San Diego is enjoying an upswing in outstanding architecture.
Winners of this year’s American Institute of Architects San Diego 2023 design awards, presented June 21 at UCSD Park & Market building downtown, show just how we’re evolving. Architects are finding fresh ways to combine catchy forms with practical considerations, such as how well a building serves its users, how it fits into a neighborhood and whether it meets a high standard for sustainable design. Here is the full list of winners aiasandiego.org/design-awards.
Overall, this year’s collection strikes me as a pretty sweet package for AIASD on its 95th birthday. It’s a stronger group than I’ve seen in years.
From a pool of several dozen candidates, 29 winners were selected by a jury of five architects who deliberated via Zoom: Marlon Blackwell (Fayetteville, Ark.); Barbara Bestor (Boston); Andrew Love (Boston); Christiana Moss (Phoenix) and Alex Ogata (Kansas City, Mo.).
“I was impressed with the wide range of work submitted,” said Blackwell, who in 2020 received the annual Gold Medal awarded by national AIA to the country’s leading architect. “This tells me there is a pretty dynamic design community and culture there.”
“The projects were responsive to climate and terrain,” added Ogata. “Buildings by the city, the desert, the water, for example, cluster around each other creating mini-regional identities.”
Numero Uno on my list is Mira Mesa High School’s new music building, winner of a top-level Honor Award. It was designed by Architects Mosher Drew, which turns 75 this year.
For the most part, this campus is a sprawl of bunker-ish 1970s buildings. The new addition, along with fellow Honor Award winners the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park and the renovated Mingei International Museum, demonstrate the transformative power of the arts when paired with strong architecture.
The music building’s exterior of striated concrete panels and wood-like phenolic sheathing grabs your attention with its sculptural forms. The most prominent feature is an angular piece that juts from one end, with the letters “MMHS” silhouetted on a broad expanse of glass. Clerestories all around bring daylight into the spaces, while solid lower-level walls keep traffic noise from Mira Mesa Boulevard at bay.
Hallways are bright blue, which doesn’t seem in keeping with the refined design, but apparently boosts school spirit among the school’s Marauders team fans. At one end of the building is an expansive rehearsal space with a podium for bands director Jeanne Christensen. Her charges have won several national awards and marched in the Rose Parade. At the structure’s other end is a space for orchestral music. In between are practice rooms, and the building also includes offices and administrative areas.
In the performance spaces, varied angles combine with surface materials that absorb or diffuse the sound of instruments to create a subtle sonic mix. On a recent afternoon, violins, wind instruments, percussion and brass came through with balance and clarity.
A few miles away at UC San Diego, Franklin Antonio Hall (named for the UCSD alum and Qualcomm co-founder who donated $30 million) is a Merit Award-winning research center designed by Perkins & Will.
This $127 million, 186,000-square-foot stunner of concrete, steel and glass is configured in two V shapes connected by an atrium. The Vs create a tapered landscaped entrance in front, and an outdoor courtyard behind the building, at the edge of a natural canyon. The sharp-edged exterior is softened with rows of tall vertical sunshades that admit daylight but block direct sun — a simple elegant way of keeping interiors cool.
Franklin Antonio Hall is a double-winner. Besides its Merit Award, it received an Honor Award in the Divine Detail category for its finely crafted spiral staircase. At the heart of the building, this sculptural element lures visitors upward like a mini version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. Climbing these pie-slice treads, I was impressed with the ergonomics. They are wide and low in height, and there is plenty of room for two-way traffic.
With school out for summer, you might run into faculty, students and assorted San Diegans at Cerveceria Insurgente in Tijuana, an Honor Award winner designed by Heleo Architecture & Planning. The three-story brewery and tasting bar has a rooftop terrace and an open interior that incorporates tall cylindrical fermenting tanks as part of the décor. Concrete, steel and glass are combined with a lightness that makes this place glow like a lantern at night.
It seems that young Heleo might be headed for a future in the feel-good business. They also earned a Merit Award for Sage & Fire, a cannabis outlet in a converted garage behind a gas station in Lone Pine, near Mt. Whitney. Town planners specified a “woodsy” style, the architects responded with a sort of “rustic barn” that changes character with the seasons, according to Carlos Hernandez, a partner at Heleo. Unlike your typical neighborhood weed shop, Sage & Fire is an upscale retail boutique, one that just happens to sell cannabis extracts, edibles, lotions and smokeables (Hernandez did not offer a review of the products).
