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Electronic Baroque: Jerde Cities

The twentieth century ended in 1989, once the Wall came down. Afterward, from one continent to another, a strange blend of grotesquely primitive formations emerged, from Bosnian nightmares to warlord capitalism. At the same time, a genteel extreme emerged as well: the largest McDonald's was built in Moscow; suites for Korean high-rollers appeared in Las Vegas. The contrasts are staggering, and yet somehow ergonomic, for a world dominated increasingly by a new kind of corporate monopoly. Huge, newly enlarged (or even engorged) corporations are held together essentially by advertising campaigns and digital media - very much by an "easy-listening" model of power.

For cities caught inside these emerging contrasts, the Jerde Partnership has taken a unique role, as the builder of new paradigms "on every continent except Antarctica." As Jerde said, the city is condensed into "toy towns" with "cashbahs." The patina of old city markets is accelerated into a single building cycle. Indeed, the shopping center of the early Cold War has matured into a full blown city of sorts. But what kind is that? Like late medieval cities, it has expanded beyond its walls and entered city streets themselves. The outdoor shopping near the old mall in Burbank, California, has sprawled, as has Jerde's Horton Plaza into the turn-of-the-century Gaslamp District across the street.

This process can be compared to Baroque cities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - after the old medieval walls were removed. In spaces beyond the walls or the palace grounds, sculptural fantasies were added. In the electronic Baroque today, global franchise capitalism blends with moviefantasies and suburbanism with nostalgia for an industrial city that has disappeared. As the mall has evolved into urban planning, we inhabit a world where entertainment and the world economy merge.

At the center of the electronic Baroque is illusion as a "scripted space," where the walk is designed carefully, not unlike the levels on a computer game. Bernini helps us understand the purpose of these phantasmagoria. "To make of Time a thing stupendous," he wrote. This could be understood not only as frozen allegory, a movement implied in an animated gesture, but also the pedestrian's time: a walk past the fountain, the altar, under the dome, into the piazza. During this passage, a story unfolds, based on forced perspective, trompe l´œil, what scholars call points of projection. In some cases, like the interiors designed by Andrea Pozzo in the early eighteenth century, marble disks were assigned, as vantage points, where the images would wane, reconnect, become more robust. Clearly, this is a kind of walk-through narrative. The paths are theatricalized to encourage "story," but also to glorify the client - the Counter-Reformation or the monarch. The route seems less restricted, but still reminds pedestrians who is in charge, that the duke sanctioned all these choices. It was liberated late feudalism. It met a growing pressure in the seventeenth century, "the peasant population's invasion of the city," in our terms, a rudimentary mode of consumer culture. Rituals originally for the knightly class were released to the "public."

In a similar spirit, the Jerde spaces are Baroque illusion that privileges the visitor's walk, but also provides well for the corporate client. Instead of seventeenth-century mercantilism, we have franchise mercantilism, dominated by shopping mall developers who are increasingly allowed to plan sections of cities. Of course, how far shall we take this metaphor? The parallels are instructive more than absolute. What if we considered Jerde's work on Bellagio as "absolutist," where the Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn builds his own Versailles as a tourist hotel ?

During Baroque eras, the walls and ceilings became a narrative text expanded from Renaissance devices, like trompe l´œil or anamorphosis. These were conceived very much as a narratized walk through (as in the example from Pozzo). The tradition began in the fifteenth century, essentially with Brunelleschi's architecture and Mantegna's paintings: neo-platonic fantasy in churches, palaces, theatres, then extending into piazzas and roads. The narratives relied on englobed, immersive spaces that filtered dynamically from the ceiling. Sculpture alluded often to theater (stage plays). Tableaux vivants allowed visitors to enter narrative almost in the sense of a masque. By the eighteenth century, this gaudy but elegant code had evolved into a design industry. Traveling painters called quadraturista specialized in fantasy illusionism. Handbooks were available on trompe l´œil and anamorphosis, broad surveys on how to paint a scripted space. It had matured into an elaborate grammar - oddly parallel both to film grammar and to the Jerde mall.

