Jon Jerde
Jon Jerde

In The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion (1997), Ada Louise Huxtable wrote this about a Jon Jerde project: “The social stroll has become a sensuous assault.” She was discussing one of the architect’s more perverse exercises, the Fremont Street Experience (1995) in downtown Las Vegas. When I first heard about it, I thought the whole concept of taking a downtown street and covering it with a giant canopy embedded with millions of lights seemed like sacrilege, urbanistically speaking, even if that street was already a seedy stretch of casinos. I hated the idea. But I didn’t actually visit the project until eight years later. Some Las Vegas pals, hardcore design aficionados, were showing me their favorite spots in the city. One of them was a bar with a view straight down Fremont. After a drink, they led me outside to stand under the canopy. When the overhead light and music show, called Viva Vision, began, this sophisticated couple dove into the crowd and began to shimmy. More recently, I spent the better part of a week in downtown Las Vegas, inspecting the beachhead of hipsterdom that Zappos mogul Tony Hsieh has been installing there. But the thing that impressed me most was not the Hsieh empire, with its shipping container shopping mall and fire-spewing praying mantis sculpture, but the Fremont Street Experience. The dazzling graphics of the overhead show—jumbo psychedelic flowers or scenes from outermost space, paired with classic rock—had surprising emotional power. I felt as if I were walking into a remix of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the 19th-century glass-covered shopping arcade. But unlike Jerde’s Bellagio (also in Las Vegas), loosely inspired by a town on Lake Como, the Fremont Street Experience isn’t a copy of anything. It is simply, as Huxtable put it, a “sensuous assault.” Unlike Huxtable, I mean it as a compliment.

“Consumption is the Addiction of the American”
Jerde, who died in February at age 75, described himself not as an architect but as a “place maker.” Indeed, it’s emblazoned in bold type on the bottom of every page of the website for his Venice, Calif.–based firm, the Jerde Partnership: “PlaceMaking since 1977.” As the date implies, Jerde was a solidly late 20th-century practitioner. America’s most distinguished 19th-century place maker, Frederick Law Olmsted, wouldn’t have labeled himself that way. Places, in Olmsted’s day, did not have to be consciously made. His works were intended as respites from existing places, more like anti-places. As for the 21st-century professionals who might be thought of as place makers (landscape architects such as James Corner), they tend to downplay the cunning techniques they use to deftly wed public and private terrain, and instead portray themselves as fabricators of “authenticity.”

Place making, à la Jerde, was really a product of the 1960s, an antidote to the soulless environments generated by urban renewal. The discipline’s early champions, like Jane Jacobs and William Whyte, were specifically concerned with public places. Jerde’s approach to place making, by contrast, was about fashioning private space that mimicked public space. His goal was to lure ordinary Americans out of their suburban backyards and into something akin to communal experience. He believed there was one way to do it: “The only possible public experience that you could have at all, ever, was in shopping,” he said in a 2001 interview with the University of Southern California’s news website. “Consumption is the addiction of the American.”

Indeed, his breakout project, Horton Plaza, which opened in 1985, turned a section of downtown San Diego into a colorful open-air shopping mall, a sugarcoated version of an urban business district. It was wildly successful, attracting 25 million visitors in its first year.

Horton Plaza
Mike Liu Horton Plaza

Jerde leaves behind a legacy of “places”—more than 100 of them around the world—that generally use publicly spirited strategies to further consumption. The archetypal Jerde project is Universal’s City Walk in Los Angeles (1993), a shopping mall in the form of a pumped up, mythologized version of Hollywood Boulevard. Jerde also designed the Mall of America in Minneapolis (1992) which, with its 500-plus stores and branded attractions (the Nickelodeon Universe, the Barbie Dreamhouse Experience) comes across more as a French theorist’s mean joke about America than as a place where you’d go to buy socks.

Of course, publicly spirited strategies deployed on private property sometimes have unintended consequences. In December, political activists wanted to stage a Black Lives Matter protest in suburban Minnesota. When protesters quickly filled the Mall of America’s multi-tiered atrium, a giant LED display screen, situated between two towering Christmas trees, lit up with a dire warning: Disperse immediately or face arrest. The Mall of America has a long history of banning protest. In 1997, a Minnesota district court ruled that public subsidies to the mall meant it was “born of a union with the government” and had to allow the exercise of free speech. But that decision was overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The upshot: There’s a crucial difference between “places” and places.

“Communal Experience is a Designable Event”
As I look back on Jerde’s career, I’m surprised at how ubiquitous his firm’s work has become; indeed, I’m amazed by how many of his creations I’ve visited without even realizing it. I once stayed at the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas—the one with pirates battling out front—because it was cheap and convenient. It didn’t even occur to me that it was Jerde’s. When I toured the Palms Casino Resort, a Las Vegas tower geared to hipsters, I took in the Wallpaper-sleek lounges and heard about how the hotel was the setting for a season of MTV’s The Real World. I never distinguished Jerde’s imprint.

Perhaps it’s not that Jerde became more subtle during his career, but that faux places, with all their brightness and hyperactivity, have become so commonplace that his handiwork is harder to notice. Occasionally, Jerde’s environments, over time, shed their eager-to-please quality and, like the Fremont Street Experience, merge with the urban landscape. The Bellagio, for instance, is an overtly fake slice of Northern Italy, but the dancing fountain out front (courtesy of WET Design) has become an indigenous piece of Las Vegas, a manufactured spectacle that now feels like a civic monument.

Jerde was ahead of his time, but the world has caught up. Now, the social stroll is almost always a sensuous assault. This is something I noticed on my last visit to Santa Monica Place, a mall in that city’s downtown, originally designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, back when he still worked for Gruen Associates. Previously, I’d only ever set foot in the building to use its parking garage or its restrooms. But on a trip to L.A. a couple of years ago, I discovered that it had been remade by Jerde. As his firm’s website puts it, this was “the first mall remodel project that actually transforms an existing mall into an urban place.” I wouldn’t go that far, but Jerde’s rehab peeled off the complex’s roof and turned the upper floors into an attractive open-air dining court.

The night I stopped in for dinner, the main level of the mall, ringed by illuminated palm trees, was crammed with people dancing. I learned that a TV reality show called Mobbed was there shooting an episode and had invited hundreds of extras to form a “flash mob.” A flash mob, especially one conjured up for a reality show, is something less than spontaneous. But the scene, an atrium full of dancers—with some circus acts in the middle—was so far over the top that the contrived event turned into a genuine phenomenon. The fake flash mob in this newly minted “urban place” was—like much of contemporary life—a mille-feuille of the simulated and the real, layer upon layer upon layer. Which is a pretty apt way of understanding the vision of Jon Jerde, whose motto, long before it became conventional wisdom, was “communal experience is a designable event.”