Morris Architects (www.morrisarchitects.com) is a multifaceted architectural firm with offices in Orlando, FL, Houston, TX, and Culver City, CA. Founded in Houston in 1938, the firm is a leader in the field of entertainment architecture, with a long list of distinguished projects from the Wortham Theatre in Houston, TX, to the buildings for the T2:3D attractions at Universal Studios theme parks. They are currently working on numerous projects around the world as well as those close to home, such as Pier Park in Panama City, FL, where they are handling master planning and architectural design combining retail and entertainment for a beach resort on Florida's Panhandle, and Magnolia Creek, in Orlando, where they are the entertainment-based “guys” master-planning a 6,000-unit secured destination resort. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux queried two of the firm's Orlando-based principals, Walter E. Geiger and James Pope, on the state of the industry from their point of view.

Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: How do you define entertainment architecture?

Walt Geiger: It's got to be turned around: It's the architecture of entertainment venues. Architecture's ‘pop’ definition is the shaping of man's spatial environment (exterior and interior) and the ‘traditional’ definition (by way of Vitruvius) is the application of technology (‘tect’) and art to achieve ‘commodity’ (that's function), ‘firmness’ (that's mass and form), and delight (that's entertainment).

Jim Pope: So…we define architecture as place and space making in service to the storyline, and based on two general paths of aesthetics: 1) contemporary, where we explore ‘new’ forms and spaces, and 2) themed, where earlier forms, spaces, and styles are represented [This is the classic discussion of Universal Studios ‘City Walk’ aesthetics versus Disney's ‘Main Street’ aesthetics].

ELG: What are the coolest projects you have on the drawing board right now?

Geiger: Beihai Silver Beach Resort, Beihai China. Where else and how often do you get to design a 26km (approx. 21 miles) beach resort worth $100 billion with entertainment zones, national parks, theme parks, water parks, educational institutes, hotels, and hospitality resorts, golf courses, performing and fine arts gateways, new inner harbor entertainment districts, working towns and villages, regional fishing villages, aquariums, oceanographic institutes, and ecosystem institutes in an everyday resort?

Pope: Daytona USA World Center of Racing, Phase II: The second phase of the number-one motor sports attraction in the world at the famous Daytona International Speedway, in Florida. Phase I was a THEA Award-winning facility.

Also, Pier Park in Panama City, FL, the Florida Panhandle beach resort, and Magnolia Creek, in Orlando.

ELG: What was the process for designing the T2:3D building at Universal? How do the attraction and the architecture overlap on a project like this?

Pope: Mark Woodbury of Universal Studios, in 1993, challenged us to rethink the guest's experience of an attraction from start to finish or ‘curb-to-retail shop,’ and from the perspective of the architect and guest who may or may not be familiar with the storyline.

Geiger: This includes everything from site studies and elevation relationships of the building to itself and the building's massive impact on the existing theme park to working with scenic designers to coordinate facility requirements in developing never-before-used technologies, and reinterpreting (develop/invent) building code requirements to accommodate the show, because building codes don't specifically address attraction design, and the life safety code doesn't specifically dictate the length of flame bursts from robot guns overhead the guests for adequate safety. There are lots of great code creation stories in the attraction business.

ELG: How does entertainment technology fit into the design process? Who do you collaborate with for the audio, lighting, and other technical systems? Is there a dialogue?

“Everyone wants US expertise in the leisure/entertainment industry, and Orlando is to the leisure industry what Hollywood is to the entertainment industry.”
Jim Pope

Pope: The key to project success (from an implemented design to construction point of view) is the team approach. And someone on the team has to be the ‘leader’ and that's us! Specific areas of expertise and their personalities have to be referred so that a balance is struck, so that no one trade becomes domineering. Producers would argue with us about this, but we've been down the construction road a lot.

Geiger: New technology means new building code interpretations — life safety, American Disabilities Act, etc. It's up to us to work with show teams to deliver new technology-driven system needs to the show platform (pneumatics, hydraulics, compressed air, natural gas, LN2/steam, etc.). Art and technology seem to always end up gravitating toward and servicing entertainment, so we are continually learning how to apply the technologies to entertainment. Examples are high-speed/high-capacity computers used for entertainment games, interactive rides, and show control, or Defense Department technology used in simulator rides; digital simulation, and digital imaging.

ELG: Has the recent economic situation affected the entertainment industry, from your point of view?

Geiger: Oh, yes. But we've seen this before, so big deal! The revenues are presently catching up to the investment, domestically speaking. It's time now to export our expertise in not only entertainment facility design but also resort master planning, programming, hotel/resort/leisure industry design, and retail/entertainment design.

Pope: Everyone in the world wants US expertise in the leisure/entertainment industry, and Orlando is to the leisure industry what Hollywood is to the entertainment industry. Not to worry; it will be strong again soon.

ELG: Is there a trend away from theme venues? If so, is there a new trend evolving in its place?

Pope: Don't look at themed entertainment as an ‘only child’ syndrome, but more importantly as a constantly growing, enlarging family of influence. There is no trend away from themed architecture because the world of entertainment is continuing to expand by way of film and character-based, story-based content. There will, however, be an increasing need for contemporary architecture, aesthetically speaking, as influenced by the ever-present entertainment industry. Museums will become more interactive, which has fundamentally been influenced by the entertainment industry — or at the very least been done to capture the patron's time (and wallet) — in an ever-increasing competition for a customer's time with other entertainment alternatives.

Geiger: Yes, new attitudes are evolving. Regionalism and indigenous expression is gaining great strength. Designers are maturing as they distill the essence of the region so that it is particular to the place — genus loci — when was the last time you heard someone say, ‘I want to go to Southern California to experience the New England village green sense of place?’ What we see is a guest's interest to absorb the region's climate architecture, landscape architecture, flora and fauna as part of the authentic experience, hence a very sophisticated application of regional aesthetics to their specific areas.

ELG: What is your favorite project ever, and why?

Geiger: Emeril's Universal Studios, Florida, City Walk: Best client yet! Real team player, very respectful of each professional's talents, opinion, and recommendation, very approachable and down to earth, very positive can-do personality, very, very appreciative of hard intelligent work, and he always took time to write and thank the Morris team for the work. Oddly enough, Emeril's was not a big job, but it was one filled with passion to excel and exceed the expectations.

Pope: The Navy Memorial Visitors Center, Washington, DC So much advanced technology so early on in the entertainment ‘scene’ (1988) in service to the story of Navy men and women and the experience of serving your county. Oddly enough, not a big job (and an interiors job at that), but a milestone in my experience with the architecture of entertainment.

Two or three things you might not know about Walt Geiger: He enjoys drawing (as art), wood- and metalworking, fishing, and English gardening.

Two or three things you might not know about Jim Pope: He likes making stuff, from furniture and garden icons to fences and unexpected objects.

Both men say they would still be doing architecture even if money were no object; Geiger would work "out of a customized semi-trailer office, on the road"; Pope would gladly eliminate the dress code.