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Jon Jerde: Tracing His Legacy and Magic in Plaza Mexico

An indoor swapmeet awaits behind façade of Mexican municipal palace. | Photo: Carribean Fragoza

At the central kiosk in Plaza Mexico, there is a subtle tension in the air. The cumbia dancers seem bored and the band can't get the sound right. A crowd of shoppers stand watching, as stiff as the facades of imitation Mexican architecture around them. The event's host gets on the mic to encourage spectators to loosen up and celebrate Valentine's Day on the dance floor. The audience fidgets, indecisive. They seem to know that all it takes is one couple on the dance floor to break the stasis, then they'll be obliged to participate, because as most Latinos know, cumbia is a dance that is also a duty. Mainly because we love cumbia so much.

But the artifice of Plaza Mexico, a 650,000 square foot, outdoor commercial center, the largest Mexican-themed center in the country, which draws visitors here in the first place is also what halts them from fully engaging in it. On this recent Valentine's Day, it is to be seen if the magic of architect Jon Jerde will reveal itself.

Jon Jerde dreamed and designed hundreds of shopping centers to make social events such as this possible. He was a lifetime believer in the power of architecture and design (and commerce) to bring people together in a shared space. Moreover, his themed shopping centers, not unlike theme parks, aimed to make shopping experiential.

Jon Jerde, passed away on February 9, 2015 at the age of 75 in Los Angeles, CA.

His legacy can be found not only in his projects, but also in its imitations. Plaza Mexico in Lynwood, CA was not a project of Jerde, but like many Southern California shopping centers, undoubtedly bears his influence.

Jon Jerde is the architect behind Universal City Walk in Hollywood, the Bellagio, the Wynn Hotel and Fremont Center in Vegas, and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles among many other cities on all continents except Antarctica. Based in Venice, CA Jerde's reach was so vast not only geographically, but also influentially as he is credited for breaking shopping centers out of enclosed malls and creating experiential spaces that are social as well as commercial, though Hollywood's Crossroads of the World (designed by Robert V. Derrah in 1936) is thought to be the first outdoor shopping mall. Jerde's influence is certainly echoed in countless shopping centers such as The Grove and the Americana at Brand, both by Caruso Affiliated who similarly tout "re-imagining the town center" as one of its guiding principles.

Universal City Walk | Courtesy of The Jerde Partnership, Inc
Universal City Walk | Courtesy of The Jerde Partnership, Inc
Olympic Stadium 1984, Los Angeles, CA | Courtesy of The Jerde Partnership, Inc
Olympic Stadium 1984, Los Angeles, CA | Courtesy of The Jerde Partnership, Inc
Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nevada | Courtesy of The Jerde Partnership, Inc
Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nevada | Courtesy of The Jerde Partnership, Inc

"There is no question that Jerde is the most copied architect of the last century," writes CityLab's, Kristen Capps "but he was not usually copied well."

Plaza Mexico is an iteration of a Jerde-influenced commercial center. This heavily Mexico-inspired outdoor shopping center, reaches for one of Jerde's most central placemaking ideals; to create authentic social engagement within a constructed, highly curated environment. Plaza Mexico's developer, M & D Regional Center LLC, two Korean brothers named Min and Donald Chae, attempted to build a culturally relevant, themed shopping center that would attract visitors and shoppers.

Strictly in terms of shopping, Plaza Mexico is at best uninspired, offering apparel shops, nail salons and snack shops not unlike what is already available in the surrounding Lynwood neighborhoods. Quickly it becomes evident that, true to Jerde's main goal, people are there to be together. After they finally wrestle their way through the murderously congested parking lot, visitors can stroll along paths of shop-lined corridors and eat a churro on any of the ornate iron benches, or step into a trendy shoe store or a discount fashion shop. Or they can stop to enjoy the refreshing sounds of water spurting out of the fanged mouth of a Quetzalcoatl fountain. Or pose for a photo by any of the bronze sculptures of prominent Mexican historical or cultural figures.

The iconic Angel de la Independencia doubles as a symbol of national pride and parking lot drop-off zone. | Photo: Carribean Fragoza
The iconic Angel de la Independencia doubles as a symbol of national pride and parking lot drop-off zone. | Photo: Carribean Fragoza
Bronze Pancho Villa bust greets shoppers to Plaza Mexico | Photo: Carribean Fragoza
Bronze Pancho Villa bust greets shoppers to Plaza Mexico | Photo: Carribean Fragoza

Actual shopping may or may not occur. This was not necessarily Jerde's main concern.