However, similar handbooks on the electronic variation of the Baroque are not quite ready yet. Studies on postmodern illusionism abound; they are a subindustry, of course, but are not meant as point-by-point grammars. "The Disneyland effect" has entered our language, to remind us that hypertrophied mall "cities" have become essential to globalized tourism. The overlapping tropes from many media at once inspire a tourist sensation without the jet lag. For a few hours, you visit a "global" resort for shopping, then drive home. As a corollary, much has been written about the collapse of public space, at least "public" as it was understood in the industrial city of 1920. In other words, our culture is abandoning the rights to assembly on dense streets. The "bughouse squares" where orators used to rally on soapboxes inside parks are gone. Street vending has become a public nuisance in the new suburban city. Indeed, narrative architecture "speaks" on behalf of a different model for public interaction - franchise outlets for imperial businesses from around the world; and local copies of these franchises. We accept that fact, but how should we proceed from there, in mapping out the future of political assembly, shopping between the classes? Malls may not evolve into bughouse squares or into sites for labor rallies.

Jon Jerde asks what public spaces - the plazas, parks, public squares and meeting places - have been built in major cities over the past fifty years? What experience today can compare to the dense street life many of us imagine for Manhattan or Paris, or see in the opening credits to every Sherlock Homes movie? Indeed, our culture is developing a substitute, what Jerde calls "a community of consumers." This is more stable than philosopher Jean Baudrillard's notion of a precession of dissolving simulacra. Baudrillard describes a disoriented code, copies without originals. What we find instead is something much more stable. Disorienting copies become plot points along the way.

The Jerde city is more like the story boards for a movie. Inside this diachronic path, illusions (or simulacra) do not dissolve the story; they serve as plot points in the movie script.What is the role of the viewer in this sculpted movie? For example, forty years ago, movie glamour implied a visit to a premiere, to be among the cognoscenti who first saw the finished product. Now, increasingly, the movie set itself has replaced the premiere. One is encouraged to shop inside a movie set. The consumer journey literally resembles a film shoot.

More specifically, it resembles a special-effects movie: scripted spaces with illusionistic effects in which the audience is a central character. For example, the Moorish touches at the front of Horton Plaza or the nineteenth-century arcade at the spine of the Westside Pavilion are movie sets for a story one walks through, where the shops comment on the scale or the colors or the signifier. This is not a new strategy at all, more like the recovery of older scripted spaces. The consumer, like the Baroque parishioner three hundred years ago, is the central character in a miniaturized epic of sorts; but in personal terms, the story is Weberian. Max Weber wrote about the Protestant ethic merging with the work ethic in Europe. Here we see the tourist culture merging with a consumer-driven personalized daydream. The scripted space is a form of predestination, where the consumer "acts out" the illusion of free will.

Jerde himself uses the term "story" very often, much as Disney did. The story must be different for each visitor. Even though the path is pre-scripted, the journey should look slightly haphazard; the scale should be ascending, welcoming. Jerde takes the myth of dense democratic ways very seriously. Even though the lessees, owners and the merchandisers may control the script more than the audience, the myth must be sustained somehow. For example, an immersive, but open-air dome at the center of CityWalk serves as a piazzy for a consumerist republic, as if the Jerde city were a town meeting.

CityWalk embodies this paradox very clearly. It was the first leg of a larger masterplan to integrate hundreds of thousands, even millions of square feet, from the Universal Outdoor Recreation Tours to the MCA office buildings - but first "to link the parking garage and the Tour gate." The theme essentially was to encapsulate Los Angeles, what Jerde calls "the transactual city," LA as a "deal-business" diagram. Urban planning in LA is indeed often a product of Faustian deals concocted over a long lunch, and by unlikely partners. Subway stations appear without subway lines. Infrastructure is auctioned off like overstock at a clothing store.Someone is allowed to stucco over blocks at a time. Someone else chops down century-old maguey and oak, or falls in love with Italianate porticoes or a touch of the Italian Alps. LA reveals the constant war between lush greenery and asphalt. Lately, greenery - or at least landscaping - has done somewhat better. But the remains of the fast deals litter the city: streets carved, weirdly, out of old citrus groves; aerospace acreage being retooled, just as weirdly, into sound stages. Here indeed is the world spirit that Jerde condensed into CityWalk. And in that sense, the community of consumers is an invention to suit shopping and real-estate interests. At the same time, his spaces have very broad appeal; eight million visitors to CityWalk in the first year alone, tens of millions now to Horton Plaza. It is easier to imagine what he does as a kind of mercantilism - franchise capitalism as an urban motif, the Baroque glorification of trade. This mercantile fantasy bridges two extremes, from the upscale lemonade stand to a Blade Runner ride.

From: Norman M. Klein, "Electronic Baroque: Jerde Cities", in: Ray Bradbury (ed.) "You Are Here. The Jerde Partnership International", London: Phaidon, 1999 published with kind permission by the author.


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