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Horton Plaza Mall: Fun is Over

Alexander Gutzmer , Jessica Mankel
San Diego

The Horton Plaza Mall in Downtown San Diego has become a ruin of a mall. The property developer Stockdale now wants to convert it into a high-tech campus.

The abandoned Horton Plaza Mall in San Diego is deteriorating. (Photo: Alexander Gutzmer)

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The Horton Plaza Mall in Downtown San Diego was once vivid and colourful. The bright colours may still be there, but the consumers have gone: it has become a ruin of a mall. The property developer Stockdale now wants to convert it into a high-tech campus with entertainment facilities. A last visit to a remnant of history.

What a shock. One expects an architecture of hysterical fun, bright colours, unusual spatial effects, squealing teenagers. And then this: the icon of postmodern architecture, “Horton Plaza Mall” in Downtown San Diego, is abandoned and deteriorating. Horton Plaza was once a “magnum opus” of the iconic planning office Jon Jerde. The gigantic complex opened its doors in a deteriorating Downtown San Diego in 1985. The outdoor mall, occupying six and a half city blocks, marked the beginning of the district’s regeneration. Today, the Gaslamp Quarter, adjacent to the south-east, comes across as fresh and vibrant. This, however, is no longer the case for Jon Jerde’s mall legend.

Horton Plaza Mall: a challenging descent

Consumption patterns certainly change. The construction and business species “mall” has generally seen better days. Moreover, the labyrinth-like character of large-scale complexes such as Horton Plaza doesn’t go down too well with modern consumers, who prefer efficient and transparent routing. On top of that, the younger generation tends to order online anyway. Yet I couldn’t help feeling melancholic as I stumbled down the dusty corridors of the five-storey mall ruin this morning: blind windows, fallen off signs, elevators that no longer work. The latter presents a particular problem, as Jerde’s project includes dead ends and confusing paths, like many large-scale constructions from the 1980s. Once you have reached the top floor, the descent becomes quite a challenge.

How to lose oneself

The Horton Plaza Mall was a $140 million downtown redevelopment project by The Hahn Company. As the first example of the so-called “experience architecture” by architect Jon Jerde, it was considered a risky and radical departure from the standard paradigm of mall design. Jerde’s design was based on the essay “The Aesthetics of Lostness”, which deals with “losing oneself“: uneven levels, long ramps, sudden falls, dramatic parapets, dead ends and colorfully painted facades border an inner courtyard in the center.

Innovation Hub?

In August 2018, Stockdale Capital Partners purchased the complex with the intention of developing it into The Campus at Horton, an office and retail complex. They proposed an “innovation hub” focused on technology and biotechnology companies. However, some retail, food and beverage and entertainment facilities were to be retained. At the time, the company was still hoping to start construction in 2019, with completion expected in the fall of 2020, but this did not happen.

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Horton Plaza Mall will soon be history?

Frankly, however, I am fascinated by such architectural rough edges. In the future, the location will likely be smoother and easier to use, but definitely less playful. The property developer Stockdale is still planning to convert the ensemble into a high-tech campus with entertainment facilities. The architectural office Rios Clementi Hale from Los Angeles has already been commissioned. The reason for existing delays is ironically due to a lawsuit against the conversion initiated by shopping giant Macy’s, who still operates one of the few remaining open stores in Horton Plaza. The objection is unlikely to be successful in the long term, however. Jerde’s delirious consumer temple will soon be history.

And indeed, in January 2020 Stockdale Capital Partners announced that they had reached an agreement with Macy’s to close their business so that the redevelopment of the shopping center can proceed. Beginning in May 2020, Horton Plaza was fenced and demolished; the plan is to use it primarily as office space for a new technology center called “The Campus At Horton”. Completion is expected in 2022.

Playful grandeur is gone, fun is over

Unfortunately it will no longer be possible to marvel at the dilapidated, pseudo-Italian Piazzas and Latin American temple impressions, which gave an atmospheric insight into a time when architecture may not always have been tasteful, but was certainly sustained by a playful grandeur. Nowadays, this bright, cheerful spirit is often sadly missed.

In 2019 the ASLA EXPO took place in San Diego. Here, we talked with Wendy Miller, new president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

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