This may be one of the few times in history where people say “good riddance!” to the gutting and rebuilding of a Frank Gehry building, and the architect himself agrees. As Gehry explains in the fascinating documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” the Santa Monica Place shopping mall was one of Gehry’s first commercial projects, and he hated it. However, Gehry, who needed the gig, delivered what the client wanted. When Gehry later complained to a colleague about the mall, his friend suggested that Gehry strike out on his own and design the kind of buildings that were true to his own vision. And that’s exactly what Gehry did.
I don’t know what Frank Gehry thinks about the newly redesigned Santa Monica Place, but, after two visits there with out-of-town visitors during the past week, I’m thoroughly impressed. Whereas the old mall was an unattractive appendage at the foot of the Third Street Promenade, the new mall is a natural extension. Feminine in feel, it invites with rounded shapes and a dizzying yet tasteful array of sleek surfaces, such as wood, glass, and steel, that somehow fit together perfectly. It draws visitors down a long straight corridor, then opens up into a beautiful curved open atrium. Let’s face it — the new Place is sexy.
When I first starting walking around and photographing the new Santa Monica Place, I was struck by the high-quality materials and the variety of eateries on the top level. These eateries include the prettiest glass-walled food court I have seen, the Sonoma Wine Garden (we ate there twice last week, sitting outside on sofas overlooking their herb garden — delicious), Pizza Antica, Ozumo Japanese cuisine, and more. Then I was drawn to the view of the Ocean and the Ferris wheel at the Pier that can be seen from the west end. But within minutes, I became captivated by the amount of seating spaces and how well they were being used.
The Place is now a a fabulous public space. Its circular design draws people inside and lets them look at and relate to each other. Interesting, organically shaped seating fosters both interaction and individual contemplation. One chap told me that he was receiving a clear free WiFi signal, and, indeed, a number of people on laptops were peppered among the three levels.
Suddenly, everything else feels old. When my visitors and I went to the similarly open-air Century City shopping mall a couple of days later, I was struck by how outdated and claustrophobic its winding walkways felt in comparison. Likewise, the straight shot of the Promenade suddenly seems utterly conventional.
I’m not a shopper, but I can report that Santa Monica Place is anchored by Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, as well as a huge Nike store. I was told by reliable authorities (i.e., a couple of women I know who are black belt shoppers) that the selections in these anchor stores are aimed at a younger, hipper crowd than those at some of their other locations. In addition, posh boutiques such as Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton, and Tiffany and Co. are present. The stores and their display windows are beautiful.
What do they say in the real estate biz about location? It’s difficult to imagine a better one for Santa Monica Place. In the new topless version, the sunlight abounds, the sea breeze keeps customers cool, and the area is of course a magnet for both tourists and locals. Parking also seems to be adequate, both at the Place and at the nearby municipal parking decks on 2nd and 4th streets, at least one of which is just a few steps across Broadway. There are nearby bus stops, and, if things go as planned, the terminus of the new Expo rail line will be just across Colorado Avenue. I wonder whether the Place will draw tourist dollars away from the Promenade, or even from other upscale shopping destinations, such as Beverly Hills. My guess is that the Place’s eateries will teem with both tourists and local businesspeople, but that, until the economy turns around substantially, most of those upscale stores won’t ring up too many sales.
Criticisms? The only one I can muster is that the middle level, blocked from above, suffers from too little sunlight. But when you reap so many of Mother Nature’s benefits, you have to take the bad with the good. Perhaps a few skylights would solve the problem.
Now, I know that, as successful public spaces go, Santa Monica Place is just a shopping mall. It’s not a park. It’s not the Piazza Navona. But check back with with me and Frank Gehry in two or three hundred years, and we’ll see.