In which I demand the reinstatement of all Luna Parks in Theme Park Theory and Design.
I‘m very grateful again to my missus for digging up an essential research source, being the program for an exhibition Luna Park and the Art of Mass Delirium. Held at The Museum of Modern Art at Heide in 1998, it catalogues responses to Luna Park St Kilda by mid 20th century painters Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester et al. alongside current visual artists. The art itself is not that appealing to me, but the included essays show how ignorant I am of the entire history – as are the people that claim to teach theme park design.
Jennifer Phipps, a curator at the NGV, takes up the history of the Melbourne artists and park and makes many points, a few of which I can summarise here. In the wartime 1940’s, St Kilda housed American soldiers, about which the general consensus was they were ‘over paid, over sexed, and over here’. The park, ‘browned out’ as a war precaution, was filled with soldiers attended by young girls looking for a thrill, perhaps getting more thrill than the one they expected. Like all of Coney Island in New York, Luna Park was at the time considered a seedy place – both in Melbourne and Sydney. (When I asked my old dad about Sydney Luna, he would just say it was filled with ‘yanks and whores’).
The painters had a mixture of admiration and horror for the park, which they saw in the context of the war. Nolan, generally in favour of the vitality of the park, conflated the lines of the roller coaster with the tracer lines of ack-ack guns and produced designs for the ballet Icarus where the boy falling from the sky equaled the coaster in descent. But Hester painted a darker image of woman prone on the ground, the victim of a leering Luna face.
In my own vocabulary, these painters were working with the light/dark modern/mannerist Orphic principle of the parks – the ‘mass delirium’ identified by the exhibition. There’s more context for why Disney, an artist, held such a revulsion to American parks as they were in the 1940’s and attempted Jekyll and Hyde surgery for his own land.
Ian McDougall, adjunct professor of architecture at RMIT, provides a masterful history of theme park architecture which should be mandatory reading for any study of park design. He describes what is very likely the prototype of the theme park in the circa 1550 Gardens at Bomarzo. Here are dragons and monsters, and the inscription that it’s sol per sfogare il Core … a bit like Just For Fun. He describes the 1968 study Learning From Las Vegas by Brown & Venturi, a significant work in which the pop art of the Strip was documented and became valid and worthy of inclusion in academic built environment design.
I was most taken with his account of the 1978 book Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas that sets out the history of Coney Island, the 1939 World’s Fair, and NYC itself as an ongoing battle between light and dark. At one point the struggle is written as directly waged between Salvador Dali and Le Corbusier – both armed with Dali’s Paranoid Critical Technique. It’s not hard to find a naughty copy of the book online, and you have to read it before you can really understand the history and mentality of Luna Parks wherever they came to be.
For me the message is good – there is a body of theoretical work, unfortunately unknown or denied by the practice where ‘imagineering’ has been set up as the whole reason. There is no justification for editing history to start in 1955 – that simply marks a reaction to what was there before. The reaction requires explanation, and that can be found as far back as 1550.
It all needs to be given some long trousers, and perhaps it’s something that I can do.