Invoking the spirit of dense, lively neighbor-hoods such as London’s Soho, Universal CityWalk employs neon signs, a pedestrian scale and an open ambiance to encourage movement through shops and venues.
Fantastical façades and style-conjoining jumble are signature. Elitists may sneer, but the architect of Bellagio and Universal CityWalk understands the stirrings of the suburban soul.

Jon Jerde: “People really yearned to go back to the old way, to get communal again.”

IT WAS 1958, AND JON ADAMS JERDE was struggling just to get by. He was hashing food in a UCLA fraternity house in exchange for room and board, walking around in shoes with holes in them, and saving precious pennies to pay the university’s $50 quarterly tuition. He wanted desperately to be an architect, but his ever-practical father had frowned on the idea. (“Architects have long hair and wear capes,” the elder Jerde was fond of saying.) So Jon had compromised, taking courses in engineering and art and, when the summer came, helping build houses. In his spare time, he’d sketch.
One afternoon Jerde was on an errand in a building inspector’s office when a dignified-looking man, curious about the bundle of sketches tucked under the young worker’s arm, asked to have a look. He was visibly impressed. “Do you want to be an architect?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” Jerde replied.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to UCLA.”
“You can’t study architecture at UCLA,” the man said. “There’s no program there. You have to go to USC.”
Jerde knew it, but there was no way he could afford the tuition. Sheepishly, he admitted as much.
“Baloney,” the man shot back, and he reached for a business card. “See me in my office Monday.”
Jerde stared at the card. It read: “Arthur Gallion. Dean. USC School of Architecture.” By Tuesday, thanks to an orchestration of loans and other financial aid, Jon Jerde was enrolled at USC.
Forty-three years later, his sketches have come to life as some of the most innovative – and controversial – public spaces around the world. In mass-culture meccas like Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles and the Bellagio hotel-casino in Las Vegas, Je

In designing Rotterdam’s Beursplein Promenade, Jerde consciously juxtaposed old and new, blending stone walls and portals with metal and glass.

rde has fused the twin addictions of shopping and entertainment to provide what he calls “urban glue.” His designs are fueled by the belief that the consumer public, though scattered by sprawl, still hungers for the crowds and energy of cities. Critics sneer that he is a slave to commercial interests, but during the 1990s the Jerde formula proved to be an economic panacea for burned-out urban districts from Rotterdam to Osaka.
Jerde’s populist successes have defied the traditions of his notoriously gentrified profession. Last April, when a major expansion of CityWalk was completed, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff pronounced that Jerde “has reached beyond the cultural elite to tap into the public imagination. And that public has flocked to his projects.”
His legacy at his alma mater, the USC School of Architecture – where he was named a Distinguished Alumnus in 1985 – is crystallizing. Last January, as a surprise for his 60th birthday, Jerde’s family and friends threw him a gala party that filled historic Union Station with more than 400 guests and a segment of the USC marching band. There, his wife Janice announced the creation of two endowments in Jerde’s name. One is a professorship nearly halfway in donations to the $1.5 million benchmark needed to elevate it to a chair. The first Jon Jerde Professor, California architect Steven Erlich, began teaching this spring.
The other endowment supports a traveling fellowship to be awarded to one graduating student each year. The prize has special meaning to Jerde: he had won a similar traveling fellowship to Europe upon graduation from USC. To this day he remembers how that trip opened his eyes to a world of architecture far larger than what’s taught in the classroom.
These days, Jerde divides his time between his home in the Santa Monica Mountains and the three-story building on Venice Beach that houses his architecture firm, The Jerde Partnership. Inside the building, tucked into a corner, the windowless, high-ceilinged office of the chairman of the board is painted in deep blue and red tones. The walls are crammed with books, knickknacks and objets d’art collected from around the world. It is mid-morning on a Wednesday, and Jerde – a short, trim man with

An axonometric drawing of San Diego’s Horton Plaza and surrounding buildings. The shopping center became a catalyst for revitalization in other parts of the city.

