The Solitary Existence of L.A.’s Mall Mastermind

From Universal CityWalk to San Diego’s Horton Plaza, from the Glendale Galleria to Japan’s Canal City, architect Jon Jerde’s malls bring millions of people together. So why did he feel so alone?

On a Saturday night, CityWalk may be the most vital public space in Los Angeles. Marooned atop Universal City, these three blocks lead to nowhere, but they’re bustling, electric, alive. The Roman temples, the midget deco skyscrapers, the corrugated warehouses, the vintage neon Pontiac signs, the blue King Kong, the giant surfboards—it’s as if all of L.A.’s architecture, real and imagined, were thrown into a blender and someone flicked the switch.

People from all across L.A. have gathered here in one great undifferentiated mass, as they rarely do in the city itself. Toddlers are tearing across CityWalk’s sidewalk fountain. Salvadoran, Armenian, Korean, black, and white, they squeal as the hidden water jets erupt, soaking their overalls. Hundreds of teenagers who have made CityWalk their hangout are picking each other up and sucking down frozen mochas. Families from Encino to East L.A. are laughing, stuffing their faces, gawking at the bright spires of light.

CityWalk is a shopping mall that refuses to be a shopping mall, where we’re desperate consumers of one another’s company. It offers an 18-screen multiplex, a blues bar, a bowling alley, 28 restaurants, and several dozen shops, but it gives away the best of itself for free. CityWalk is not L.A.’s Piazza San Marco, its Champs-Elysees, its 42nd Street and Broadway, but it comes closer than anyplace else we’ve got. By 8 p.m. our own Broadway is a netherworld of shuttered storefronts. Hollywood and Vine is a specter of the splendid crossroads that went wild on V-J Day. Only at CityWalk can we experience a New Year’s Eve countdown as frenzied and convivial as Times Square’s.

When CityWalk opened in 1993, the critics were brutal. CityWalk, they said, had ripped off its architecture from greater L.A., as if L.A. itself wasn’t a mishmash of styles—mission, Moorish, Mayan, Tudor, beaux arts—borrowed from every city on the planet. It was, the critics maintained, a crass shopping and entertainment center masquerading as public space. But CityWalk has pleased the public enormously—70 million have congregated there.

The creator of CityWalk, Jon Adams Jerde, could not be a more unlikely figure. Probably the most brilliant architect of shopping and entertainment centers in the world, Jerde is short, with ruddy cheeks and the long earlobes of a leprechaun. He chain-guzzles Diet Coke, and sneaks a cigar now and then when his wife’s not looking. He shuns crowds, even as his projects attract hundreds of millions of people a year. He hates shopping; he has no time for the kind of mass-market merchandise to be found in his malls. Manic-depressive, married four times, and by his own admission a drunk until 15 years ago, the 61-year-old Jerde has spent most of his life in emotional turmoil and isolation.

In Southern California alone, Jerde is responsible for the Glendale Galleria, the Westside Pavilion, Newport Beach’s Fashion Island, Del Mar Plaza, and San Diego’s Horton Plaza. His West Hollywood Gateway will debut next year. He rehabilitated a chunk of downtown Las Vegas with the Fremont Street Experience, while his Bellagio master plan sparked the building, boom that has brought the world’s great cities in miniature to the Strip. His Salt Lake City Gateway, host to the 2002 Winter Olympics, is the biggest project the city’s seen since the Mormon Temple. His 1992 Mall of America in Minneapolis reigns as the nation’s largest enclosed shopping center, with its own high school and a daily population of 100,000. His malls draw crowds in Japan, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. He’s designed 35 million square feet of retail and entertainment since launching the Jerde Partnership International in 1977. By the end of next year he’ll be adding 29 million more, with projects from Shanghai to Tokyo to Hong Kong to Warsaw to Dubai. Jerde, it is probably fair to say, is global capitalism’s preeminent designer.

