Jon Jerde photographed at the firm's Venice, Los Angeles studio in 2004.
Joe Pugliese Jon Jerde photographed at the firm's Venice, Los Angeles studio in 2004.

Jon Jerde, best known for his “experiential” designs of retail-oriented urban complexes, passed away on Feb. 9. He founded his firm, The Jerde Partnership, in 1977. The 95-person operation continues and is based in Venice, Calif., with additional offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Seoul.

Born in Alton, Ill., Jerde lived a nomadic childhood that was untethered to any specific place. During these years, he used his imagination to construct communities with found refuse, but he eventually overcame what he described as loneliness and explained to a reporter later in his career that, “I really love crowds." That affinity would mark many of his signature projects that were usually addressed to popular rather than prevailing professional tastes.

He developed his view of place making while traveling across Europe on a $3,500 travel fellowship from the University of Southern California. Following graduation from USC’s School of Architecture in 1964, he joined Burke, Kober, Nicholais, Archuleta—a firm that specialized in retail design during the post-war boom in suburban shopping malls.

The Jerde Partnership opened in 1977 with a commission to transform a failing mall in San Diego. The renovation of Horton Plaza opened to accolades in 1985 and set a standard for Jerde’s subsequent projects—imaginative urban spaces that were publicly engaging and highly profitable. Jerde was elevated to the AIA’s College of Fellows in 1990.

His most architecturally significant project may very well have been the most ephemeral. Jerde led the planning and design of the highly acknowledged 1984 Olympics Games in Los Angeles. Tasked with developing a cohesive design strategy on an extraordinarily tight budget, Jerde provided a comprehensive kit of inexpensive design parts that integrated 130 venues across Southern California. The memorable, yet temporary, installations provided a remarkably cohesive identity for the games that eschewed the grossly expensive and bombastic architectural statements that marked most Olympics before and after.

Later in the 1980s, Jerde designed Canal City Hakata as a new retail center, completed in 1996 in Fukuoka, Japan. AsiaWeek named Fukuoka “Best City in Asia” in 1997.

Jerde helped conceive the 1992 Mall of America outside Minneapolis, a 4.87-million-square-feet facility that draws 40 million shoppers each year. The Universal CityWalk, completed in Los Angeles in 1993, is a shopping mall that combines elements of an entertainment district and urban street to create one of the city’s most economically successful retail destinations.

Upon the 1998 opening of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, casino magnate Steve Wynn told The New York Times that “Jon Jerde is the Bernini of our time.” His playful, historicist designs in Las Vegas also included the Fremont Street Experience. These projects helped establish Sin City as an upscale vacation destination not solely defined by gambling that’s now barely recognizable as the place that inspired Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s seminal 1972 study.

In the early 2000s, Newsweek named Jerde “Designer of the Decade.” He won the 2004 AIA Los Angeles Gold Medal. Jerde left his eponymous firm in 2013 and was battling cancer and Alzheimer’s disease when he died. He was 75.

Jerde’s legacy, in the short term, would seem to be mixed. He helped create commercially successful urban-scaled environments—and started doing so during the 1970s, when the downtowns of American cities were at a particular low point. It’s possible to consider his work a more elaborate and exuberant variation of the festival marketplace idea pioneered by AIA Gold Medal winner Benjamin Thompson. But Jerde’s most successful projects—by conception and design—often remained hermetic and ultimately private in their actual use. Only time will tell how these designs survive as urban places of true memory and value.

See more of Jerde’s work with The Jerde Partnership in ARCHITECT’s Project Gallery