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Restored Building a Tribute to Architect

July 04, 1988|HILLIARD HARPER | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — When a March, 1987, fire destroyed a section of a tree-shrouded building in Hillcrest, a distinguished local architect offered his services for "practically nothing" to draw plans to restore the structure.

For architect Leonard Veitzer, developing a set of plans from scratch for the building where he once worked from 1965 to 1985 was a labor of love. Located at 3611 5th Ave., and built in 1950, the Design Center is actually a vintage piece of Modernist architecture.

Veitzer calls the subtle, split level glass, redwood and steel "box" that steps easily from 5th Avenue into a canyon "an icon in this county and this city. It takes into account the neighborhood, the aspect of the site, the molding of the land, the contouring. It's a very special place that should be protected and preserved."

Working without the benefit of blueprints, Veitzer carefully crafted a set of plans using memory and photographs. Construction on the $200,000 restoration project was recently completed.

Veitzer's efforts were as much a tribute to the memory of the building's original architect, the late Lloyd Ruocco, as they were an attempt to preserve this exceptional structure.

Ruocco was a visionary with an abiding concern for the future of San Diego's urban development, according to those architects who knew him. He was, they say, a rare inspiration, a philosopher-architect who knew how to wed Modernism to San Diego's geography and special climate rather than impose the style on it.

"He was a talented, graceful, sensitive man, slight of build, soft spoken, very articulate," Veitzer said. "But he couldn't get many people to listen to his message. His real legacy was one of ideas. His influence was not so much as a designer to be revered or copied, but rather his ideas and sensitivities of the city as a place to live and work and play, particularly as a happy, nurturing environment for children."

Ruocco, who died in 1981 of Alzheimer's disease, and his wife, Ilse, an interior designer who died not long after he did, seemed to have adopted San Diego as the child they never had, giving it their attention, love and nurturing.

According to Veitzer, Ruocco envisioned the ideal urban sector as interlaced with "green belts and environments for people. He was always concerned about the people as primary and the buildings as secondary."

Although the Design Center is now an architectural icon, Ruocco in his day was something of a maverick architect, an iconoclast who was designing his own thing at least two decades before Timothy Leary encouraged youths to tune in, turn on and drop out.

So was Ilse, a glamorous, vivacious woman who founded the interior design department at San Diego State University and who was the first San Diego interior designer to use modern Scandinavian designs.

Ruocco dreamed up the Design Center as the perfect creative environment for Ilse and himself as well as for others in the design arts. Sadly, landscape architect Harriet Wimmer was about the only designer to rent space after the center opened.

However, Ruocco soon established a Design Center tradition. After work, he'd invite other designers and artists to the center, and for several hours they would engage in some stimulating conversation about their shared interests in San Diego and design. But the center of those gatherings was Ruocco himself. He was spellbinding. Like a master jazz improviser, Ruocco would state his theme, then lift off in a wild verbal riff--a torrent of ideas--breathtaking in their extravagance and imagination.

His conception of an ideal city, for instance, was not of this century. Here is an excerpt from a 1975 interview, printed in Hidden Leaves magazine in 1983, which Ruocco gave to Kay Kaiser, who is now architecture critic of the San Diego Union:

"The Center, the magic mountain, will be mammoth, complex and amazing. Inside will be total flexibility for change at minimum construction cost, with the supermaze of electronics, transport, storage, services and practical needs all aiming at functional simplicity.

"The outside will be all for surprise, with variety of architectural shapes, spaces, levels, masses, textures, conglomerations, interpenetrations, interlinkages, trompe l'oeil, transparencies, svelte simplicities, fountains and other crescendos, psycho-insinuating advertising displays, architectonic or fluidly wild manifestations of landscape . . . .

" . . . The New Center will be a place packed with people day and night, masses and teeming cascades and streams of people, a multi-directional expositional amazement circuit like a million butterflies and birds in the heat of spring . . . ."

Back in the '50s and '60s, that kind of free-form thinking was a refreshing change for idealistic young architects just out of college. Here was a mature architect who still held to his ideals. Not surprisingly, the Ruoccos influenced a number of those who are the senior architects, landscape architects and interior designers in San Diego today.

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