If Frank Gehry is the most acclaimed architect of our time, taking the profession’s collective breath away with the supple titanium skin of his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, then Jerde is the anti-Gehry. He’s not interested in creating beautiful objects; in fact, he often sacrifices beauty in his buildings to amplify the spaces between them. While Gehry concentrates on museums, Jerde has made his grand statement with the mall—reviled as the most manipulative form of architecture, the kind that destroys historic downtowns. Jerde is unapologetic about his work. Malls, he says, are our modern town squares, our commons, and they deserve an architecture that elevates the ordinary person instead of alienating and exploiting him. “I truly wish it had been opera or something else,” Jerde says. “But because of the direction of capitalism, the one place you can be assured of humans coming together is a crowded shopping center.”

“Why would I go?” he asks me one morning when I suggest we take a trip to CityWalk. He’s lounging on the patio of the Stone House, the residence he owns in Mandeville Canyon, wearing a mock turtleneck, wide-wale corduroys, and leather suspenders. “Basically, I’m a recluse. I’m antisocial—I prefer solitude. I’ll create these places that are enormously successful, but I wouldn’t go to them. It’s a funny thing. It’s like being a great chef, but you don’t want to eat.”

When Jerde talks, his thick red hands are always moving, chopping, dicing. He can soar to mystical heights and lapse into profanity. He’ll sum up architect Cesar Pelli in the most clinical terms, only to commend him for “producing buildings like a mayfly on steroids.” In his desire to explain his work, he evokes the souk in Marrakech, the Hong Kong bird market, the lost cities of Egypt, gaia theory, cosmic consciousness, God, and the brain. When he is really revved up he’ll grab a pencil and any piece of paper and sketch frantically—bowls of eggs, chains of pearls, grids and rivers and gardens that delineate the reaches of his universe.

Jerde may avoid crowds, but he maintains a rigorous speaking schedule. In the course of a year I watched him give slide presentations at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the International Council of Shopping Centers and missed about a dozen others at places just as diverse. Until September 11 the standard show included a slide of a termite mound, Monument Valley, and the World Trade Center—side by side and rendered in the same scale. Pointing out their visual similarities, he made a case for the unity of man’s and nature’s endeavors. Critics have attacked his architecture as artificial, but Jerde sees himself as a naturalist—a monotheistic nature worshiper. “We think that we’re individualized,” he says. “I’m sure that we aren’t. We’re really one operating entity. It’s not only all the species but all the trees and everything that is alive.”

Some years ago Jerde was diagnosed as bipolar, although, he says, “you don’t need to get diagnosed to know you’re isolated. It’s like looking through water. You grow up looking at it. You can’t be a part of it, but you’re a keen observer.” After three broken marriages, he’s found some stability with his fourth wife, architect Janice Ambry Jerde, and their eight-year-old boy, Oliver. The family has vacated his beloved Stone House, with its warm woods and boulder walls and the tree poking through it that Jerde calls “Mother.” Jerde now uses it only as an office and studio. For an architect who loathes modern architecture, the spacious ’60s house that his wife found for them in Brentwood might be hard to stomach, but he has found a refuge. “There’s a little tiny room in the basement,” he says. “It looks like van Gogh’s bedroom, and everyone else lives above me.” In oppressed moments, Jerde’s bushy hair seems about to turn entirely white. His face is cracked leather, and his shoulders drop toward the table. Then inspiration will strike, the hands will fly furiously across the air or the paper, and he’s again the blond radiant child.

 

Here’s the earliest photo I’ve seen of Jon Jerde standing beside a building. He’s six or seven. His blurred eyes squint into a blinding sun. His skinny body is awkward in knickers and suspenders. His mother drapes her arm about his shoulder, but she doesn’t hold him close, nor is he able to nudge up to her. Behind them is the dirty brick building where they’ve been staying. The sign on the door says FLORENCE HOTEL—TRANSIENT ROOMS.