"The magic of 'Jerde Placemaking' starts by being authentic about a place, city, a neighborhood, a historic district or a waterfront. And this magic is fragile," states Jerde Partnership on their website. Perhaps the magic of Jerde's brand of placemaking is fragile, similar to the way many urban projects are fragile, its success or failure depending on many fluctuating factors. Whether Jerde's imitators know it or not, their shopping centers can be more than business enterprises. They can also be kinds social experiments in whether they actually draw people and the nature of their engagement with the space and each other.

Plaza Mexico, attempts to draw shoppers mainly by appealing to their cultural tastes and homeland nostalgia. At the very least, it aims to attract them with theme park theatricality. The architecture and built environment brings people closer to home yet also makes their distance from it more unbearable. The structures and materials meant to represent real places in their home country are so glaringly false they only heighten one's removal from home. One is not transported by Jerde-like magic. This magic can only take place by the visitor's willingness, if not downright labor. It takes work and a lot of want to participate in the experience that is Plaza Mexico.

Pre-columbian glyphs and water fountain invite shoppers to relax. | Photo: Carribean Fragoza
Pre-columbian glyphs and water fountain invite shoppers to relax. | Photo: Carribean Fragoza

Giant Olmec heads placed along Plaza's main corridor attract visitors who are often careful not to touch, not because of their value, but probably because they seem like they might easily become dislodged. Yet, their surfaces are sculpted and airbrushed to imitate the texture of the heavy basalt stone deities of Southern Mexico. Instead, they are gummy to the touch, their glaze almost sickly in the unseasonable sun. They are hollow. Nonetheless, people pose for photos beside them, as if they were the original objects, because the truth is, for much of the Mexican diaspora this is probably the closest they've ever come to the treasured pre-Columbian relics.

But Jerde wasn't as interested in structures as he was in the spaces between them. "He's not interested in creating beautiful objects; in fact, he often sacrifices beauty in his buildings to amplify the spaces between them," Ed Leibowitz, wrote about Jerde in Los Angeles Magazine in 2002. Jerde wanted to thrill his visitors/shoppers and yes, entertain them. Plaza Mexico is a wax museum of place, and this too is entertainment.

Most importantly, Jerde wanted visitors to have authentic experiences in his environments.

While entertainment alone does not necessarily make a successful placemaking project, one way to think of successful placemaking is by its ability to create an "authentic" social experience. Sometimes visitors or shoppers have social experiences in part because of the built environment, and sometimes, the experiences occur in spite of it. Authenticity of experience often takes place in the spontaneous activities and unplanned structures enacted by users of a space.

At Plaza Mexico, its most authentic and spontaneous site is the chapel. Originally, there was no chapel at all, only a painting of the Virgen de Gualdalupe tucked into a discrete corner of one of the plaza corridors. Today, within its enclosed space, you'll find two doll-sized virgins encased in glass within ornate niches. On the west wing, a painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe (who is always best represented in painting rather than sculpture, for her original incarnation was in the blood of rose petals imprinted on a maguey garment) hangs from the wall. Its protective glass is beginning to blacken with so many votive candles burning at its base. And at the center is a crucifix with a very life-like Jesus that bears a dark-haired wig. Probably made of real human hair. The two virgins also seem to have human hair beneath their tiny doll crowns and their dresses are most likely hand-stitched, made with real satin.

Devotees make offerings to  virgin saints at impromptu altars. | Photo: Carribean Fragoza
Devotees make offerings to virgin saints at impromptu altars. | Photo: Carribean Fragoza

Several families enter the chapel. They genuflect at a pew before their Christ or regional virgin of preference, and instruct their children to do the same. Then the mother or father demands that they kiss the bleeding foot of Christ. Each time, the child whimpers in fear, reluctant, ready to take flight. The wigged virgins are absolutely not charming. The veneration of these icons by families is real, as is the fear experienced by the children when they approach Christ's foot. This exact scene plays out in countless Catholic churches in the US and Mexico.

The image of the Virgen de Guadalupe was likely just another component meant to function as a decorative cultural marker along with the Pancho Villa bust and the Aztec calendar or the colonial columns and arches that line the corridors. But as Angelenos know, this image is never just an image and is always endowed with multiple meanings and powers. Here, La Virgen took a life of her own as visitors were so easily willing to embrace her. Devotees offer her flowers from their humble gardens, asking for important personal favors from their vulnerable hearts.

In this corner of Plaza Mexico, authenticity is an accident. As in the case of the Virgen de Guadalupe, sometimes icons and their representations are more powerful than the intent of their use. At its best, Plaza Mexico seems to be operating on something else beyond the magic of design. It's the thing that takes place when people find courage for life in their prayers to the Virgen, or when they finally decide to take their sweetheart out for a Valentine's Day cumbia in the central kiosk. Perhaps it can be called agency. And perhaps without calling that, this is exactly the kind of magic Jerde dreamed of.

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