Jon Jerde was a prominent architect in the Los Angeles area. I met him a couple of times, but we weren’t what I would call friends. We did have some interesting history together, however.
If you go to Comic Con International each year you might have seen one of his more prominent designs: Horton Plaza.
I have mixed feelings about Horton Plaza. I find it visually stunning but frustratingly non-functional. It looks like an M. C. Escher design built with gigantic pieces of penny candy. If you’re in the middle of it and see a shop or restaurant you’d like to visit, however, good luck. You’ll have one hell of a time trying to figure out just how to get there. You might spend a half hour trying and end up in the same spot where you began.
I worked at Walt Disney Imagineering for a few years during Michael Eisner’s reign. My first big project was designing something called Disney Island. The problem presented to us was this:
When the Walt Disney World parks closed for the evening, the Disney “guests” left the Disney property for the rest of the night. They dined off property, shopped off property and were entertained off property. My job was to design a place that kept all those people (and their money) on property at Walt Disney World. It would be built between the Swan and Dolphin hotels and EpCot. I was told that budget was a concern (in other words, design stuff that would be relatively cheap to build).
I worked on designing Disney Island for about a year. My team and I ultimately solved all the problems presented to us and came up with a spectacular presentation, which many at WDI said was the most elaborate presentation they had ever seen at Disney. It had programmed music, laser beams, sound effects, animated facades, smoke effects — it was totally mind-blowing. One guy sat through our presentation six times.
Michael Eisner had a real hard-on for famous architects. He loved hosting and entertaining them. He made sure they all saw our Disney Island presentation at least once. One of the architects I pitched to was Jon Jerde, who was working for WDI at the time.
My solution was fairly simple. Design large, inexpensive vernacular facades for the shops, restaurants and entertainment clubs that celebrated American pop culture, kind of like an upscale carnie boardwalk. Spend the real money on the interiors.
After our series of presentations, the key members of our team were flown out to Orlando for an intense (and — intentionally, I think — mind-numbingly boring) business/budget meeting with a fleet of Disney accountants. At that meeting we were told that Disney Island would not be made. I asked why. They told me it was way over budget.
“I have never gone over budget on anything,” I replied. “Despite my many requests, you never gave me a budget — so how could I go over budget if we didn’t have a budget? Give me a proper budget and I’ll work to it.”
“Well, this would be a five year project…” they began.
I knew all WDI projects were five-year projects.
“Wait a minute. I’ve seen the waste that comes from making everything a five year project at WDI. Let me hire my own people. I’ll build Disney Island in just two years — three years max. It won’t be over budget. In fact, it’ll probably be cheaper than any major project like this you’ve ever built.”
It was as if lightning had struck the center of the room. Faces were ashen, eyes were wide, mouths hung silently open. I had spoken the words never to be spoken. I had pulled the mask off their fraud. If I could pull this off (and I knew I could), the job of nearly every single person at WDI might be in extreme jeopardy. I had announced that the Emperor had no clothes — or, at least if he had any clothes at all, his long-term tailors had been vastly overpricing them. If I pulled off Disney Island, the rest of WDI could no longer take two or three year projects and pad them out to five years.
“Well, we have also determined that even if we built this place, it would be an utter failure — no one would come.”
CUT TO: About four or five years later.
I’m now working for Jon Snoddy, the tech guy I used for the Disney Island presentation. Jon’s an extremely bright guy. One of his claims to fame is inventing the THX sound system for George Lucas. He also successfully cracked the virtual reality nut for Disney.
Jon hires me to design GameWorks, a series of gaming clubs that are a joint venture between Universal, Dreamworks SKG and Sega Games. A big games guy himself, Steven Spielberg is very involved. We’re working on the lot at Universal inside one of the sound stages.
During conversation with Jon one day, I casually mention that I’ve never been to CityWalk, Universal’s large retail/food/entertainment complex that overlooks Universal Studios.
Jon’s jaw drops to the floor.
“Really? You’ve never been to CityWalk? Not once?”
“Let’s go right now”, said Jon. “I want to see your face.”
“What do you mean, you ‘want to see my face’?”
“Come on; it’s just a few minutes walk from here.”
We made our way out of the film studio, through the theme park and up the hill to CityWalk, Universal’s collection of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. We turned a corner and entered CityWalk.
I couldn’t believe what was in front of my eyes.
“They built Disney Island! They ripped us off and called it ‘CityWalk’!”
“Jon Jerde left WDI not long after your presentation.,” Jon said. “As soon as he got word of Disney Island’s cancellation, he took the idea and pitched it to Universal. Universal loved it and signed off on it.”
There it was, right in front of my eyes. Our whole concept. Built and operating.
I was simultaneously pissed off and elated. Pissed off for being stolen from; elated by the fact that this place was jam-packed with people. It was a HUGE success. I remembered what I was told by the Disney accountants in Orlando:
“If we built this place, it would be an utter failure — no one would come.”
I felt totally vindicated.
CUT TO: A few more years later.
The Los Angeles Times runs a huge laudatory article on architect Jon Jerde. It crows over how brilliant and original his ideas have been — especially Universal’s CityWalk.
I finally couldn’t take this bullshit anymore. I fired off a letter to the Times outlining the true origins of CityWalk.
KABOOM! My letter triggers a firestorm of front-page articles and counter-articles, letters and counter-letters. I discover that at WDI they are taking the Times articles and letters and making gigantic wall-sized blow-ups, plastering them all over the hallways at WDI for all of their employees to read.
I hear through the grapevine that the Disney people are split. Half think it’s great that WDI is finally getting its due as the true creator of CityWalk; the rest are pissed off that I’m taking any credit at all (the theory being that at a Walt Disney company, Walt Disney is responsible for all the good ideas from the company that bears his name; Disney employees are supposed to be anonymous, faceless and invisible).
Eventually, the big brouhaha died down and the dust settled.
That December, Jon Jerde sent me a beautiful Christmas card…a thank you, I guessed, for all the free front-page publicity.
I thought it was pretty classy of the guy.
And that’s my Jon Jerde story. Rest in peace, Big Guy.