Jerde grew up a vagabond. He likes to portray his family as “oil field trash.” His father was an engineer of cooling towers, and as soon as he finished one job, the Jerdes would move to another town along the Texas oil patch. When Jerde’s parents split up, he and his mother settled in Long Beach, but even there he found himself an outcast. “My mother was the town drunk,” he says. “It was a tragic deal. The son of the town drunk isn’t going to get elected Most Favorite Person.” In his garage he began building cities out of scrap. Amid the gimcrack facades, blinking neon, and clattering rides of the Long Beach Pike, he had his first delicious vision of unity—melting among the crowds that thronged the amusement pier.

Jerde’s ambition was architecture school, but he couldn’t afford it, so he went to UCLA to study engineering. At the L.A. building department, he was at the counter waiting to get some drawings approved when the man behind him asked to take a look. It was the dean of the USC School of Architecture, and he got Jerde enrolled. “The day I started architecture school,” Jerde says, “the sun came up.” In one of his classes, Frank Gehry was a guest critic. Ten years older, Gehry had just opened his own firm. “I thought he was manic, in a good way,” Gehry remembers. “Exuded energy and got people engaged quickly. It was clear he was going to take over the world. I never doubted that.”

While on a traveling fellowship to Italy with his first wife, Jerde found himself carried away not by Donato Bramante’s Vatican but by a Tuscan hill town. The cobblestones and crooked alleyways embraced him, he says, “with the intimacy and warmth of a family.” The creators of that town were anonymous. “No single genius designed it. In fact, genius would have destroyed it. I went home drunk with this huge dictionary of communal things and got back to this dead America and said, `Gee, I have to do the same things here.'”

He returned to Los Angeles in 1965 and conceived 700 million square feet of shopping malls as design director for Charles Kober Associates, one of the most prolific retail developers on the West Coast. His plan was to work for one year, bank his $20,000 annual salary, and quit. Then he’d go back to the small buildings he’d been designing in his garage. Two months into the job his wife divorced him and sued for alimony. He says he was stuck; he wound up staying with Kober for the next 13 years. “Malls were a tremendous education in humans,” he says. “So even though it was a repulsive subject, I learned a hell of a lot.”

In Los Angeles he designed the Northridge Mall, Hawthorne Plaza, and the Glendale Galleria. The Galleria is one of Jerde’s earliest attempts to humanize the shopping center. He bends the regulation straight path between the anchor department stores, while his mezzanine above is a crazy, crisscrossing maze. Outside, the Galleria is a monotonous, uninviting brown box, closed off to the world, but within Jerde has borrowed from the Victorian arcade, spanning a huge barrel vault over the length of the mall, piercing it with skylights. Twenty-five years after the Galleria opened, families pass time on its teak benches, kids scoot over the marble floors of its atrium—a prelude to CityWalk that still plays out every weekend.

For years Jerde kept trying to interest clients in a shopping mall that was also a gathering place, “a vessel for heightened human experience to occur.” Make shopping beside the point, he argued, and paradoxically more shopping would be done. So many patrons would come, and they would stay so much longer that sooner or later they would end up buying something. The clients didn’t listen. Jerde quit Kober and moved to Seattle to renovate “pseudohistoric” buildings, which made him a lot of money but bored him to death.

Then on Fourth of July weekend, 1977, he had his life’s revelation, what he calls his “Great Ah-Hah.” He was sitting on the back porch of a cottage on Orcas Island in Puget Sound when a cocoon of white light wandered across the water and swallowed him. He was blinded; he couldn’t feel his arms or legs. It was ecstasy, almost sexual in a funny way, but also horrifying. That afternoon, lying on the bed with his then wife, he had another vision, of a flower and a bee. The bee was hovering, about to fuse with the petals. The bee was the flower, and the flower was the bee. It was, he believes, the afterglow of the white light, and it whispered to him, “All is one.”

