I love the two columns in this issue of Architect: Danielle Rago’s interview with emerging talent Jimenez Lai of Bureau Spectacular and Karrie Jacobs’ reflection on the work of the late Jon Jerde. It’s a great juxtaposition of subjects. If historian Charles Jencks were to include both designers in one of his evolutionary diagrams of modern architecture, they’d belong in roughly the same genomic zone, the one labeled “Gleeful Outsiders.”
I met Jerde once, sometime around the turn of the millennium, on a visit to his firm’s oceanfront studio in Venice Beach, Calif. Curiously, his personal workspace was windowless, a proto–man cave painted midnight blue and filled, as I recall, with Navajo blankets and low-slung, vaguely Middle Eastern lounge furniture.
This wasn’t a typical stop for an editor from Architecture. On Southern California scouting trips, architects like Michael Maltzan, FAIA, Hodgetts + Fung, and Eric Owen Moss, FAIA, were the big attractions (and still are, truth be told). I added Jerde to the itinerary because his practice intrigued me, even though the work—themed casinos, entertainment destinations, and the like—fell outside the magazine’s high-culture remit.
Jerde, somewhat like John Portman, FAIA, in the preceding generation and much like Morris Lapidus in the generation before that, was an apostate, a promising designer snubbed by the cognoscenti for subverting the canon to popular and commercial ends.
Lapidus famously tweaked the International Style with Breakfast at Tiffany’s glamour, while Portman got rich with his for-profit variant of urban renewal, rendered with Playboy-era classiness in mirrored glass and béton brut. Jerde was a postmodernist, a deft manipulator of symbols during his salad days in the early ’80s, when he designed the Los Angeles Olympics. And like Portman and Lapidus, Jerde always exhibited an affinity for planning, the subtle art of moving people through public places. The rub, as Jacobs notes in her essay, is that the places in question were often actually private.
The best of these environments—Horton Plaza in San Diego, the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, Canal City Hakata in Fukuoka, Japan—may be revenue-driven, but they were also developed and designed to please. That’s not a bad goal. A similar solicitude infuses Bureau Spectacular projects such as Giant Urban Toys, a scheme for vacant lots that Lai describes as “sprinkling Skittles” on the “urban voids of an American downtown.” His work is more witty and self-conscious than Jerde’s, touched as it is by the cerebralism of OMA and Venturi, Scott Brown. It remains to be seen how the challenges of full-scale building will affect Lai’s design sensibilities.
In our January 2013 cover story on Millennials, Lai told ARCHITECT that when architects “talk about solving other world problems … in my mind, they’re effectively forfeiting the very thing they’re supposed to be an expert on. If we’re not going to cultivate formalism, who will?” It’s essential, of course, that the profession maintain its focus on social justice and the environment. But it’s also worthwhile to be reminded in our earnestness that aesthetics matter, laughter is a basic need, and architecture can be a good time.