When Jon Jerde first visited Europe in his early 20s, fresh from the USC School of Architecture, he was truly amazed by the urban civilization he encountered.
"Europe was a revelation to a green young Angeleno," Jerde recalled. "Long periods of trial and error, of tuning and refining have gone into the creation of great cities like Paris, London, Rome or Amsterdam. But I realized that in America we really didn't have the time to go through such a slow city growth. We needed a different urban script."
This search for "a different urban script" to orchestrate the evolution of American cities has raised Jerde, 47, to national and international prominence. Along with Frank Gehry, Jerde is increasingly featured on the global design stage as L.A.'s quintessential architect. Where Gehry is celebrated as an architectural artist, Jerde's reputation rests on his achievements as a designer of large-scale urban environments.
His vision for Los Angeles is taken from a panoramic perspective.
Cancer or Tulips?
"Photos of the Los Angeles metropolitan region taken from a high-altitude LANDSAT satellite resemble pictures of either a huge and malignant cancer, or vast field of tulips," he said. "To me it is potentially either of these things, and that's its unique glory."
Los Angeles, defined as a continuously settled territory stretching from the Mexican border to the edges of the Silicon Valley, from the mid-Pacific to eastern Arizona, "is a third-millenium city without precedent in the history of urban settlement," Jerde said. He is excited by what he sees as the region's chance "to create a huge and wonderful mixing bowl for a great diversity of people, or a disaster on a grand scale."
"This is our time," he said. "When L.A. really begins to happen, everyone will be astounded. One way or another, the result will blow your socks off."
Beyond his extremely busy role as president of the Jerde Partnership, an 80-strong professional practice on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, Jerde is active in several groups concerned with raising local consciousness about issues of urban design.
Man of Many Jobs
Nominated by the Cultural Affairs Commission to the newly created Mayor's Design Advisory Panel, Jerde also contributes to the LA 2000 Committee reviewing the city's long-range options. In addition, he is vice president of the Urban Design Advisory Coalition, a group of top architectural and planning professionals formed to create a forum for the discussion and advocacy of urban issues.
The potentially influential Design Advisory Panel will have two main goals. One will be to establish a panel of architects to advise the Cultural Affairs Commission in its statutory responsibility of design review over projects on public sites. The other will be to select five or six major developments commissioned annually by municipal agencies for special treatment, such as attracting first-rate designers into the public arena by helping them speed their designs through the city bureaucracy.
"Los Angeles can rise to great occasions," Jerde said. "Remember the 1984 Olympics? But why doesn't everyday L.A. look and feel as great as it should? Why does our city cry out for coherence?"
The Jerde Partnership coordinated the design of the '84 Olympics. With limited time and scant money, the Olympic design team transformed the Games venues, and several of the major boulevards, with a festive array of colorful, lightweight structures, street banners and a sprinkling of "fallen stars" that seemed to have been scattered over the metropolis by Olympian gods.
"If there were a special gold medal for creative ingenuity," Time magazine wrote, "the U.S. Olympic design team should win it."
Projects in Many Cities
The Jerde Partnership is engaged on a wide range of large-scale projects on several continents and is active in many U.S. cities. In Southern California, the partnership is best known for its designs for San Diego's massive Horton Plaza downtown shopping center, the Westside Pavilion on Pico Boulevard, and downtown Los Angeles' Seventh Market Place on Figueroa Street.
Horton Plaza is a typically bold Jerde design. A double-curved internal "street" slashes through the 11-acre, five-level complex. Bell towers, free-flying arches, Missionary style gables, and Moorish parapets jostle with a triangular corner chunk of multicolored mosaic copied from Florence's San Miniato al Monte Cathedral.