From his oceanside offices in Venice Beach, California, Jerde may have done more to change the way the world shops than anyone else alive. He conceived the 390,000-square-meter Mall of America in Minnesota, surely the largest mall America is ever likely to see, with its theme parks, university, speedway, 520 shops, 50 restaurants and encounters with real sharks. He transformed the dynamic of Las Vegas, bringing a sweeping European grace to its graceless resort strip with his Italian lake town design for the Bellagio Hotel. In his own backyard, he created CityWalk, a shopping and entertainment center that looks like Los Angeles but without its cars, freeways and grime, and that has emerged as an attraction on par with Disneyland.
While the traditional shopping mall has grown ever more alienating and sterile, as thousands of climate-controlled, artificially lit boxes have mushroomed to sell the same mass-produced goods from Salt Lake City to Singapore, Jerde is wrestling for the consumer's very soul. His malls take their inspiration from Tuscan hill towns, prehistoric cliff dwellings, the French cancan quarter, the Moroccan souk, science fiction, the amphitheaters and temples of ancient Rome. Rather than walling off the neighborhoods surrounding them, they welcome in the natural terrain and relate to local history. Granted, the Gap khakis and Sony dvd players available there may be indistinguishable from those sold in the big boxes, but the supercharged experience Jerde has created for mass consumption is something entirely unique. He is satisfying a craving for originality, which is the one product that global capitalism seems wholly at a loss to deliver. It is a craving that draws some 675 million people around the world to his malls every year.
Over the past decade, Japan has emerged as the Jerde Partnership's cutting-edge laboratory. His first Japan project, opened in 1996, was Fukuoka's Canal City Hakata. Inspired by the Native American caves of Arizona, it is the mall as fever dream, with cafés and stores materializing along canyon-like walls as shoppers stroll beside Jerde's undulating, man-made river. He has since built La Cittadella, an Italianate village transposed to the city of Kawasaki. Namba Parks is a vast refuge of gardens, waterfalls, glass bridges, restaurants and chain stores in Osaka. Jerde has also designed the celebrated entertainment, retail and public grounds for Roppongi Hills. In the midst of Tokyo's congestion and chaos, beneath the Mori office tower and luxury residences, Jerde's design recalls a shogun-era village of colossal proportions, seemingly hewn out of granite. Roppongi's billionaire developer Minoru Mori says of Jerde: "He is a genius at creating towns and buildings where people gather and enjoy themselves."
While other mall designers focus on driving customers as directly as possible to the goods for sale, making everything effortlessly accessible and visible, Jerde takes a more subversive approach. To suddenly happen upon a Starbucks in one of his malls can seem wonderful and unexpected, not the entirely predictable encounter it would otherwise be. As Mori puts it, "He is excellent at producing solutions or tricks that strike at the heart of human psychology."
Although Japan has proven uniquely receptive to Jerde's ideas, nowhere today offers a more inviting combination of burgeoning wealth, architectural demand and voracious consumerism than China. Jerde has already built Shanghai's largest mall, and he has two others under construction. His firm has also drawn up a master plan for the pedestrian stretch of Shanghai's historic Nanjing Road, and more expansive redesigns for the lake cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou.
So far, however, his experiences in China have been less than successful. In Japan, Jerde could rely on the lofty impulses of resident magnates like Mori. But China's retail development has been dominated by Thai, Taiwanese and offshore-Chinese firms more interested in making a quick profit by duplicating on the mainland what's already proven a safe investment elsewhere. Jerde's projectsso generous in their use of gardens, amphitheaters and open spacedo not often add up to the greatest possible amount of leasable square footage. "In China," Jerde says, "what you start seeing is boomtown. And boomtown is the place where you start getting these high-lusting, ambitious guys who want to take all the bucks out."
Jerde's own approach is more subtle andoddlyless capitalistic. When he talks about his work, he rarely mentions developers, retailers or shoppers. Instead, he talks copiously of the common man. "If you take care of the people," he preaches, "everything else follows. They will come, and then while they're here, they do what they do in these kinds of places, which I don't worry about at all. That is, they consume, which is so obvious it doesn't take any brains to think about."
In a Japan awash in forbidding, lifeless malls, Jerde's shopping and entertainment centersopen to the heavens, reclaiming a lost heritage and promoting human interaction as much as productshave had a powerful resonance. Not coincidentally, they have also become the nation's most lucrative malls. But in China, as Jerde himself acknowledges, the first generation of shoppers empowered by the economic boom want "big shiny boxes," the same unimaginative, faux-luxurious consumer palaces that Japan, Singapore and Taiwan have enjoyed for years, selling designer brands that until recently mainlanders could only dream about. And so, here in Shanghai Jerde is delving into a past that many newly affluent Chinese would rather forget, while also extrapolating into a future whenhe hopesthey will begin yearning for a humanistic space as strongly as they do for Christian Dior.
"The new," Jerde says. "Everyone wants the new. Nobody pays attention to this," he says, gesturing toward the graceful attractions of Old Shanghai, "because it's so ingrained in their life. So what we really try to do is take this and amplify it and celebrate it."