Finally it has arrived—the most anticipated new architectural development in Los Angeles in months. What is this project, you ask? A museum? A great civic building, maybe, a new school? No, it’s a mall, sort of.
The $400 million Americana at Brand, which opened in downtown Glendale on May 2, is a mix between shopping center and new town. Developed by Rick Caruso, creator of the ultra-popular “Grove” in Miracle Mile, the Americana was designed by Caruso’s staff, together with respected Boston firm Elkus Manfredi. It is set on 15.5 acres of prime real estate organized around “the Green,” a two-acre common that includes curvaceous lawns, gentle walkways, and a lake with dancing fountains. Built using eclectic styles and varied scales, the Americana includes over 50 stores and restaurants, an 18-screen movie complex, 238 apartments, and 100 luxury condominiums.
For an architecture person, the Americana is the definition of a guilty pleasure. I don’t want to like it. After all, it’s real, but in the same way that Reality TV is real. It’s a watered-down pastiche of historical architectural styles, many of them European; a simulacrum of urbanism planned to maximize consumer spending and minimize civic disruption; it’s a drain on local shops, and a ticket to new traffic jams; and it’s an all-too-clean, inorganic piece of city plopped into a city that already exists.
Despite all this, it’s still quite enjoyable and, in some ways, effective, at least for a limited amount of time. Entering the Green provokes excitement, with its sweeping, carefully composed vistas and its open congregation of humanity sitting and playing on (real!) grass, a rarity in Los Angeles. It makes you wonder how the horrible indoor mall was ever invented in a state where staying inside is generally a mistake. Besides its greenness, the size of this space is its biggest asset; unlike the Grove, streets are minimized here. In most urbanism, real streets bring excitement and activation. In fake urbanism, they spell doom. The least effective areas here are the “streets” that border on real streets, pale in comparison to the real thing, with the empty feeling of ghost towns.
Most of the architecture at the Americana is banal and unapologetically nostalgic, ranging from vaguely Italianate to art deco-light to faux colonial. Yet at least it is varied in style and size, a touch of city-ness from which many malls could benefit. The addition of real living spaces—although far from affordable ones—within the complex helps contribute to this sense of urbanity as well. And within the architectural array, there are a few gems that—while somewhat bizarre—draw the eye and keep the array from collapsing into a wasteland of boredom. A golden cupola adorns a large Guess Store. A 175-foot-tall rusted elevator tower is topped with a thin spire that looks like a cross between an oil tower and the Eiffel Tower. A few of the contemporary-style buildings, each with its own architectural expression, are pretty good: a gray limestone-and-steel-clad Barney’s; a blond wood-clad Martin and Osa; and a Lululemon Athletica whose fiberglass facade appears to be peeled away to reveal glazing.
After about an hour, the piped-in jazz, the strange security guards with their Mountie hats, and the supernatural syrupy sweetness of the place become seriously grating. It could be the set for The Prisoner. You start to doubt whether this concoction actually connects itself to the rest of Glendale, which peeks in at places but is mostly shut out. You start to wonder who would want to live over a place like this for years, not just linger for an hour. And you also start to wonder why there is no Farmer’s Market like at the Grove, just a collection of high-end stores for wealthy visitors.
Still, while the project may be a little creepy and architecturally unspectacular, for a mall it represents a stunningly good piece of urban design. Like the Grove, it’s one of the few malls I’ve been to where I’ve actually wanted to linger. These designers are getting so close to real urbanism that you wonder what they might think of next. Maybe a non-chain store that locals would want to use? Maybe an urban space that doesn’t prohibit pets and photography or have a curfew of 10 p.m.? Wait, I have an idea. Maybe these fake towns could someday even become… real towns! Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?