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Horton Plaza was inspired by Italian hill towns, complete with narrow passageways, Roman arches, and a campanile.

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Will this PoMo wonderland in San Diego be saved?

An urban mall designed to revive downtown San Diego is set to be destroyed

“Everyone agrees, Horton Plaza is dead.”

Even before San Diego’s City Council decided the fate of its once-vibrant downtown mall, the city seemed to have written it off. A vote in May made it official: The celebrated plaza that transformed San Diego’s urban center into a destination will be turned into a tech campus.

Malls are dying everywhere. But Horton Plaza isn’t just any mall. When it opened in 1985, it was as if Los Angeles architect Jon Jerde, still basking in the lingering fanfare of the 1984 Summer Olympics, unleashed the “Mariachi federal style” from the games upon San Diego’s Mission and Victorian vernacular. When the plaza first opened, its narrow passageways were adorned with banners by Jerde’s Olympics collaborators Deborah Sussman and Paul Prejza, creating a magenta-splashed encore of the design team’s critically acclaimed triumph.

The mall was an undeniable success, and cities across the country took note, crafting their own entertainment districts meant to revitalize urban cores, which had been abandoned by decades of disinvestment. Many of these were designed by Jerde, who reliably dappled color and wit onto drab streetscapes from coast to coast.

But the paradox was that even as these downtowns became a magnet for new residents, shopping revenue, and foot traffic, the malls themselves did not fare as well. As Horton Plaza’s anchor tenants fled, its developer, Westfield—which has successfully resuscitated several malls—waffled over redesign plans and ultimately sold the property.

On May 20, San Diego’s City Council voted unanimously to allow new owners Stockdale Capital Partners to convert Horton Plaza into the Campus at Horton, a mixed-use development that will relocate all shops to the ground floor, reducing the retail space from 600,000 to 300,000 square feet, and add 772,000 square feet of office space. It will still be a mall, just with four floors of offices above.

However, this plan does mean eradicating some of Jerde’s most iconic postmodern creations. Highlights include a glorious faux bell tower (it used to be a Nordstrom) and a black-and-white-striped loggia encasing the escalators, with details that grow wackier and more exaggerated the deeper one ventures into the complex. These bold, grin-eliciting elements will be replaced with the prevailing look of America’s late-capitalism era. You know the one.

“I’m aware that the postmodern style is not in fashion,” David Marshall, chair of AIA San Diego’s preservation committee, told the Union-Tribune. “Victorian houses were out of fashion in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, and many were demolished. Today, they are appreciated. It’s a matter of these buildings surviving those times when they’re not in fashion.”

This has been the challenge of protecting postmodernism in the U.S. Not only are the buildings often too young to be eligible for landmarking, the structures themselves must overcome aesthetic stereotypes.

Similar debates have played out around saving Philip Johnson’s former AT&T building, Michael Graves’s Portland Building, and the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where a postmodern pergola completed in the 1990s by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown will be erased by an Annabelle Selldorf-designed renovation.

Preservationist group Docomomo mounted a campaign to protect Horton Plaza, urging San Diego’s Historical Resources Board to consider it within the context of other treasured local buildings from the same era, like the Salk Institute and Geisel Library.

“Horton Plaza is one of the most significant examples of the postmodern style offering eclectic forms, color and excitement in a uniquely public shopping space,” read Docomomo’s letter to San Diego Mayor Kevin Falconer.

San Diegans seem to agree that more shopping space is no longer what’s needed downtown. According to KPBS, “few people spoke in opposition to the new plan” before the City Council vote. The Campus at Horton is one of a handful of tech campuses poised to remake the city’s downtown yet again—this time, in an attempt to lure plucky startups and young professionals priced out of California’s troubled boom towns to the north.

And malls are turning into tech hubs up and down the state. Google is leasing nearly all of the space in the Westside Pavilion, a mostly dead West LA mall from the same era as Horton Plaza, after a plan to redevelop the mall fell through. In Cupertino, near Apple’s new campus, the long-dead Vallco Mall will be replaced with a mixed-use development that will add much-needed housing for local workers.

Older malls, particularly urban ones, have needed to be reimagined to regain their usefulness in changing communities. A decade ago, the city of Santa Monica decided to peel the roof off Santa Monica Place, a Frank Gehry-designed mall that opened in 1980, and use the shell as a tool to reinvigorate downtown Santa Monica. Gehry’s signature PoMo moves—like zig-zagging escalators and bright perforated-metal accents—didn’t survive the renovation, but now the courtyard has an even more important role as a public breezeway connecting the Third Street Promenade shopping district to the Expo Line light-rail station.

The architect who oversaw the overhaul? Jon Jerde. It was his last major project before he died in 2015.

In a 1986 New York Times review in which Paul Goldberger likens Horton Plaza’s “freewheeling” spirit to Disneyland and draws comparisons to Jerde’s contemporaries like Graves and Charles Moore, Goldberger reveals a critical flaw in the mall’s layout, which may have sealed its fate. “If it is the heart of downtown San Diego, it is a heart cut off from its body,” he wrote, “for it has almost no connection with the surrounding streets.”

For all its urban aspirations, Horton Plaza remains completely oriented around parking garages, walling off the streets around it, and turning its back completely on the Gaslamp Quarter, a nearby cluster of late-1800s buildings which Horton Plaza’s presence helped flicker back to life.

In the same way Jerde brought daylight into Gehry’s Santa Monica mall, the Campus at Horton will now be more permeable and accessible to the city around it. And the new renderings do show that one important aspect of the mall’s design will be kept—the diagonal passage that allows people to make a mid-block move through the development—although with none of the delight of stumbling upon a whimsical checkerboard colonnade towering above.

A rendering of The Campus at Horton’s updated central corridor.
Stockdale Capital Partners

As preservationists have argued, that central corridor is what’s worth keeping, and it wouldn't be that hard to sculpt at least a few elements into more modernized storefronts. The best possible way to do this, of course, would be to get Jerde’s firm—which, as the mall expert, continues to sensitively update older malls—to design it.

Or there’s always the alternative. At the edge of the Campus at Horton is one building that doesn’t fit in among the slick reflective towers, almost looking like some kind of postmodern folly in itself. As part of the deal with the city, developers will be responsible for restoring this historic structure, known as the Bradley Building. However, this Bradley Building is actually a simulacra built in the 1980s—after the original 1911 building was demolished to make way for Horton Plaza.

Perhaps 30 more years down the road, the pendulum will swing completely in the other direction, much in the same way the blocks of once-unpopular Victorian-era structures have been preserved and painstakingly restored in the Gaslamp Quarter. The city will regret the glass transgressions of its Hudson-Yards-by-the-Sea and order Jerde’s original PoMo flourishes to be resurrected, Bradley Building-style, through the center of the complex—rightfully returning San Diego’s most colorful landmark to its downtown.

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