Jon Jerde often said “the communal experience is a designable event,” and he proved it over and over during a 50-year-career. The architect, who died this week at 75, created ersatz downtowns, really elaborate malls with vast garages. His most famous project was Universal CityWalk, a hilltop shopping-and-entertainment center in Los Angeles, completed in 1993. Herbert Muschamp, the longtime architecture critic of The New York Times, admired CityWalk’s showbiz vitality. Jerde, he famously wrote, was more likely to be nominated for an Oscar than a Pritzker.
Photo © Gina Sabatella
But Jon Adams Jerde, FAIA, was one of the most successful architects of the last half century, and he achieved that without building mansions or other indulgences of the rich. Architects, he said, “were trained to be in service to the elite. I wanted to build for ordinary people.” Craig Hodgetts, the Los Angeles architect, who worked on several Jerde projects, said, “Jon’s vision rarely, if ever, coincided with the norms of architectural practice, and as a result he has been denied entry to the pantheon of Master Architects. I know he was frustrated by this, though he was never persuaded to turn his back on his basic passion–making places for people rather than monuments to power. He was, I would venture to say, a transformative designer who nearly single-handedly dragged developers, city planners, and even some architects back into the streets, the plazas, and the places that he loved and emulated.”
Born in rural Illinois, Jerde grew up poor, and he was able to study architecture only after a chance meeting in 1958 with a University of Southern California dean, who offered him a scholarship. In 1963, he won a $3,500 grant to travel through Europe, where spaces like Venice’s San Marco were a revelation. Back in L.A., he found himself at a firm that designed malls, but not the kind he envisioned. So he went out on his own in 1977, after a San Diego developer took a chance on him. The result, a five-story retail and entertainment complex called Horton Plaza, was a runaway success. Around the same time, Jerde helped create the look of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Working with graphic designer Deborah Sussman, he created temporary banners, gateways, pylons, and other structures that united the city in delight.
Victor Gruen may have invented the shopping mall, but Jerde (with a bit of inspiration from James Rouse’s festival marketplaces) made it something altogether more exciting. The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, a massive study of malls, produced by Rem Koolhaas and his students in 2002, describes Jerde’s work as “an antidote to the suburban malaise generated by [Gruen’s] malls.” But in a chapter on the “Jerde Transfer,” architect Daniel Herman is none too kind to Jerde: “Whereas Gruen’s malls assaulted the shopper visually, Jerde’s malls wage a bodily assault. While the operation eliminates any sense of order or coherence, the intention remains as clear as day: to bewilder through three-dimensional bombardment.”
Jerde was a kind of post-modernist. And he did more in Las Vegas than learn. He designed the Fremont Street Experience, meant to gussy up downtown, and later helped create the Bellagio Hotel, a cash cow. (His client, Steve Wynn, self-servingly called him the Bernini of our era.) But most of his projects revolved around shopping; they included the vast Mall of America in Minnesota. According to Jerde, the mall was the place where public social life survived the fragmentation of the American city.
Naturally, Jerde was criticized for neglecting real downtowns, and for creating architectural pastiches. Asked how he handled the criticism, his widow, Janice Ambry Jerde (herself an architect), said, “Of course it hurt him, but he knew he wasn’t Frank Gehry. Frank redesigned iconic buildings, and he was making places.” She added that a few of the projects he was criticized for had been compromised by less-than-faithful clients. “Sometimes, he didn’t even want to go to the openings,” she said. She said his favorite projects were in Japan, where clients were more respectful of his wishes. In recent years, the firm took advantage of opportunities in Asia, opening offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Seoul.
In 2006, Jerde asked his wife to help manage the firm. They created a succession plan that would allow his partners to take control. The process was completed last year, ahead of schedule. “I could see he was getting ill, and I didn’t want that to hurt his partners and employees, so I triggered the sale early,” she said. If she resumes her own practice, she said, she may focus on ways of helping people age and die at home, the result of her experience this week: Jerde’s own death, at the house they designed in Brentwood, was, she said, as peaceful as a death could be. Meanwhile, Matt Heller, a spokesman for the Jerde firm, said that it now has 95 people and 20 to 30 active projects. “Jon's pioneering philosophies,” he said, “will live on.”