Universal Studios Hollywood’s greatest strength has also been its greatest weakness. Since 1964, the old chicken ranch had always been a working production studio first with a studio tour, theme park , and shopping mall shoved in between. Universal has slowly been turning its back on its heritage of taking you behind the scenes and is now going directly at Disney’s lead on creating fantasy spaces.

So it has been with great interest that I have watched what they have been doing with the center of the upper lot (the former The Studio Entertainment Center). For decades that central location has been the home to a variety of Western Stunt shows. When the stunt show was sent to pasture the abandoned arena was used for special events, Halloween mazes and employee barbecues.

Back in 1989, architect Jon Jerde presented a plan that would make Universal as legible of an environment as Disneyland. The only component of that plan to get implemented was City Walk. And even that sector of the project was not fully realized as planned. My hope was the new “Universal Plaza” would become a unifying element.

Universal has done some amazing things lately, mostly in Florida. With Springfield, they were able to turn an ordinary food court into a familiar, immersive environment that you want to visit over and over. It doesn’t hurt that the menu items support the story. I can’t imagine how many Flaming Moes have already been sold. And I appreciate the gusty move of showing what the Clogger burger will do to you while you are eating one. Genius.

So I had high hopes for Hollywood. Like any other development project or planning issue, I ask myself the following questions. Does the new act of construction repair, enhance or embellish the public realm. If so, how? If not, why are you doing the project? Finally, is the result Exceptional, Acceptable, or Regrettable?

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What I look for is evidence that the space has that Higher Degree of Life. What do I mean by the Higher Degree of Life? Here is an explanation from Walt and the Promise of Progress City:

Perhaps you have witnessed how a carefully designed, immersive environment can make a significant impression on the individual and can quickly change one’s mood and behavior. Walt had the vision and desire to create such a place. As a result, he changed the way we look at the public realm. How did he do this? Why are some places filled with life while other places seem so lifeless?

Architect Christopher Alexander suggested that, “What we call ‘life’ is a general condition, which exists, to some degree or other, in every part of space: brick, stone, grass, river, painting, building, daffodil, human being, forest, city.” Alexander added, “The key to this idea is that every part of space—every connected region of space, small or large—has some degree of life.” Most importantly, “This degree of life is well defined, objectively existing, and measurable.” A space that demonstrates a high-quality, positive experience for the majority of people is one that has a “higher degree of life.” Understanding what these measurable qualities are can help to unlock the riddle of how to create wonderful places.

Recently, the new Universal Plaza opened, so I went to checked it out. Form follows function and Universal Plaza (not to be confused with Universal City Plaza, the big office building at Lankershim) was meant to be a flexible space that could be quickly reconfigured to serve multiple functions. At times it would be a performance space with a stage. During Halloween it could be integrated into that hard ticket event. At Christmas, snow will be on the ground and during the hot months, fountains will bubble up from the ground and splash children.

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What most people will notice first is the new tower. Until now, the first thing visitors saw after pushing through the turnstiles was a huge pole sign with the words “discount tickets.” Not a good first impression. With the new construction, that pole sign has been replaced by a New York style Art Deco tower. The tower lights up with changing colors and has a shop (not yet in operation) at its base. One side is an arch. On the other side is…a snack stand. The language of Art Deco thrives on symmetry and this seems to be lopsided.

Architect Louis Sullivan said of towers that they “must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.” The new tower at Universal Plaza reminds me of an elegant element just above the canopy of a suburban shopping mall cineplex. Or that somebody tried to snip the top off the Chrysler Building in New York and put it on the ground. Kind of stumpy. Always looking to see the deeper meaning in someone’s design choice, I wanted to learn if it is a reflection of something else. For example, the front arch was inspired by the Paramount front gate. It is not representative of anything in Hollywood that I am aware of and my requests to learn more from the Universal Publicity Department has gotten me nowhere.

With all of that said, its success will be measured in the number of people who pose in front and then send those photos to their friends. Right now it is in competition with the globe out front and the entry arch with the red carpet. And the King Kong sign in City Walk.

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Surrounding the plaza is a beautiful pergola that provides something that Universal never really had before – a place to sit. Movable chairs, small tables, seating walls around the planters all add up to a resting space that was sorely needed. Vines have been affixed to the walls, with the hope that the structure will be covered in flowers in a few years. They worked around a few of the mature trees and the result is an almost relaxing people watching space. That is a brand new attitude and a reflection of Universal’s shift toward serving local guests and not relying just on those from outside the region. Universal has never been a locals park. This area is the first step in changing that perception. For Disney fans you can thank Walt. He knew people needed a place to gather and figure out what they were going to do next. This takes a lot of room.

The structures surrounding the open space were dedicated to food. In addition to the small stand in the tower building, another very colorful whimsy building is just outside the boundary of Universal Plaza to capture the millions aiming for the Despicable Me ride. The big new addition is the massive Pink’s hot dog stand. Order over here. Walk past the show window kitchen where you can watch the chefs prepare your hot dog. Luckily they are not showing how the hot dogs themselves are made (it’s always better to eat a hot dog than think how it’s made).

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Using the tests stated above, while not perfect by any measure, Universal Plaza has repaired what was broken. The abandoned stunt show arena was ready to go. The plaza is an enhancement. What is most interesting is how it will be embellished.

Speculation time.

What if Universal Plaza is meant to be a hub just like the one at Disneyland?

While talking with a senior Universal employee, they told me what I was seeing would all make sense in three years. What this suggests to me is that the entrance will be realigned and that the Streets of the World section in front of Minion Mayhem days are numbered. This is reinforced by the awkward theming of the food stand in front of Mel’s. This is either a temporary structure or a sign of things to come. Whatever it is, it is outside the boundaries of the plaza. Could the success of the Super Silly Funland expand in front of Cru’s house? Or some other kid friendly property? Perfect for the families with young children to turn left.

Straight back are anonymous studio buildings. Look at the subtle transformation of the animal show and the Castle Theater (Special Effects Show). These two theaters will remain as the only examples on the upper lot of Universal’s former mission; taking you behind the scenes. If it weren’t for the Studio Tour these would be recycled. Next door will be Springfield with Krustyland as the backdrop. One tick over will be the tour entrance. But the direction most guests will aim for will right, straight toward the Harry Potter project. Say goodbye to Shrek and the Panasonic Theater. Waterworld will remain. . . for now.

Need to disperse the early morning crowds of the future? Kids to the left, Potter people and locals to the right, and Hollywood tourists straight ahead.

As I said. Speculation. Your thoughts?