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AIA Awards a Testament to Excellence

June 29, 1989|Dirk Sutro

SAN DIEGO — After years of architectural drought, San Diego is finally getting the quantity of excellent architecture one might expect from a city of more than a million. Saturday night's American Institute of Architects awards program provided the evidence.

After dinner on the unimproved 30th floor of Skidmore Owings & Merrill's Symphony Towers--an appropriate setting for the awards because it is the first of a new generation, at last, of respectable downtown high-rises--a distinguished jury said mostly positive things as the 20 awards were presented.

For the first time in recent years, the jurors seemed fairly satisfied with all of their choices. Last year's winners weren't as consistent in quality, and the '88 jury hinted as much. The 1987 jury found only 11 projects worth recognizing.

Jurors were E. Fay Jones, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright and partner with Maurice Jennings; Romaldo Giurgola of Mitchell/Giurgola, whose most notable recent work is the $800-million Australian Parliament House in Canberra; Peter Pran of Ellerbe Becket, a modernist who studied with and worked for Mies van der Rohe, and Steve O'Brien of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the corporate giant of architecture.

Awards are given on three levels, honor being the highest, followed by merit and citation of recognition.

A whole group of young San Diego architects is hitting its stride. The projects showed impressive polish, and hinted that there is some possibility of an architecture uniquely suited to this region. The only disappointment is that these architects aren't yet doing many large public and commercial buildings, the ones that affect the city the most.

Leading this brat pack is RNP, the partnership of Ralph Roesling and Kotaro Nakamura, which walked away with three awards. Of the four honor awards, RNP garnered two.

Jurors were effusive in their praise for RNP's immaculately detailed, clean-lined house design in Normal Heights, a gate house for the Navy that makes the most of what could have been a mundane institutional commission, and an unbuilt house for a site in the Cuyamaca Mountains. This last project marked only the second time in recent years that the jury has given an Honor award for an unbuilt project.

O'Brien praised RNP's mountain retreat for the "completeness of the solution, clarity of presentation and inventiveness. . . . There were elements in this submission we were searching for in all the projects, and we wanted to recognize it."

Delawie Bretton & Wilkes' downtown trolley station and transit headquarters on 13th Street was the only large office building recognized. Jurors liked the way its clock tower and powerful, clean lines add a fine piece of architecture to a blighted area.

Comeback of the year had to go to Deems Lewis McKinley, the veteran San Diego firm that hadn't won an award since 1986. It bounced back with two this time: an honor award for the Otay Mesa Library and a merit award for the 55,000-square-foot expansion of Torrey Pines High School.

Both projects use saw-toothed roof lines to make a dramatic design statement while creating banks of clerestory windows that let in abundant natural light.

The jury made a surprise move on behalf of historic preservation. At O'Brien's urging, they gave a special award to architect R. M. Schindler's crumbling concrete and wood El Pueblo Ribera courtyard apartments in La Jolla, one of San Diego's few modern masterpieces. O'Brien had seen the project 15 years ago and was alarmed at its disheveled condition. Jurors said they hope the attention will speed a rescue.

The jury again stepped out of the conventional awards mode to give a citation of recognition to artist and designer Steven Lombardi's "Out of Bounds," an abstract stage set for a dance presentation.

One alarming problem was apparent this year: Architects are winning awards for projects in which they had only a partial role as designers.

The most glaring example was the new Price Center at UC San Diego, for which Austin Hansen Fehlman Group picked up a Merit award. No one told the audience that Kaplan McLaughlin Diaz of San Francisco was the lead architect, with primary responsibility for the design.

A second example was Escondido City Hall. San Diego architect Charles Slert, now on his own, was a partner in PAPA at the time the project was designed, and contributed significantly to the design. Yet his name never came up.

Architects should be ashamed of taking credit where credit isn't entirely due, and in the future the AIA should attempt a more thorough policing of design credits.

The 165 entries and 450 people attending the event marked a significant increase over last year's 150 and 370, respectively.

Following is a complete list of winners:

Distinguished Building Award: County Adminstration Building, Louis Gill, William T. Johnson, Richard Requa, Sam Hamill.

Special Award: El Pueblo Ribera, R. M. Schindler.

Honor Awards: Meisel residence, RNP; Mills Building (downtown San Diego Trolley station-headquarters), Delawie Bretton & Wilkes Associates; Otay Mesa Library, Deems Lewis McKinley, cabin retreat, RNP.

Merit Awards: Home Sweet Home, PAPA; Torrey Pines High School expansion, Deems Lewis McKinley; Third College residence halls and dining facility, UCSD, Delawie Bretton & Wilkes Associates; Price Center, UCSD, Austin Hansen Fehlman Group with Kaplan McLaughlin Diaz; Escondido City Hall, PAPA, Tustin Ranch Golf Course clubhouse, Rob Wellington Quigley.

Citations of Recognition: Winton residence, Austin Hansen Fehlman Group; visitors center, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Robert Donald Ferris; White Alcorn Gallery, La Jolla, James Alcorn & Associates; Patterson residence, Platt Architects; Navy gate house, RNP; architects' offices, Studio E; Lemon Grove Senior Center (not yet built), Visions, "Out of Bounds," dance stage set, Steven Lombardi.

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