Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
America has lost a titan of design and planning. It's time that everyone learned his name.
America lost a titan of design and planning this week. It's time that everyone learned his name.
Jon Jerde, the architect who designed the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, died Monday at age 75. A list of his many accomplishments starts there and quickly turns global in scope. Noting them all here would hardly do his legacy justice.
More than any designer, Jerde took a quintessential American concern—consumerism—and gave it its built form. His theatrical shopping malls and urban centers are cathedrals of late capitalism. The Jerde Partnership, a global firm headquartered in Venice Beach, is represented by work on every continent but Antarctica; its architects work on up to 30 different design or planning projects at any given time.
His work is ubiquitous in the U.S., but the influence of the California architect extends far beyond his projects. The Guardian architecture critic Olly Wainwright writes that Jerde "revolutionised the shopping mall, blowing open the walls of the big box shed and injecting the magic of the theme park." Jerde designed much of what the world's citizens see when they go shopping:
More than any other designer, Jerde invented the model for the themed shopping experience. He constructed thrilling, multi-levelled worlds connected by spiral staircases and swooping ramps, supercharged urban stage sets that sampled styles from across time and place with promiscuous glee. His brand of “place making” has become the ubiquitous strategy for retail-led urban regeneration around the world, from Denver to Dubai. A billion people walk through a Jerde project every year, according to his practice. There is barely a city on the planet left untouched by his influence.
"How we got into this in the first place is I really love crowds," Jerde told the Sacramento Bee in 2002. The man could certainly attract them. Cities called on him to design monumental cityscapes in order to revive downtowns that were losing shoppers to suburban strip malls (which also drew on lessons from Jerde's work, in large and small ways).
Perhaps the greatest of these is the Fremont Street Experience. Over the course of the 1970s and '80s, retail and office tenants started moving away from downtown Las Vegas, while the city's casinos and gaming establishments gravitated toward The Strip. By simply capping four city blocks with a latticework canopy—and adding a light-show worthy of Vegas to the street itself—Jerde rescued this part of downtown. His planning work was less like architecture than irrigation: Jerde built new channels that redirect the flow of thrilled visitors.
Jerde's work is as divisive as it is ubiquitous, in part because he tended to champion the commercialism that his work embodied. In a 2002 profile in Los Angeles magazine, Ed Leibowitz contrasted Jerde's work with another prominent Postmodernist from Southern California:
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."
Not all the faults of the mall can be pinned on Jerde. There is no question that Jerde is the most copied architect of the last century, but he was not usually copied well. Hundreds upon hundreds of suburban shopping centers and strip malls lifted his columns, supports, multi-level frameworks, and love for exuberant color.
What his followers couldn't capture was critical: an indulgence as American as Andy Warhol, a theatricality as epic as Tennessee Williams, a spirt as carefree as a Golden Retriever. Jerde's design for Atlanta's World of Coca-Cola is one of the reasons that Coke tastes better than Pepsi.
It's hard to think about what some cities might look like without Jerde. His fingerprints are all over San Diego, Salt Lake City, and especially Los Angeles. And, increasingly, cities in China. According to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, fully one-third of the projects designed by the Jerde Partnership—very much still an active firm—are located in Asia.
He was describing one such project to CNN in 2000 when he outlined his philosophy in elegant terms. As the Los Angeles Times obituary explains:
Of particular pride to Jerde was Canal City Hakata, located in Fukuoka, Japan. Opening in 1996, with a canal winding through, it had the architect back in his element: revitalizing a city center that had waned.
"It's almost like having an old car you'd find in a barn that hasn't been started for, you know, for decades," he told CNN in 2000. "You figure out a way to reconstruct it, and turn the starter engine, and boom, it comes back to life.
"And you can take burned out cities and start them back up again, and it's a very exciting and rewarding thing."
The world may be turning the page on the mid-century shopping mall, abandoning it in favor of beige boxes hand delivered by Amazon drones. Fun and materialism aren't passing concerns. Jerde's influence will be felt long into this next century.