“You are in the midst of a crowd of people meandering through lively streets, alleys and open piazzas. On all sides are stores, cinemas and cafes, in vivid buildings with dazzling signs; around you are colorful stalls and push-carts, fountains and trees. There is a cacophony of sounds emanating from all directions; there are mime artists and street performers. It’s chaotic, vibrant and loud. Where are you? You are in public space, Jerde-style.”

Frances Anderton, You Are Here, 1999






HORTON PLAZA — As we have been spending much time exploring the bends, turns, pathways and viewpoints of Horton Plaza as well as reading about its creation (both from the perspective of architecture but also just as importantly by studying the sociological phenomena that made such a creation possible,) we are pressed to say that Jon Jerde’s creation is for us an architecture of ideas. While wandering through the halls one is asked to look back out on the various elements of historical architectures joined together and layered over one another; echoes of old Europe and the “New World,” one is invited to look out over the Italian hill town canyon with the skyline of San Diego pouring down from above (much of which was built as a response to and derivative of developer Ernest Hahn’s development vision.) It makes for an experience that asks us not only to look ahead, but to look back, to remember and imagine, maybe even to fantasize and take pleasure, as Ann Bergren suggests in her 1999 article about the site. What do we desire from our city center? what do we wish for? where do we go when we daydream? There is also a question of civic imagination, or a desire to link ourselves to certain references. I think now of the recent surge of public interest in the mapping of our DNA, the desire to see on the computer screen the traces, markings, concentrations of colors that purportedly link us to our strewn ancestry.


Horton Plaza was built not just to repopulate downtown San Diego but to create an image of a city center that would appeal to suburban desires. It is no surprise that we both grew up in the suburbs where we ambled about the various shopping malls (Parkway Plaza, Grossmont Center, Mission Valley, Fashion Valley, Horton Plaza) only to both eventually become expats for a time in France and Italy. But it is precisely this return home that prompted a reinvigorated sensitivity to the ideas that were underlying and accompanying us throughout our childhood and the logics of a place in which we struggled to find ourselves. Upon our return walking became important, letting the city impress itself upon us, especially as walking seemed contrary to the way the city was asking to be seen and experienced. I remember a particular moment of walking east along the San Diego River passing the football stadium on my way toward the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá. I arrived to a sign that marked how the mission was set afire by the Kumeyaay many of whom were not too happy about the arrival of the Spaniards. I turned back out toward the valley to the hum of the intersection of Interstates 8 and 15. I imagined the self-pity, the forlorn and homesick colonizing immigrants, lonely on the edge of the world, longing for their familiar Europe, their supposed center. And then I thought of the railroad and how they could never get it to arrive to San Diego. I thought of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 and the attempts to create a “New World” center that worked, and then kept not working, the logics of re-centering not quite holding up. No wonder the recent cultural capital of San Diego is so endeared to craft beer and its obvious older counterpart: beach life. Both certainly invite us to confuse or forget our efforts.


Horton Plaza cost 140 million dollars and displaced several city blocks of significant buildings let alone an uncounted population of inhabitants. Ask anyone who “remembers” and the story quickly unfolds as such: it was a mess, full of degenerates, the red light district, drugs, in a word “dangerous.” The language here is not unfamiliar to us, so nonchalantly associated with labeling disadvantaged populations. I ask myself now: who were we actually talking about then? I ask myself the same now.

(Recently I asked a few strangers in San Diego when we were perched at a particularly high vantage point of the city from which the hillside of Tijuana was visible if they could identify what they were looking at. Not one person out of the several I asked knew that they were looking across the border into the Tijuana River Valley.)

Though he faced skepticism from a conservative business establishment as well as opposition from a bourgeoning preservationist movement, Hahn negotiated and shepherded Horton Plaza into reality. Beyond this binary, the result was clear: the Gaslamp Quarter, Victorian Architecture, and “architecture” more broadly became fundamental to San Diego. We are not saying that one begot the other, but the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation (GQHF) was founded in 1981, the proposal to renovate downtown San Diego with plans for a shopping mall first appeared in 1972, the building in which the GQHF resides was designated historical in 1979, and Horton Plaza opened in 1985. Suffice it to say, there is a cross weaving of ideas on preservation throughout this period.

Horton Plaza did end up achieving its projected emblematic presence in Downtown San Diego. Perhaps it takes the generation of those of us who grew up impressed, enchanted, and even haunted by its labyrinthine halls to recognize how strongly Jerde’s architecture impacted our collective city psyche. We would even argue that those who dislike the structure are frustrated by how impactful it really is, almost like a gargoyle you wish to forget. Jerde gifted San Diego a post-modern architectural gem, gaining national attention and hosting millions of people in its first year. We were once again “on the map”. Our city, which we well know has both a through line of conservative history as well as remarkable outbursts of alternative culture, once again was the site of an avant-garde phenomenon, a strange marriage between a relatively progressive developer and a romantic postmodern architect. In fact its creation even mirrors and perhaps should be put alongside the history of other utopian outbursts that have passed through San Diego (William Heath Davis’s folly, Jesse Shepherd’s Villa Montezuma, Katherine Tingley’s Lomaland.) Hahn’s plans included a hunt for local businesses that could represent the fantasies Jerde’s structures evoked. There was, for example, a travel agency that sold flights solely to European cities, clearly the origins for Jerde’s inspirations. Even the carts at the floor of the Horton Plaza channel were to be mobile startups for up and coming low budget businesses, gypsy carts along the main avenue. There were clear plans of a type of social engineering, not so unlike the impulses of Le Corbusier though surely through the imagineering lens of Disney.