Which is exactly what Jerde Partnership has done for cities around the world. But, many would ask, a destination center for whom -- tourists and seasonal sports fans? What about turning downtown into a living, breathing city center, a place where locals want to live and work?
A former student of visionary Arizona architect Paolo Soleri, Jon Jerde is the most influential shopping center designer in the world.
His projects span the globe and have had a profound economic effect on the areas where they are located. The L.A.-based firm contends that more than 500 million visitors enter Jerde projects annually.
The developments, which total more than 35 million square feet, include not only Horton Plaza in San Diego, CityWalk in L.A. and the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, but also the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota; the Gateway in Salt Lake City; Canal City Hakata in Fukuoka, Japan; and Buersplein in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
They are just a handful of the grand-scale projects that are acclaimed by many architects and critics as the essence of shopping mall design but rebuked by others as plastic monstrosities lacking real character.
In a lengthy February 2002 Los Angeles Times Magazine profile on Jon Jerde by Ed Leibowitz, Jerde's friend Robert Timme, dean of the University of Southern California architecture school, says he is convinced that Jerde will be recognized as one of the significant architects of our day.
"Great public spaces have always been where the markets are," Timme says. "Maybe for a time we'd lost the excitement of the market or bazaar, and Jon's brought that back into the language of architecture."
Leibowitz, who shadowed Jerde for more than a year, writes of the designer: "The critical assault on Jerde amounts to this: His architecture is a parody of a city, with all the grit and complexity wiped away. The architect, in thrall to the commercial developer, has built counterfeit space for private profit. He is ushering in that terrible future in which global capitalism dictates our civic life as relentlessly as it does our economic life. And his buildings are plain ugly; the corny surface flash of their façades masks the cheap stucco and dull interiors beneath."
In The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, former New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable condemns Horton Plaza.
"The ultimate absurdity is achieved," she writes, "an edited and appropriated version of exactly those distinguishing organic features of a city that . . . reduce [it] to a merchandising theme."
Jerde's Gateway project in Salt Lake City has been hailed as an economic savior and condemned for its garish design. The 30-acre, $375 million project is expected to be just the beginning of development on another 650 acres west of Salt Lake's downtown.
The Gateway was constructed in an old rail yard. The project is a mix of 350 apartment units and about 650,000 square feet of retail and entertainment venues. A children's museum, planetarium and IMAX theater are under construction along with 150 condominiums.
Local architects have been critical of some of the bold features and colors, comparing some areas of the project to stage sets.
"It's a fake little . . . I don't even know what to call it," Robert L. Bliss, a retired architect and former dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Utah, was quoted as saying in the Sacramento Bee.
"Architecturally, it's Disneyland. It pretends to be historic, and it certainly is not."
The Bee wrote about Gateway because Sacramento will soon get its own Jerde project. Last month, that city agreed to move forward with a 240-acre development in its abandoned rail yard that will include several thousand new homes and millions of square feet of retail and commercial space.
It's hard to dismiss such critics as jealous highbrows taking pot shots at a renowned architect when you visit some of Jerde's masterworks.
CityWalk's faux Hollywood setting with colorful banners and '50s-style streetscapes relies heavily on a barrage of amplified music to keep patrons gyrating through streets lined with corporate outlets (yet another Hard Rock Cafe, for instance), a massive cinema complex and -- in all but one or two cases -- predictable food-court fare.
The loud music combined with conflicting jingles at some of the outlets make for shear racket. The audio horror reverberates through every nook and cranny of the circuitous complex. Patrons become so maniacally confused inside the labyrinth that the most satisfying part of the CityWalk "experience" can be locating your car in the massive parking garages at the end of the night.