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A Joyful Architect? PGAV’s Al Cross on Themed Entertainment, Attraction Design


Al Cross, PGAV Destinations, design leader and exhibit project manager of the award winning Georgia Aquarium, talks to Blooloop about joy and joylessness in architecture.

Architect Al Cross of PGAV Destinations provided a detailed, candid and humorous recounting of the architectural design process and his own personal learning curve working on the Georgia Aquarium, as a speaker at the recent SATE conference (Story-Architecture-Technology-Experience), which was hosted by the Themed Entertainment Association in Orlando.

(PGAV was architect for the aquarium exhibits.) A successful project, declared Cross, calls for a “joyful architect.”Yet, according to Cross, the joyful architect is a rare species. The blame for this rests primarily with the nature of architectural education and training, which Cross characterized as inherently antithetical to the needs of themed design and entertainment. Judith Rubin interviewed Cross following his presentation at SATE.

Q.       What is your favorite architect joke?

A.          It is supplementary proof of my position about joylessness in architecture that there are relatively few architect jokes. Here’s one I like: A man is flying in a hot-air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts, “Exal cross pgav destinations themed entertainment and designcuse me, can you help me? I promised my friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The man below says: “Yes, you’re in a large red hot air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field between 40 & 41 degrees latitude and 120 and 124 degrees West longitude.”

“You must be an architect, ” says the balloonist.

“I am, ” replies the man. “How did you know?”

“Well, ” says the balloonist, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but it’s of absolutely no use to me and I still don’t know where I am.”

The man below says, “You must be a contractor.”

“Well, yes, ” replies the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well, ” says the man below, “You don’t know where you are, or where you’re going and you’ve made a promise that you can’t keep, but now you expect me to solve your problem. And you’re in the same position as you were before we met, but now it’s my fault.”

Q.       What were the three most productive conflicts you encountered in creating the Georgia Aquarium?

A.       The first and most important one, in my opinion, was a discussion/debate with Mr. Marcus [Bernard Marcus, the project developer and co-founder of the Home Depot] about what we refer to as the Open Ocean Theater which is the room in front of the big window – the most important spot in the entire design. We imagined a room wherein the guest could find multiple viewing locations, distinct from each other by height, view angle, etc. Mr. Marcus believed we were in danger of allowing the architecture to become more important than the true stars – the fishes. In the end, I believe we over-presented our ideas, but we also came to have a deeper respect for the issue as well as Mr. Marcus’s inescapable insight.

Next to that, I would say our lighting designer, Fisher Marantz Stone, was the best design partner on our team to a large extent because they were excellent at challenging us – ensuring each gallery had a distinct point of view, and demonstrating that lighting was a critical aspect of delivering on that promise. Many on the team challenged their choices – in particular, the lighting of the overhead river exhibit in the River Scout Gallery. There was much heated debate that the coloration of the light (which is comparatively yellow) would not deliver on the idea of feeling the sun “come through the water.” The gauntlet was a difficult one to run, and the conflict lasted quite a long time. The exhibit truly delivers on this idea and I believe the conflict elevated the result.

I think we also found a way on the project to debate the meaning of value to the guest, where we literally chose how to allocate money based on what that investment delivered to the most important (but least represented) stakeholder. Those discussions were difficult and ran the gamut, from expectation to entertainment to education and everywhere in between. Yet what could possibly have been more important?

Q.       How did you come to embrace themed entertainment? Was there a breakthrough moment or project?

A. PGAV was lucky enough to gain opportunities with Anheuser Busch in the late 1960s by virtue of having done excellent work in mainstream projects. We were invited to present thoughts on Busch Gardens, Tampa (now known as Bush Gardens Africa) and these ideas were well received. The rest is history. On my personal side, I believe I have been destined for it from early on. I met Walt Disney accidentally when I was six years old (I can remember this as if it happened this morning) having breakfast with my family at the restaurant in The Disneyland Hotel in 1961. Additionally, I have always wanted to make places for people, make people happy, and was completely infatuated with the various iterations of the Disneyland TV show as a child. To me this was all bound to happen.

Q.       How should formal architectural education adapt in order to embrace themed entertainment?

A.       Simple: Change our point of view to include a wider audience. I believe, whether overt or sub rosa, that most architecture schools are elitist bastions that believe they know better that anyone what is right and good. In other words, what architects care about the most, is how they are viewed by other architects. This attitude needs a solid intellectual challenge. Architecture schools are far too rigid and far too conservative from this perspective.

Q.       Do you have any tips for productively interacting with an architect on a themed entertainment project?

A.      First, charge her or him with the responsibility of proving that design decisions are founded on the right reasons, and those reasons are rooted in guest experience and not personal (and therefore idiosyncratic) reasons. Give assurance that this does not mean artistic choice is diminished… and, by the way… it isn’t. Ask the architect to consider how design and other architectural choices are based on value as perceived by the guest and the owner, not just the insular community of other architects and artists. Confident, talented designers will understand and respond with greatness.

Q.       How would one find a joyful architect?

A.       The easiest way is to call PGAV. But if that’s not possible… make the search a priority and realize the benefits that flow from the choice of actually wanting to work with someone who possesses a joyful outlook. These include the higher likelihood (and the increased value) that guests will enjoy the result, and that YOU will more likely enjoy the creative process (and, therefore, be more likely to positively contribute). I have always imagined that Frank Gehry is like this. (Interesting that Lillian Disney chose him for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, don’t you think?) Whereas Gehry’s buildings are still mostly about him and his singular vision, I nevertheless would bet he is probably a fun guy to be around.

Continuing on this train of thought, I don’t want anyone to think that my commentary somehow diminishes my profession; it isn’t intended that way. It’s just that I think architects all too often become so serious about our art that we unwittingly disconnect from the REAL user and this is disastrous if one honestly believes (as I do) that architecture is less about building technology and more the act of making great, enjoyable places for people.

Al Cross’s themed entertainment project experience includes, in addition to the Georgia Aquarium, Discovery Cove (Orlando), Ocean Park Aquarium (Hong Kong), the BEC Dubai Master Plan, the Audubon Discovery Center (Baton Rouge), and Isla Magica Theme Park (Seville). He can be reached at

Slideshow: PGAV concept renderings for the Georgia Aquarium exhibits. Courtesy PGAV, all rights reserved.

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