If you happen to visit Malaysia's fanciest new hotel and find yourself looking at the walls and wondering . . . well, you're not crazy. Those wall brackets at the Palace of the Golden Horses are shaped like monkeys. Here's why:
A half a world away, a man named Gerald L. Allison imagined that once upon a time, great floods threatened the home of a Malaysian peasant couple named Abdul and Normala. Then he imagined how 100 of the local primates might have rescued their human friends, by hoisting their hut above the surging water.
And then he rewarded those heroic monkeys by placing plaster castings shaped just like them in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
That's how it goes with Jerry Allison, a 66-year-old architect in Newport Beach who makes up bedtime stories for his grandkids, then turns them into resorts for the world's elite.
He did it first with the astonishing Lost City in South Africa, which looks like the ruins of an empire centuries old, except for a few features of modernity--like a casino and golf course. From its Cheetah Fountain to Elephant Walk Atrium, every inch tells the tale of a tribe that wandered south and created a new realm based on its memories of a grand architectural past.
Some called it a "white man's fantasy of Africa." Never mind. Tourists have flocked there since it opened in 1993.
Then Malaysia requested a Jerry Allison special and got the hotel that opened there last year. Then Taiwan wanted one, so the Promised Land--with two hotels--is now under construction. Its fable? Long, long ago, there was a couple who set off from mainland China with only the secret writing on an amulet to guide them to a land where "all good wishes are granted . . ."
Hotel Designs Have Sparked Controversy
You get a lot of debate these days over "Disney-fication." Is musical theater going Disney? Is Times Square? What about shopping malls? Radio, even?
Allison's work extends the debate to hotels.
One of the principal partners in the firm Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, he has designed two hotels right at Disney parks: the Grand Floridian Beach Resort at Walt Disney World in Orlando, and the Disneyland Hotel in the Euro Disneyland resort in France. But it's with his projects in Africa, Malaysia and Taiwan that he truly has turned "Imagineer" of sorts, designing resorts that are theme parks in themselves.
The fables on which they are based are painstakingly grounded, he says, in "the unique physical, social and cultural environment of their locale." Authentic fables, though, can't guarantee happy endings--like the best art, they often prod and irritate, making their audiences uncomfortable.
Allison's fables include a moral dimension, to be sure--drawn right from the Golden Rule--but in the end embrace the essence of comfort. They generate the same combination of feelings--of awe yet warmth--that help drive Disney's animated films, such as "The Lion King," to box office heights.
Allison's fans include science fiction master Ray Bradbury and music impresario Quincy Jones, for whom he is designing a 20,000-square-foot home in the hills of Bel-Air. Allison also has made an ornament for the White House Christmas tree.
But when the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood exhibited Disney designs last year and brought in architects to discuss the genre, Allison's work became a lightning rod. One panelist, Eric Owen Moss, did not hide his derision.
"Nobody is saying this doesn't take talent," Moss said later. "But talent in the service of what? You sometimes hear that the winners write the history. I think this one is the bankers write the history, the PR people.
"It's a kind of mercantile pastiche . . . an attempt to tie into pseudo-history and create a sense of grandeur and power and opulence that people selling hotel rooms or gambling casinos think will convince, induce or seduce their clientele to come running with their checkbooks and ATM cards."
Moss is a different breed of architect, who embraces the role of artist-as-critic. He helped transform Culver City's defunct rail corridor with dramatic open spaces that use panels of brick, metal and scraps of machinery, even sewer pipes. It's an attempt to integrate the new L.A. with a history Moss sees as gritty--one of old brick and corrugated metal warehouses--not the charming Spanish Mission style many cling to.
Moss and others like him have little use for fellow architects they see as pandering to mass tastes, whether it's Allison or Jon Jerde (the Westside Pavilion, Universal CityWalk) or Vegas folks who sell ancient Rome as a Caesar's Palace where "women are getting chased and white wine is flowing . . . a kind of 'Animal House' representation."
Another panelist, UCLA professor Barton Phelps, noted that Allison's "architecture of escapism and fantasy" inevitably will be contrasted with the "romantic notion of the architecture of idiosyncratic genius" as embodied, say, by Frank Gehry's acclaimed sculpture-like museum in Bilbao, Spain.