on the left-hand side. The tent-covered rotunda is also disorienting without landmarks or icons for guests to determine which direction they need to go to get to their room. These were deliberate choices to create a sense of disorientation by Graves.

"It was to be a hotel for conventions, and when you attend a convention, what do you want the participants to do? You want them to think differently, to see things from a different perspective. So the design is encouraging that," said Graves.

The Walt Disney World Swan was completely different and meant to be a mirror image philosophically of the Walt Disney World Dolphin. The entrance is where the porte cochere is. The check-in desk is on the right-hand side. The hallways are designed in an angular fashion and are shorter so that is it easier to locate where you are and where you might want to go.

Graves partnered with the interior design firm of Wilson and Associates to create rich beach-themed color schemes, hand-painted murals, lily pond carpets, room doors painted to look like striped cabanas, seashell light fixtures and more to capture the spirit of a playful tropical beach.

"Both inside and out, the hotel was designed to echo the tropical Florida landscape, as well as the fun and whimsy of the nearby Disney attractions and an aura of fantasy that appeals to guests of all ages," Graves said .

The stories of the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin were severely readjusted in a major interior redesign that no longer supported the original story. It was felt that these changes were needed to attract a more upscale business traveler.

Both hotels have now transitioned to what is called "modern luxury," which means the design is less thematic of a playful beach story and more opulent than before. Graves was involved in the room redesign, but not in the makeover of the public space. Both lobbies have been redesigned and the original story that Graves was attempting to tell has been retired. There was no mourning when the interior storyline shifted because neither cast members nor guests understood nor appreciated the story that Graves was attempting to tell. However, the exterior of both hotels are reminders of that original story.



  1. By carolinakid

    We are leaving for a week at the Dolphin on 12/8. I will refer to this article for all the things I have never noticed. Thanks, Jim!

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