Jon Jerde was so much more than an Architect revolutionary. He was actually more an Imagineer in 1984 than most of us then comfortable in our Disney ivory castle. My first encounter with Jon was hosted by legendary theme park and resort designer Wing Chao, when the two of us dared venture into his magic atelier in an antique red car station on Sunset Boulevard. The spectacular LA Olympics had just closed and Jon was riding a high he really never came down from. From Jon’s example we were inspired to reuse the scaffold and fabric architecture of his and Deborah Sussman’s venues to create Videopolis at Disneyland. It was so easy, so much fun to design with such goofy freedom. And there was so much more to come.
That first meeting in Jon’s urban laboratory was held in the main conference room, a dimly lit barn of a space with a monster paper model of Horton Plaza fixed vertically to one wall. It must have been 20 square feet, and seeing it, I was transformed. I could scarcely contain my enthusiasm at realizing what that model represented: Disney architecture could be poised on the threshold of an entirely new adventure. Jon and his staff were at the dawn of making “entertainment architecture,” and we could instantly perceive a new and radical departure for Disney projects around the world; projects that would eventually become Pleasure Island, Downtown Disney’s, crazy “unbuilt Disneys” (Disneyopolis at the Wrather property, Disney Mountain, Texposition, Downtown Burbank), and then EuroDisney and the eventual integrated park-resort master plans that are now the hallmark of the wildly successful Parks and Resorts division of the Walt Disney Company.
Jon’s unvarnished enthusiasm for Disneyland was a revelation. The first “real world” architect to recognize Disneyland as successful and important urban design, a compelling counterpoint to obtuse modernist architects—a profound lesson that narrative placemaking was not just acceptable, but socially important and necessary, especially as we began imagining the futures of Walt Disney World and Paris.
To this day there are stand out memories of Jon’s influence on us; whether it be former senior vice president of creative development at Walt Disney Imagineering Tony Baxter’s walkabout with Jon in West Edmonton, or my first visit to Horton Plaza—which at the time was under construction and incomplete, sculpted in damp and redolent grey plaster, festooned with scaffolds, buckets, ropes, and ladders. It was a crazy, dripping, 3D Souk of a place, almost a built dream of some deep lost part of Glen Canyon. Then and there it suddenly all made sense: why I’d become an architect. It was Shakespearean, Blade Runner magic, and I spent the next 30 years aching for the chance to duplicate that romantic amazement of a place.
I guess it was Jon Jerde who really gave us the “permission” to bring those many and brilliant international superstar architects into our midst. I don’t think there would ever have been those heady collaborations with Michael Graves, Jacquelin Robertson, Jean-Paul Viguer, Frank Gehry, Robert A.M. Stern, Antoine Predock, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, Arata Isozaki, Peter Dominick, Hodgetts and Fung, Aldo Rossi, and the others; not without Jon Jerde’s pioneering encouragement.
He had an explosive, impatient, and driven imagination. He could scarcely be contained and there was no challenge in architecture that he could ignore or refrain from exploding into one of those Jerde-esque masterworks. His forte was the complex, densely compact, and mysterious miniature “city states,” beginning with Horton. And I can assure you that budget architecture never entered his mind. He knew that great places could bring great attendance, Horton drew 30 million when Disneyland was drawing 10. And Horton Plaza had no rides; the place itself was the ride. He was perhaps my strongest early Imagineering mentor, showing me that anything was possible, and that daring to be radically out-of-the-box was a virtue that might assure success. It was Jon who taught me the passion to never be satisfied with the ordinary—a fearlessness that fueled 25 years of troublemaking and an annoying disruption of the comfortable.
With his passing, we’ve lost a brilliant partner in crime. Michael Eisner once told us he had three rules for success: Keep Job, Do Art, Make the World a Better Place. Jon did all of that. And Jon was a genuine Imagineer. Farewell.