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ARCHITECTURE REVIEW : San Diego Nearing the 1990s With a Potential for Great Things

December 30, 1989|DIRK SUTRO

SAN DIEGO — Most architects seem to agree that the last decade was more of a painful adolescence than a graceful maturing. But many lessons learned during the past 10 years have advanced San Diego's architectural scene to the point where the city appears poised for great things in the '90s.

Most observers are hard-pressed to name any landmark buildings put up in the past 10 years, and only one may stand the test of time: the new San Diego Convention Center, architect Arthur Erickson's masterpiece of concrete geometries.

But if there weren't many outstanding buildings for a city that recently became the nation's sixth largest, there were other milestones.

As the decade began, former Mayor Pete Wilson led the way toward developing a new downtown core. Its transformation from a place with little retail activity and virtually no residential base to an urban center that incorporates both, as well as the awesome pace of development elsewhere in the city, often proceeded too quickly for the good of architecture.

Horton Plaza evolved from a mall with many street-level openings to a closed-in design. This has proven successful commercially but less viable as a tool aimed at revitalizing nearby streets. And architect Jon Jerde's Disneyland-ish takeoff on postmodernism is bound to look dated in a few years.

Downtown, the Centre City Development Corp. struggled to create a mechanism by which significant new projects could evolve with input not only from their architects and developers, but also from city planners, community groups, economic consultants and politicians.

The Courtyard, a 40-story apartment tower for a site at Front and G streets, typified this struggle. Three development proposals were sent back for revamping, and Johnson Fain & Pereira Associates of Los Angeles replaced San Diego architect Rob Quigley on the team that eventually won the job.

Their proposed design seems good in terms of human scale and local context, but the confusion of the drawn-out CCDC process may have scared off developers and architects from future opportunities.

Context, and the question of whether there could ever be a regional architecture here, continued to perplex San Diego architects.

Some are starting to realize that "context" doesn't necessarily mean borrowing from Balboa Park's towers and domes, or lifting architectural elements from nearby buildings.

It's a good sign that architects are finding more subtle ways of addressing the climate and life style of the area as well as the specific needs of building users.

The increased quality of large projects, both public and private, was a countywide trend in the '80s.

New civic center designs in Oceanside and Escondido proved that excellent architecture can happen when architects listen to a variety of comments and carefully consider site and context.

Behind both civic centers are design competitions that attracted entries from large and small architectural firms and forums that gave the public ample opportunity to submit their opinions.

Public awareness of architecture increased immensely during the decade.

San Diego Home/Garden magazine is thriving after 10 years in business, with the best of local home design as a significant portion of its contents.

The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects honors the best and worst of local architecture as selected by a jury that includes several non-architects. Started in 1976, the Orchids & Onions program came of age in the '80s. This year, more than 1,000 people attended the awards event at Symphony Hall. While it may be argued whether the program takes architecture seriously enough, it gets people talking about architecture, and that is good.

San Diego's largest firms went through a decade of transition. With the city's rapid growth, many enjoyed tremendous business success, and, by the mid-'80s, were turning out designs at breakneck speed. Their staffs expanded accordingly.

However, as the decade came to a close, some firms saw a need to either scale back their operations for the sake of quality control, or to revamp them, putting more emphasis on design.

"We had 110 people, but we decided that to do the sizes of projects we wanted to do, a staff of 70 to 85 would be best," said Gordon Carrier, president of BSHA. He admitted that design quality had slipped. "We made a conscious effort to scale back. I think it has to do with giving more personal service, and realizing that good design comes from being able to control what's going on more."

San Diego architects, at large and small shops, were faced with a wave of out-of-town competition in the late '80s.

Michael Graves (The Aventine in La Jolla), Arthur Erickson, Moore Ruble Yudell (Escondido and Oceanside civic centers), Helmut Jahn (Great American Plaza downtown), Robert Stern (Prospect Point), Robert Venturi (La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art expansion), and Skidmore Owings & Merrill (Symphony Towers) designed projects here for the first time.

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