He decided to move back to Los Angeles and translate his Ah-Hah into architecture. As it happened, he’d do this by sticking with shopping centers. Right away he got a call from Ernest Hahn, a San Diego retail developer who had heard his lofty speeches about what the mall could be. “He said, `Jon, you know that crap you used to talk about? Well, its time has come.'” San Diego had demanded that Hahn’s firm develop 1.5 million square feet in its forsaken downtown as a condition for building more malls on the outskirts. Jerde hastily formed his partnership. He built a model out of cardboard, abandoning the straight line altogether for a crooked walk that changed orientation and elevation. Built for $140 million, Horton Plaza opened in 1985. It revitalized the historic gas-lamp district nearby, reversing the usual scenario in which the shopping mall drains the life out of downtown.

While Horton Plaza was under construction, Jerde, along with the graphic designers of Sussman/Prejza, brought a visual cohesion to the 1984 Summer Olympics and all of Los Angeles that the city hasn’t enjoyed since. The materials they used were cheap or rented; nothing was meant to last. Their rainbow banners, orange scaffolds, yellow cones, blue spheres, and salmon stars tied together 1,000 miles. The strange, overwhelming feeling of inclusion during those few precious weeks—it was the ecstasy of the Long Beach Pike, the Tuscan hill town, the cocoon of white light.

In the late ’80s Jerde rebuilt Del Mar Plaza as an Italian village. He pried the lid off Newport Beach’s enclosed Fashion Island, introduced colonnades and side streets and sidewalk cafes. For EuroDisney he designed a “utopian suburb” with the density of Paris. His plans were scrapped, but he cribbed his EuroDisney ideas for CityWalk. “It’s a great simulacrum of what L.A. should do,” he says of his most controversial work. “This isn’t the L.A. we did get, but it’s the L.A. we could have gotten—the quintessential, idealized L.A.”

It is a formula he’s since implemented from Las Vegas to Rotterdam. “Everyone has this fantasy dream of where you live,” he says, “and it’s undoubtedly not real. It’s not the one you live in, it’s your fantasy of it. It could be a high or low fantasy—a fantasy of how awful it is or a fantasy of how great it is. So what I try to do is sit and look at you long enough, to where I can figure out what the fantasy is and build it for you. So that when you walk over one day, there it is.”

 

The critical assault on Jerde amounts to this: His architecture is a parody of a city, with all the grit and complexity wiped away. The architect, in thrall to the commercial developer, has built counterfeit space for private profit. He is ushering in that terrible future in which global capitalism dictates our civic life as relentlessly as it does our economic life. And his buildings are plain ugly; the corny surface flash of their facades masks the cheap stucco and dull interiors beneath. In her book The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, former New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable condemns Horton Plaza. “The ultimate absurdity is achieved,” she writes, “an edited and appropriated version of exactly those distinguishing organic features of a city that characterize it, reduced to a merchandising theme—the city as sales promotion.”

Jerde says he never reads any press about himself, although he’s retained a PR representative for the last seven years. When he gets signs of acceptance, like the time he and the Bellagio’s Steve Wynn were invited to address the Harvard Graduate School of Design, or when the American Institute of Architects made him a fellow, he’s buoyed.

One afternoon Jerde agrees to give me a guided tour through “At the End of the Century,” the traveling retrospective of world architecture from 1900 to 2000, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art. The idea is to explore how Jerde sees himself within the profession, and how the profession sees him. The coffee-table book for the exhibition doesn’t augur well. This “most comprehensive and up-to-date survey of 20th century architecture ever published” contains more references to Gehry than to Frank Lloyd Wright. There is no mention of Jerde.

Twentieth-century architecture, as Jerde tells it, was the triumph of Le Corbusier’s industrial modernism over Wright’s naturalism. “World War II slams the door shut,” he says. “After the war, modernism survives and the organic dies.” Inspecting the ’60s and ’70s skyscrapers that rise a couple of feet above his head, Jerde struggles to find anything positive. “I hate the era so much. These buildings do their damnedest to be inert, plus there’s this object adoration.” By the end of the century modernism may have receded, but Jerde doesn’t like postmodernism any better: “We’re at the strange period where the most important product an architect can create is celebrity.” Among architecture’s deities, Jerde’s still the son of the town drunk. He remembers attending a conference with Gehry, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, and Michael Graves. “I felt like the mud duck at a swan competition,” he says, because everything they are, I’m not.”