shaggy silver hair atop a ruddy face – is sitting upright on a sofa, puffing on a thin cigar. In his low, gravelly rumble of a voice, he speaks earnestly, punctuating his conversation with references to Eastern philosophy and by sketching on a pad in front of him.
Depending on when you catch him, Jerde can be charming and childlike with enthusiasm, or ruthlessly temperamental, prone to brooding introspection. But in meetings and presentations, colleagues agree it’s impossible not to be seduced by his intensity and vision. Harry Usher, who employed Jerde to work on the design of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, says in You Are Here, a retrospective of the architect’s work: “You can’t be around him describing a project without falling in love with him and the project.”

THE MAN WHO HAS SAID “the communal experience is a designable event” grew up never feeling part of a community. He was born in Alton, Ill., in 1940 – but that’s irrelevant, he says, because three days later he and his parents had moved on to someplace else. His father supervised construction on oil fields across the American West, so the family rarely knew a home for more than a few weeks. “We were oil-field trash,” Jerde says wryly. “We blew into town, and we blew out of town.”
Young Jon’s fascination with cities grew from those lonely days. His only friends were the construction workers who would let him onto work sites on weekends to play amidst the derricks. Jerde would stare wide-eyed at the hulking masses of steel, thinking how much they looked like the big-city skyscrapers he knew from newspaper photographs. He’d sneak into his father’s office and pretend the site was a miniature city, and that he was in charge. The only thing missing, he recalls, was people.
Jerde – whom friends describe as gregarious but a loner – yearned for the stimulation of being part of a crowd. After his family arrived in Los Angeles in 1952, he found warmth and community at Long Beach Pike, a since-torn-down amusement park south of Los Angeles. But it was the chance meeting with USC’s Dean Gallion in 1958 that changed Jerde’s life. “He still says that the day he came to USC, the sun came out for him,” notes Robert Timme, the current dean of the architecture school and a longtime friend.

Hoping to lure people back to San Diego’s ailing urban center, developer Ernest Hahn hired Jerde in 1977 to “create an irresistible place.” Jerde rejected the linear “dumbbell” mall plan – department stores anchoring each end of a long, straight concourse – for something more picturesque. Alternately narrow and wide, covered and open, with staggered levels, balconies, nooks, towers and bridges, Horton Plaza invites people-watching, transforming shopping into what Jerde calls passeggiata (Italian for “a stroll”).

At USC, Jerde was a serious student who painted and sculpted intensely. When he graduated in 1966, he became one of the first recipients of the USC Architectural Guild’s one-year traveling fellowships. He and his girlfriend (a Yale art student who later would become his first of four wives) drove his tiny car across Europe. After several months they stumbled upon the northern Italian hill towns built around public piazzas to facilitate chatting between neighbors. It was there that Jerde had the epiphany that would drive him away from the rigid Modernism he was steeped in as a student.
“What I had been taught in school was not right,” he remembers realizing. Architects “were trained to be in service to the elite. That is, to build museums and rich men’s houses and modern monuments.
I said, ‘I want to build stuff for the ordinary people.’”
At the time, however, America’s ordinary people were fleeing to the suburbs, leaving the shopping mall as one of the last outposts of community. For Jerde, who has always reviled shopping, designing malls was thus a bitter means to an end.
“Your realm became your backyard,” Jerde says of those days, “so that the only possible public experience that you could have at all, ever, was in shopping. Consumption is the addiction of the American.”
He spent three years on his own as an architect, even winning praise for his design of a proposed UCLA football stadium, but by 1967 he had decided he needed regular work. That year he became director of design at Burke, Kober, Nicholais, Archuleta – later to become Charles Kober Associates – the Southern California firm that pioneered the design of the early, box-like shopping mall.

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The Jerde Partnership International, Inc.

Universal City Walk

Banner photo by Eric Staudenmaier / Jerde photo by Nancy Rica Schiff / Beursplein photo by Tom de Rooij Fotografie / Horton Plaza photo by Benny Chan / section by Jerde Partnership International

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