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
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