The MOCA show includes one Jerde work: his 1996 Canal City Hakata in Fukuoka, Japan. It’s crammed into a dead-end room devoted to “Disneyfication.” The light is poor, and Jerde can just make out the shape of the model’s winding canyon walls. He has his suspicions about why the curators have thrown in his architecture with Disney World. “The heartfelt honesty is so powerful that these guys would prefer to have me demeaned,” he says. “Canal City is `Disneyesque’ because it’s unreal. It would be a pleasure if they could get somebody to believe that my work falls under the same category, but I sure as hell don’t think so.”

While Jerde’s Canal City is tucked in a side room, Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao is up on the mezzanine, a gleaming capstone for the exhibition and an entire century of monumental architecture. Heading for the exit, Jerde leaves the last 100 years defiant and dour. “I don’t see any kind of alignment or agreement to make the world a better place. It looks like there’s an effort to make the world a signature place for self-aggrandizement and ego.”

Later I pay a visit to Frank Gehry in his Santa Monica office. His blue oxford shirt is rumpled as usual, his voice a murmur. Gehry says that while he admires Jerde, he can’t see too much unfairness in the division of today’s spoils—with himself getting most of the acclaim and Jerde getting the fat commissions. “It’s like when you make an art movie,” Gehry says. “You don’t make any money, but you get a lot of good press, and people love you. If you make a commercial movie, you make lots of money, and you’re at a different level.” When they ran into each other at a conference, Gehry says, it was Jerde himself who chose to remain apart: “He was a loner. He didn’t seem to want to spend any time with me. He walked away. I probably wanted to go have a drink and talk to him, but he just acted very busy.” When I tell Gehry about Jerde’s feeling like “the mud duck at a swan competition” at events like these, he’s exasperated. “Tell him to go see a shrink. That’s a bunch of bullshit. It’s not true. It’s not true. He pushed me away.” Then Gehry puts it in perspective. “Well, I always think I’m going bankrupt, and I’m not,” he says. “So we all have our psychological things.”

Jerde has his defenders. His friend Robert Timme, dean of USC’s architecture school, is convinced that Jerde will be recognized as one of the significant architects of our day. Great public spaces have always been where the markets are,” Timme says. “Maybe for a time we’d lost the excitement of the market or bazaar, and Jon’s brought that back into the language of architecture.” Ann Bergren, a Harvard-trained architect and UCLA classics professor, is also a Jerde champion. He is, she declares, the supreme architect of pleasure. “Jerde’s work exposes the poverty and passe-ness of the intellectual categories that we’ve inherited from the late 19th and early 20th century,” Bergren tells me. “This line of criticism, that you cant have public space sponsored by corporate entities—who indeed decides what is a public space, the critics or the public that frequents it?”

Perhaps the boldest case for Jerde was made by Arata Isozaki. The celebrated Japanese architect called Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao and Jerde’s Canal City in Fukuoka the two most important projects of the last few years of the 20th century. Built hard by Fukuoka’s geisha quarter and strip bars, Canal City is a sculptural wonder, with its huge hollowed exteriors, rich colors, and contortions that seem the work of the earth’s own tectonic forces. One rainy mid-week afternoon I climbed its escalators, skirting Japan’s first AMC multiplex, the Muji department store, the Gap, and the 1,100-seat theater where The Lion King was being staged. At the top I got the Olympian view.

