As with many parents of daughters of a certain age, I've had several opportunities recently to watch Disney's Frozen now that it has been released on DVD. This particular animated feature has generated a fair amount of discussion about its depiction of the relationship between sisters, the character Elsa's role as the first "feminist" princess, and whether or not a "feminist princess" can even exist. But what I found to be of interest sometime during my 6th or 7th viewing was Elsa's role as an architect.
As any self-respecting four-year-old will emphatically tell you, Elsa is NOT an architect. She is a princess and, more critically, she is one that happens to also possess the supernatural power to conjure and manipulate ice and snow. The physics of this ability are never fully explained in the film but this matters little to most four-year-olds. What is of interest to me, however, is what Elsa choses to do with her powers once she gains control of them: she builds.
Chances are if you're bothering to read this post you've seen this film several times already and so I apologize for asking you to watch once more the "Let It Go" sequence. The online version of this clip has over 150 million views, approximately a third of which I have sat through myself with Sammy sitting on my lap, singing along.
Anyway, the context of what is being dramatized is bit complicated for the uninitiated but it involves self-banishment, trolls and angry trade partners. It also doesn't really matter. As Elsa makes her way up a mountain, she decides (in song, of course) to embrace rather than conceal her magic powers (1:00). She at first creates a few small but artfully executed snow flurries but very quickly moves on to simple acts of engineering. She builds an ice bridge to span a gorge (1:50) and then upgrades the level of their architectural finish by rendering them crystalline when she steps upon them (1:58). Apparently she had been watching classic Michael Jackson music videos while she was alone in her room avoiding her younger sister.
Having mastering the basics of structural engineering she moves on to other tasks, specifically the creation of a castle of sufficient grandeur to be later made into a marketable playset. And the Ice Castle she creates is pretty amazing. Using the crystalline structure of snowflakes as inspiration for the layout of the plan (2:17), Elsa extrudes this basic parti into a sophisticated spatial composition (2:26). The basic framework she initially creates is embellished with abstracted ornamental flourishes, all of which subtly relate back to the initial snowflake motif (2:34). Although the design Elsa creates cannot be considered "organic" in the same way Frank Lloyd Wright defined it - the imitation is far too literal for that - it does nevertheless create a cohesive overall design where every move from the smallest detail to the broadest gesture are all pointing in the same direction. Despite having no apparent formal training, Elsa clearly has an intuitive ability when it comes to crafting the built environment. As far as I know, she is also the only Disney Princess to design and build her own castle.
She also proves to have a talent for costume design. After adding some detail to the castle's lighting scheme (2:47), she lets her hair down into a style that can only be called post-coital and updates her outfit, transforming it from a modest traditional Norwegian affair to a slinky evening gown with a thigh slit designed to discomfort parents of daughters around the world (3:03). Apparently the Ice Castle has a cocktail lounge in which Elsa sings sultry medleys nightly at 9:30pm.
It's worth noting that Elsa also has the god-like power to create life. Twice she is able to rather effortlessly imbue inanimate snow and ice into conscious, self-aware beings - once to make lovable (if narratively superfluous) Olaf and once again to make the somewhat less lovable snow monster thing. This ability to animate with life solid forms of water is arguably a more significant power - one that might be useful if, for example, you wished to build an army of snow monsters to take over the world. But Elsa shows no interest in world domination and instead choses to focus on building a world of her own. Even when she is forced to defend herself against the not-so-subtly menacing henchmen sent by the Duke of Weselton, she does so by essentially weaponizing the architecture she has created. With sharpened icicles acting as punji sticks, she immobilizes one adversary while creating an ice wall to push the other one off her balcony. Hopefully this sequence will inspire DARPA to start hiring architects.
At the conclusion of the film when the sisters have been united and seasonally appropriate weather has returned to the kingdom, Elsa once again employs her architectural superpowers to create a mid-summer ice-skating rink in the inner keep of Arendelle Castle. But for Elsa it is not enough to simply create a functional plane of ice. She expands the program to include ice gateways and other flourishes to create a more complete and immersive architectural environment (not to mention a natural tie-in to future Disney-On-Ice productions).
Elsa seems to find joy in creating a world better than the one that currently exists. Like an architect, she has found a way to use an innate talent to create a more functional and more beautiful environment for those around her. This is in contrast to other members of the Disney Princess Pantheon whose special skills that fall either into domestic or militaristic categories. For example, Snow White and Cinderella both are good at cleaning houses while Mulan and Merida have mad sword and archery skills. I could go on down the list but I am admittedly already a little confused and frightened by my extensive knowledge of Disney Princesses.
Yes, Elsa is a princess and a queen, but that doesn't preclude her from doing other things as well - like being an architect. Maybe this is something Disney can pursue in future iterations of the Frozen franchise. I know of at least one toddler who would be interested in watching such a movie over and over and over again.