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Sam Hall Kaplan

It's a Small Reward for Thinking Big

November 10, 1985|Sam Hall Kaplan

There was no item in these columns announcing a national design competition for a prime slice of the San Diego waterfront. The deadline for submissions was two weeks ago.

It was not that the competition sponsored by the fledgling San Diego Architectural Club was not sincerely motivated, professionally presented or challenging. It indeed was.

The competition also had the potential of controversy, for me another attractive point. The site, which includes a major hotel and is just a few blocks from Horton Plaza, has been of late the object of some muddled design efforts.

Hopefully, a competition could generate more appropriate and imaginative designs than those now being shown behind closed doors in San Diego while also raising the design consciousness of the public and perhaps stir up some open debate.

"Development along the waterfront can transform San Diego into one of the truly great cities of the world," declared Roy Miller of the club in announcing the competition. "Yet all of this promise must be carefully considered and carefully guided, not just politically, socially and economically, but also aesthetically and artistically."

The problem I had was that the club was offering a $250 first-place prize. And there was not even a hope dangled that the winner just might be invited to join a team struggling under contract to come up with a workable design.

Indeed, the $250 was less than what it will cost the club to fly one of the judges to and from New York City, and much, much less than what the total bill no doubt will come to for the wining and dining of the jury.

While the competition was calling for just one 20-by-30-inch submission, the value of the time involved in developing a concept and executing the drawings obviously would far exceed the compensation going to the winner, let alone the other hopefuls. There also was a registration fee of $15.

Though obviously well-intentioned--the club reportedly stretched and struggled to raise more money--I felt the competition was taking advantage of architects. And with competitions becoming more and more popular as of late, due in part to the publicity they receive, one had to draw a line.

(I also have a problem with competitions that are not really open and are obviously manipulated to the benefit of select name architects, but that did not seem to be the situation in San Diego.)

Architects have a hard enough time these days, what with dealing with speculative builders, demanding bureaucrats, contentious engineers, fickle clients and relatives and friends contemplating a new house or a new kitchen. They do not need peers taking advantage of them through a competition.

Of course, the ultimate decision is with the architect, weighing whether the investment of time is worth the opportunity to display design concepts and perhaps win some recognition, if not from the public, then from peers.

It is with this in mind that I note the club received 23 submissions. Judging is Friday, after which they will be on display at the Inside Gallery, 715 8th Ave., San Diego. The jury consists of Jim Burns, Paul Cyrcio, Jon Jerde and Robert A.M. Stern.

New York-based Stern also served on a jury for the recent annual design awards of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the storm and stress of which still lingers.

The jury's decision to ignore the categories in which submission had been made and give out only three honor and eight merit awards, primarily for private residential designs, peeved many local architects, except, of course, the winners.

But the put-downs by the jury also stimulated some discussions about the awards process, out of which just might come a few constructive changes. These include reducing the number of categories and broadening the panel of jurors.

There also is talk of limiting the submissions to projects completed within a specific time frame. It seems a few architects have been submitting the same projects for years with the hope that eventually they will find a sympathetic jury and be anointed.

One innovation this year that should be continued was putting the submissions on display in the City Room, at the California Museum of Science and Industry at Exposition Park. The exhibit could have run a little longer than a week after the announcement of the winners to allow the public some second glances and guessing.

Happy to note that the Getty is edging into 20th-Century art (which it originally said it would not do) with the announcement it will be duplicating a major portion of the Frank Lloyd Wright archives to make them available to scholars.

Containing letters, plans, drawings and manuscripts, as well as photographs of projects, the archives are maintained by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation at Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Perhaps the Getty would take the next logical step and, in addition to aiding the preservation of Wright's plans, also aid in the preservation of his buildings--such as the landmark Ennis-Brown house in the Los Feliz area, which is in desperate need of help.

Preserving the archival clutter and not the buildings would be like saving the scraps of Rembrandt's creative process but not the results, his paintings--an irony that the Getty, in its commitment to conserving art, surely can appreciate.

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