Jerde says he drew his inspiration for Canal City from a trip he took through the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona. Looking down through the drizzle, I see the resemblance. The great chasm of the shopping center is painted the colors of decomposed sandstone and pale green chaparral. A stream runs along its floor. Instead of Native American dwellings lining the right bank, there’s a creperie and a Parisian café. A half dome stretches high above a canal-side stage, forming a vast amphitheater. Of all the Jerde projects I’ve visited, Canal City’s architecture is the most beautifully imagined. The buildings, it seems, have at last caught up with the spaces between them.

 

The last time I see Jerde, he is guzzling a Diet Coke at a Greenwich Village cafe in Las Vegas, awaiting his cue to give the keynote speech for a new-economy seminar at the Times Square Bar. “I’m supposed to be reading The New York Times, as if I’m just one of the street-scene people,” he says, smiling wearily. When he saw the plans for the New York, New York Hotel and Casino, Jerde had a reaction not unlike CityWalk’s critics. “I thought that this was the ultimate degradation of Las Vegas,” he says. “But then when the skyline came up, and it was a thing unto itself, I thought it was pretty cool.” Not that he sees any comparisons between New York, New York and his own work. “This is chaos cubed,” he says. “You go down the street, turn left, and you’ll never find your way back.”

As much as anyone, Jerde brought the concept of the distilled cityscape to Las Vegas. The Venetian, Paris, and New York, New York all rose after he designed the Bellagio master plan for Steve Wynn in 1995. The night before, thousands were gathered there, and at the Fremont Street Experience and the Palms, which he also created. But Jerde was not among them. He ordered room service, didn’t even come down to check out the casinos. He hates gambling as much as he hates shopping. “My suite was humongous,” he says, “with a bedroom, den, and living room. Being alone in it was ridiculous.” After his speech Jerde calls for his airport limo and hands me the key to his suite. He’s already checked out, but he wants me to see its opulence for myself. On the full bar, the $300 pile of chips the hotel manager gave him is left untouched.

That evening I wander over to the Fremont Street Experience—a canopy of 2.1 million lights that has remade Vegas’s historic core into a pedestrian mall. The old neon is still here: the Pioneer Club cowboy with his jabbing thumb, the ’50s blond temptress of Glitter Gulch. Tourists and locals abandon the casinos, restaurants, and strip bars for the middle of the street to watch Jerde’s sky go ablaze. There’s as much chatter as at a fairgrounds on the Fourth of July. The 540,O00-watt sound system booms an electric beat. Jimi Hendrix’s Stratocaster rockets over our heads to the tune of “Purple Haze.” An angry drunk is giving me an earful. “This used to be my street,” he yells, “and now they’ve turned it into a sidewalk.”

Beyond the canopy, Fremont Street hobbles along. A half-built mall squats in a buffer zone; then come the greasy burger joints and empty storefronts. Police are questioning a suspected shoplifter, and members of the Skoners motorcycle gang are roaming five abreast, their emblem a skeleton’s hand grasping the throttle.

As I’m reeling from the grime and hopelessness, I hear again the familiar arguments against Jerde’s sanitized, derivative spaces. Except his Fremont Street Experience isn’t so sanitized after all. The angry drunk is still here among the tourists, as are the other hard-core cases not to be found at New York, New York or the Venetian. As Las Vegas makes ever more inflated versions of itself, Jerde has shrunk this street. He’s made it as intimate and knowable as perhaps it was in the 1940s, before the Strip sealed its decline.

More than any other Jerde work, the Fremont Street Experience is shot through with the architect’s own loneliness and sense of loss. We enjoy the human interaction, yet we can’t shrug off the knowledge that the interaction must now be staged. No longer can our communal spaces grow organically, take shape over hundreds of years, like the Tuscan hill town that embraced a younger Jerde like family. As I leave the refuge that he’s created for us, the city’s overdevelopment and blight hit me with blunt force. We may have to live in this landscape spiraling beyond our control, but once in a while it’s a relief to dart back beneath Jon Jerde’s canopy, stroll a street that leads to nowhere, and surrender to the white light.


This feature was originally published in the February 2002 issue of Los Angeles magazine

 

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