No Sale in a Faux Town

Times Architecture Critic

“The pedestrian shopping experience” has long been a particularly gruesome feature of the American landscape. But in Los Angeles, such developments are now spreading with the ferocity of an urban plague.

Last fall, TrizecHahn, one of the country’s biggest developers, opened two new pedestrian malls: the flashy Hollywood & Highland complex along Hollywood Boulevard, and Paseo Colorado in Pasadena--an ersatz Mission-style shopping district.

In March, Caruso Affiliated Holdings will unveil the Grove at Farmers Market on Third Street near Fairfax Avenue--a 650,000-square-foot, pseudo-traditional complex that will dwarf the historic Farmers Market next door. The first phase of the proposed 770,000-square-foot Sunset Millennium retail and residential development--which includes a pedestrian bridge that will span La Cienega Boulevard--is under construction along Sunset Boulevard. And the Mission-inspired West Hollywood Gateway is scheduled to open in late 2003 at Santa Monica Boulevard and La Brea Avenue.

In short, pedestrian “shopping experiences” are replacing the traditional mall as a retail destination, and they are becoming a central feature of L.A.'s urban experience--the 21st century’s answer to Main Street.

That has spawned a growing debate about their impact. Opponents have fought to scale back these projects, which they argue are gargantuan, bottle up traffic and contribute to congestion. Developers, eager to appease criticism and suck in more consumers, argue that such pedestrian-friendly projects are a significant improvement over the enclosed, hulking concrete structures that were once the norm.


The point, however, is that such mega-developments will not go away. They are a logical outcome of the new global economy. And so their problem lies in their dishonesty--not in their scale. Decorated in saccharine images of the past, promising a kind of genuine urban contact that they never deliver, they are the product of a culture that equates marketing hype with truth. As such, the solution is not a return to the past, but to create an architecture more firmly rooted in present realities. And that would take a development community willing to take some risk and commit to a higher degree of creative intelligence.

The notion of the pedestrian mall came to prominence in the 1970s, when developers began to transform existing historic districts into shopping complexes. Projects like San Francisco’s Cannery development in 1968 and Boston’s Faneuil Hall in 1976--both housed in historic brick structures--were championed as viable urban alternatives to the traditional, enclosed suburban mall. The fact that they were still glorified malls seemed beside the point. They were prettier than the old concrete boxes.

In any case, developers quickly ran out of historic buildings to reconfigure, and they began searching for a new formula. The breakthrough was the opening of San Diego’s Horton Plaza in 1985. Designed by the L.A.-based Jerde Partnership, Horton Plaza included the usual combination of cinemas, retail chains and restaurants, but set them around a central pedestrian street that tied into the surrounding urban grid. The idea was to replicate the “feel” of a real city, with its mix of architectural styles and sense of congestion.

Since then, that formula has become the norm among retail developers. The worst of these clones are smothered in a veneer of nostalgia--adding a layer of falsity that even Jerde’s Horton Plaza was careful to avoid. At the Grove, for example, tenants such as Nordstrom and FAO Schwarz will be set along a brick-paved pedestrian street that features a wrought iron bridge and ornate fountain that evoke the kind of traditional city you see in animated Disney films. In a gesture that has no small measure of irony, a trolley will run along the street, a tribute to L.A.'s famed red cars, which were dismantled during the 1950s, the last time the city had a viable public transportation system.

By comparison, TrizecHahn’s Hollywood & Highland development seeks to tap into surrounding Hollywood lore. Its circular pedestrian court is decorated with massive columns and a portal copied from D.W. Griffith’s film “Intolerance.” Jerde’s West Hollywood Gateway, meanwhile, is an even more predictable collage of abstract modern forms with pseudo-Spanish flourishes.

Such a slavish adherence to “contextualism” is often supported by local review boards, which see it as a way of preserving a community’s character.

But tinkering with cosmetic details is no real solution. When you dig deeper, the underlying formula remains essentially the same. The collage of images and superficial architectural styles cannot disguise the monolithic scale. The so-called pedestrian streets are in fact privately owned corporate zones, manipulated to keep you focused on shopping and cleansed of unwanted distractions.

To some, the answer is to return to the fine-grained urban fabric of the historic city--the mix of small-scale businesses, busy sidewalks and brick-clad buildings that has traditionally formed the foundation of healthy urban life.

The nostalgia such an attitude implies reveals a fundamental misreading of Los Angeles’ urban fabric. Sprawling and centerless, the city is a surreal blend of urban and suburban forms. It already accommodates a gamut of scales, from the fine-grained to the generic. The addition of a new scale of development will not single-handedly threaten its vitality.

Hollywood Boulevard is a case in point. That the scale of the TrizecHahn development has transformed the strip between La Brea and Highland is undeniable. What was once a seedy stretch is now a vast tourist trap, ablaze in neon and video screens.

The project’s effect on the surrounding urban fabric is less clear. A few blocks east, the blaze of light and commerce fades. Costume shops, nightclubs, coffee shops and book stores replace the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and Banana Republic.

The tension between these conflicting scales--the generic world of corporate America and the fine-grained world of the independent, idiosyncratic entrepreneur--will add to the boulevard’s urban complexity, and potentially save it from becoming a sterile tourist zone, devoid of any human dimension.

So the solution is not to eradicate the mall, but to reinvent it.

With their faux public streets, cut off from the surrounding cityscape and cloaked in a veneer of nostalgia, projects such as the Grove contribute nothing of value to the public realm. The assumption--a cynical one--is that a public starved for urban contact will accept this theme-park version of reality as an adequate substitute for the real thing.

Such projects can make a drab, conventional mall like the Beverly Center, opened in 1982, look good by comparison. Designed by Welton Becket & Associates, the center’s hulking form--with its three floors of shops, stacked on top of parking and wrapped in a streamlined concrete skin--has often been compared to a beached whale. Nonetheless, the design also has a clarity that can almost seem refreshing by today’s standards. Despite its limited architectural ambitions, it is what the Modernists once referred to as an honest building, a design that reflects its age and values.

There are better options, however, than returning to such bland precedents.

In Europe and Asia, increasing numbers of architects are reexamining the role of shopping in the post-industrial age. Daniel Libeskind’s planned 1.61-million-square-foot Westside mall in Bern, Switzerland; Zaha Hadid’s recently unveiled master plan for a 21-million-square-foot mixed-use development in Singapore; Coop Himmelblau’s proposed entertainment center in Guadalajara, Mexico--such designs aggressively explore the clash between public and private realms that is an inescapable aspect of the contemporary urban condition.

Stripped of nostalgic references, their dynamic, fragmented forms are also honest representations of the contemporary condition. Such work would fit neatly into L.A.'s best architectural traditions--its ambivalence about the past, its ethos as a place of radical experimentation pointed aggressively toward the future. Instead, the conventional developer continues to recycle worn-out ideas, terrified of taking risks with increasingly large sums of money. Even Jane Jacobs, an ardent preservationist, understood how deadly such formulas can become. “Cities,” she wrote more than 40 years ago, “are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success.” Without that spirit of invention, Los Angeles is doomed to suffer more blows such as these.