SAN DIEGO — For the first time, a San Diego architect has been awarded the coveted Rome Prize Fellowship, which affords an architect six months to two years of expenses-paid study at the American Academy in Rome.
Teddy Cruz, 29, was one of only two architectural winners selected this year from among 1,010 applicants from a variety of disciplines. He joins an elite group of past Rome Prize Fellows that includes Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, Louis Kahn, Richard Meier, Charles Moore and James Stirling.
Fellows use their time abroad to pursue independent studies in their fields. Cruz's prize carries an approximate value of $50,000, according to a spokesman for the American Academy, and covers room, board and travel expenses. Cruz will be in Rome for a year, starting in September.
He plans to pursue two lines of inquiry: testing his own conceptions about architecture against the ideas of the past, and studying how Baroque architects were influenced by ancient frescoes unearthed at Pompeii.
Cruz, who works for San Diego architect Rob Quigley, presented Rome Prize jurors with a convincing package of talents. His portfolio proves that he began turning out highly sophisticated designs even before graduating from architecture school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1987. He has a special gift for using idiosyncratic color renderings to explore forms and meanings in an abstract, painterly fashion.
"In my own architecture, I have been fascinated by the whole confrontation between representational and abstract art," said Cruz, who was born and raised in Guatemala City and immigrated to San Diego in 1982. "Some think abstract art is not art, that art has to be 'real,' to portray concrete symbols," he said.
"In the U.S., people want everything to be familiar and comfortable. There is a general sense that in the architecture schools, people are not being taught to think on their own. I want my work to challenge the mind and emotions like a piece of abstract painting or sculpture, where you read different layers of meaning."
Soft-spoken and slight of build, Cruz is obviously a man of weighty ideas. His inevitable solo career will undoubtedly be an uphill struggle against the status quo. But Cruz has already demonstrated some staying power.
Last year, he was hired, independent of the Quigley office, to design a house for a speculative builder who probably thought he would get a cheap, serviceable set of plans from a hungry young architect. Instead, on his first built solo project, Cruz persuaded his client to depart from a cliched, Spanish-flavored notion in favor of Cruz's harder-edged, clean-lined original design.
Along with successes have come learning experiences. Last year, for example, Cruz and a handful of fellow young architects presented "Unsolicited Patterns for a Reluctant City" at the Simayspace Gallery downtown. Their practical thesis that a redesigned airport could make vital connections to the city didn't entirely come across because the graphics used were all abstract.
There was, however, a payoff. A local art consultant saw one of Cruz's renderings and commissioned several new works--purely as art--for a client.
In Quigley, Cruz has a mentor who is 100% in tune with his interest in the philosophical, theoretical and abstract aspects of architecture.
"He's able to put into his work and drawings a wonderful blend of Latin sensuousness and extroversion without losing a sort of Anglo, cool intellectualism," Quigley said. "A lot of his work looks like it could have come out of the (Architectural Assn.) in London"--a highly respected but rigid school of architecture--"but there's a joy that would never be found in European architecture."
Cruz's graphic abilities have found a home in the Quigley office, as they did during the mid-1980s in the office of San Diego architect Randy Dalrymple. Cruz's renderings of a home designed by Dalrymple graced the pages of Progressive Architecture magazine in 1986, and Cruz's abstract pastel drawings played an important role last year as Quigley refined his design of a new home in Telluride, Colo., for movie director Oliver Stone.
Philosophically, Cruz rejects much of the trendiness that characterized the 1980s, when superficial references to classical forms were the in thing, and the movement dubbed postmodernism, spearheaded by architects such as Michael Graves, sought a warmth, humor and richness many late modern buildings lacked.
"I've really been a big fan of modernism," Cruz said. "Le Corbusier is a big idol of mine. I think it's too bad that modernism degenerated into what it did, the work that happened in the '40s, '50s, '60s. I think the real intentions of the modern movement were lost.