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City Review : Horton Plaza: Hope, Hype : San Diego Retail Center Reshapes Downtown Area

August 18, 1985|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Times Urban Design Critic

SAN DIEGO — This aspiring city seeking to lend some color to its bland downtown has reshaped a former red-light district into an imaginative retail complex and repainted it in pastels.

Covering about six city blocks totaling 11.5 acres, the complex known as Horton Plaza is a dazzling display of urban design, architectural allegories, festive decorations, sprightly coloring and conspicuous commercialism.

Though not particularly subtle, there is no denying that the playful architecture, an amalgam of Mediterranean and Post Modern styles orchestrated by The Jerde Partnership, and the decorations and color palette applied by Sussman/Prejza & Co., brims over with mass appeal.

If a label must be applied to the architectural style, it could be Populist Post Modernism. As for its commercial appeal, that will have to await time and fickle public tastes.

Whatever, the $140-million plaza developed by Ernest W. Hahn Inc. sprawls in sharp and welcome contrast to the antiseptic new office towers begining to dominate downtown, while making friendly gestures in scale and tone to the adjacent and struggling historic 16-block Gaslamp Quarter.

It also plays well off of the original Horton Plaza, a modest park crafted 75 years ago by Irving Gill and happily recently restored instead of redesigned.

To those with some discretionary income or credit, the complex should be fun to stroll through, which is, of course, the ultimate test of any shopping center. And despite the reams of publicity heralding it as a living landmark of an urban renaissance, the plaza really is just a shopping center, albeit cleverly designed and decorated.

(But not so cleverly so as to hide the mechanical equipment on its roofs. Looking down at Horton Plaza from a nearby office building is like looking down on a junkyard.)

As a shopping center experienced on foot, the multilevel, multicolored, multiangled, open-air maze of steps, ramps, passageways, terraces, arcades and courts serving a variety of stores, eateries and theaters is a refreshing departure from the usual hermetically sealed, climate-controlled, predictable, homogenized shopping malls that have marked suburbia and mauled downtowns over the last few decades.

Developed by Hahn in concert with the city's Centre City Development Corp., the 900,000-square-foot complex featuring about 185 facilities--fewer than a third of which opened for business last weekend--carries with it the hope of reviving downtown San Diego as a retail and entertainment center to compete with the region's burgeoning suburban developments.

Giving the plaza considerable retail heft are four major department stores: Robinson's, The Broadway, Mervyn's and Nordstrom. Helping also, when opened within the next half year, will be a 25,000-square-foot Irvine Ranch Farmers Market, two performing arts theaters, a seven-screen cinema and a smorgasbord of restaurants.

Still to come is a 450-room luxury hotel and the conversion of an adjacent movie house, the Balboa, which has seen better days, into an arts center. The total is calculated to turn the complex into a yuppie paradise.

Hahn recalled recently that there was recognition from the start of the planning process for the plaza, nearly eight years ago, that something distinctive was needed to attract people downtown, "not another standardized, sterile center we and others have built."

John W. Gilchrist of the Hahn corporation added that the attempt was to create "a people place, a city within a city."

It was with this in mind that the corporation sought out Jerde, who in turn and in time brought in Sussman/Prejza. They are the same team that coordinated the shape and look of the 1984 Olympics and teamed again more recently to design and decorate the Westside Pavilion shopping center at the cluttered intersection of Pico and Westwood boulevards in West Los Angeles.

However, Horton Plaza is not as ethereal as the Olympics nor as overdesigned as the Pavilion--except for the Nordstrom there, that was designed by the Callison Partnership of Seattle with a rare combination of panache and a respect for materials. The firm also did the Nordstrom at the Horton Plaza with the same flair and care. And unlike most of the Olympic facilities designed by Jerde, the plaza will not be taken down after a two-week run.

Happily, the plaza is a refinement of Jerde's experiments at the Westside Pavilion and the Olympics. "The Olympics tuned our act," said the architect at the opening, adding later on a tour of the complex that he also borrowed "the essence" of various select architectural works. One can see in the design the influence of architects ranging from Filippo Brunelleschi to Michael Graves.

Certainly, the plaza is one of the more ambitious and distinctive shopping complexes to rise out of the dust of urban renewal over the last decade.

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