"My desire is to bring people together in great urban places," Jerde said. "The key to this revival of communal urban life in America, after decades of suburban isolation and alienation, is to transform the regional shopping center, that creature of the suburbs, into a place where people gather, mingle and interact." Jerde has said: "Urban and suburban Americans seldom stroll aimlessly, as Europeans do, to parade and rub shoulders in a crowd. We need a destination, a sense of arrival at a definite location. My aim, in developments such as Horton Plaza and the Westside Pavilion, is to provide a destination that is also a public parade and a communal center.
L.A. an Ideal Lab
"Los Angeles, where the suburban city was first modeled on a major scale, is an ideal laboratory for this kind of urban evolution. Every city in the world has an element of L.A. built into its tensions and its shape."
Jerde grew up against a background of the oil industry. His father, an oil rig construction foreman, traveled with his wife and son from drilling site to drilling site around the region.
"Oil field trash--that's what folks called us," Jerde, a compact, intense, quick-thinking man, said. "My mother was an alcoholic. My father was usually away working. As a lonely kid, I collected trash items and built them into back-yard constructions. I lived totally in my head and had no friends. Out of the garbage I modeled miniature buildings--post offices, a saloon, a spaceship, whole communities. I guess I'm still doing it, on a somewhat grander scale."
The lonely child persists in the man. At his estate in Mandeville Canyon, dominated by an extraordinary house built of massive timbers reclaimed from the old wooden Venice Pavilion, Jerde likes to spend his evenings sitting alone in a redwood "throne" facing a deep gorge cut into the naked hillside. During last year's "harmonic convergence" he descended with a few close friends into the depths of Arizona's Canyon de Chelly to commune with the ghosts of the vanished Anasazi people who first settled the Southwest.
Seeking Peace, Love
"I'm a relic of the '60s," he said, with a wry smile. "Yet another aging hippie, who likes to worship nature and dream of an age of synchronous passions, when all mankind will converge in peace and love.
"I guess my lonely childhood made it difficult for me to know how to relate intimately, to friends or family. My personal relationships have often been, well--awkward. Maybe I've compensated for this with a strong sense of sympathy for humanity at large."
Married and divorced three times, father of a grown son and daughter and two little girls, Jerde lives alone but treasures a few close friends accumulated over the years of a hectic life spent in long hours of work and thousands of miles of occupational travel. But he always shines in public.
"Give Jon a platform or a stage and he's amazing," said Jane Pisano, director of the LA 2000 Committee. "His high energy level and his pragmatic experience make him very persuasive. What I appreciate most about Jon is his complete lack of cynicism. His ideas are always constructive and immensely hopeful."
A Charming Idealist
"Jon is our fabulous front man," said Jerde senior designer Bill De Eiel. "He can charm a bunch of tough-minded businessmen or politicians into letting him take incredible chances with their resources. Though he's an idealist, they know they can trust him with their money."
The idealism showed in an early professional policy document titled "Scripting the City," in which Jerde described his intention to "revitalize the communal environment with the support of corporations and communities."
Aiming for "colonies of cohesion in an act of co-creation" between architects, planners, clients, community activists, politicians, sociologists and others, Jerde hoped "to combine the series of isolated neighborhoods and ego-centered individual buildings that characterize our cities back into a coherent and humane environment."
But first he had to find the means. Instead of isolating himself in the defensive and haughty antagonism most idealistic young architects develop in response to the "philistinism" of commercial clients, Jerde plunged into the heart of the business world.
Learned at Large Firm
In the mid-1960s he worked for Charles Kober Associates, a national design firm specializing in suburban shopping malls. At Kober, Jerde learned every aspect of the shopping center industry, from marketing and leasing to the economics of retail architecture.
"Gradually I pioneered radical changes in the character of these centers," he said, "to integrate them into the communities they served, by making them truly public places, centers in every sense of the word. I began to see how such places, built and organized for purely commercial purposes, could energize a community, to the great benefit of tenants and owners, and to the people who use these shopping malls every day."