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ARCHITECTURE / DIRK SUTRO

Best, Worst of '90--Plus a Wish List

December 27, 1990|DIRK SUTRO

SAN DIEGO — With business slow and layoffs hitting many San Diego architectural firms, architects may not be in the best of spirits contemplating the past year. But, recession aside, it was a good year for San Diego architecture.

Although the city continued to get more than its share of mediocre buildings, several were completed that were worthy of national praise from design critics. Along with better buildings, local design awareness received a much-needed boost as architecture and design crept higher on agendas in local government and education.

What were the year's biggest disappointments?

The San Diego City Council's continued lackadaisical attitude toward historic preservation, for one. The year began with the council overturning its own Historic Site Board's request to designate the Crystal Pier, a longtime icon of Pacific Beach, as historic. Developers plan to replace rustic cottages with new development.

And, as the year draws to a close, the fate of several stately Victorian homes in Little Italy north of downtown--the most significant collection of period Victorians left in San Diego--hangs in the balance as the council considers whether or not to designate them historic.

Mediocre tract houses and retail centers continued their march across the county this year. Tract home builders continue to settle for the economical, pseudo-Mediterranean look because of its easy marketability. New malls,

including Chula Vista Center and River Village in Bonsall, suffered either from too much Med or too much confusion--odd geometric forms slapped together from cheap materials in an attempt to create visual excitement.

As one San Diego developer of shopping centers confessed recently, "I know I can turn out Mediterranean-style centers for $40 a square foot." For anything else, he said, he would worry about higher costs or overcoming close-minded attitudes toward fresh architecture from the bankers, marketing consultants and the public.

There were some auspicious openings this year: Oceanside's civic center (designed by Charles Moore/Urban Innovations Group), Escondido's new transit center (Rob Quigley), Del Mar Plaza (Jon Jerde with McCabe/Gish), Uptown District in Hillcrest (SGPA Planning and Architecture and Lorimer Case Architects) and the Emerald Shapery Center downtown--the first downtown high-rise in at least 10 years to have been designed by a local architect, C.W. Kim, and a good one at that.

In the Escondido transit center, Quigley proved that low-cost tilt-up concrete can be used to elegant effect, and he created a series of outdoor "waiting rooms" that take full advantage of temperate weather.

Del Mar Plaza blends with nearby buildings without looking too much like a building on Disneyland's Main Street. Quality materials, public art and inviting public spaces help the project succeed.

Uptown District suffers from a lack of art and fine materials, but its collage of forms lifted from adjacent neighborhoods show how a large mixed-use project can be gracefully shoehorned into a dense, urban setting.

Along with better buildings, a number of positive changes within local institutions seem to bode well.

UC San Diego hired internationally acclaimed architect and experienced educator Adele Naude Santos last April to head its fledgling architecture school scheduled to open in 1992.

She plans to place practical concerns, such as low-cost housing, the environment and border issues, on an equal footing with esoteric theories.

The New School of Architecture downtown responded to the competition by appointing leading local architect Ralph Roesling as chairman of architecture. With enrollment of 75 and a faculty including such local design and planning pros as City Architect Mike Stepner and architects Rene Davids, Ted Smith, Jennifer Luce and Dale Jenkins, the school seems destined to carve out a complementary niche alongside the larger, higher-profile UCSD program.

Last May's daylong "Shaping the City" symposium at UCSD addressed pressing problems faced by American cities. San Diego could use more such hard-hitting issue-oriented forums in lieu of the lightweight slide shows that are more common.

After a methodical, behind-the-scenes first couple years in the job he filled in 1988, City Architect Mike Stepner took a higher profile in 1990. He led two town meetings on how to make better public spaces and how to improve large-scale residential developments.

By putting city planners, local design professionals, the public and visiting design and planning experts together at these gatherings, Stepner created a new opportunity for influential locals to hear fresh design and planning ideas.

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