Back in San Diego, “I was impressed by the experimental work being done in the housing sphere,” design awards juror Bestor said. “We saw creative designs for both ADUs (accessory dwelling units) and affordable housing.”
In a region desperate for affordable housing, Honor Award-winning Ivy Senior Apartments, 52 subsidized units in Clairemont, is a step in the right direction. As the nicest and probably newest building in its neighborhood, Ivy illustrates how low cost does not mean low design values.
Built “for seniors with chronic medical needs who have experienced homelessness,” the place was full of smiling faces during my recent visit. One friendly resident carried a bag of groceries from a nearby market, another waited in the spacious lobby for her son to pay a birthday visit. In the three-story triangular building’s courtyard, vegetables and flowers thrive in elevated beds, well tended by residents.
ADUs behind existing homes were recognized with various awards, a reflection of the growing trend toward looser zoning to create much-needed housing. Together, these designs presented thoughtful ideas for living comfortably on a “tiny house” scale.
Also in the realm of housing, several large multi-family designs were submitted, but did not win. I saw good ideas, but some projects seemed overbearing for their neighborhoods, while others tried too hard to make dramatic statements.
It’s possible that the best San Diego architecture is yet to come.
A new generation holds promise. Weiszblüth & Brown won an Honor Award in the “Unbuilt” category with its very first project. Tasked with converting a pair of sheds in Alpine Valley owned by family friends into guest houses, Dutra Brown and Alex Reed (“Weiszblüth” honors his family’s ancestral Holocaust-era name) took inspiration from pech isbe, which were tall brick ovens that formed the heart of family huts in 15th-century Russia.
Both products of Harvard and SCI-Arc, Brown and Reed also create custom tiles featured in many of their designs. Here, tall perforated tile screens serve as signature features of the inviting hearths, filtering light evenly through the spaces. These contemporary pech isbe are configured to divide the interiors into bedrooms and baths. The architects imagine many cozy weekends for guests, once the studios are completed and furnished later this summer.
While new architecture tends to grab the spotlight, historic preservation is essential on this stage.
An Honor Award for preservation went to Heritage Architecture for a renovation of the Hotel del Coronado’s front façade and broad veranda — where Marilyn Monroe & Co. arrived in the film “Some Like It Hot”. Among other fine details, original stained glass windows were painstakingly re-created.
Another Honor Award for preservation was given to architect Milford Wayne Donaldson (a founder, now retired, of Heritage Architecture), for his preservation of Futuro, a 1969 spaceship of a building designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen. Futuro sat for years behind the Fifth Avenue Design Center. Transported from San Diego to Idylllwild Idyllwild by trailer, it landed on a rocky summit and was renovated into a mountain retreat. Additionally, Futuro was recognized with a Legacy Award.
Studio E Architects also took home a Legacy Award, for its 1997 Orange Place, 32 affordable apartments in Escondido. The project was designed in the spirit of Southern California’s vintage bungalow courtyard apartments, where residents share a central garden space. Orange Place pointed the way toward Studio E’s many successes in affordable housing design, close to 4,000 units by now, guesses co-founder Eric Naslund.
Safdie Rabines Architects, profiled here in CityScape a few months back, won the sole Urban Design award, for its San Elijo Pedestrian Bridge in North County.
A special award went to a new “Manifesto” for revitalizing San Diego’s Civic Center, an intricate plan for several downtown city blocks. The Manifesto, which has found both fans and critics, was produced by a mayoral committee with community input–a planning process spearheaded by architect Jennifer Luce of Luce et Studio, also responsible for the Mingei renovation.
Mary Walshok, recently retired associate vice chancellor at UCSD, was honored with a Visionary Award for leading the development of the university’s new Park & Market as a downtown hub for arts, culture and civic engagement (AIASD is headquartered there). UCSD Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla was also recognized, with a President’s Award for his “entrepreneurial spirit in catalyzing economic growth,” which has been a very good thing for architects. Khosla spearheaded a $2 billion fundraising campaign that is transforming the campus with scores of new buildings that represent some of San Diego’s most complex and interesting architecture.
A Legacy Award also went to Rob Wellington Quigley’s Beaumont Building (1988) on Cedar Street in downtown San Diego, where Quigley worked and lived (with wife Kathleen Hallahan and their young daughter) at a time when Little Italy’s mixed-use boom was years away.
Besides the 29 awards, the 2023 AIA program noted the “Firm of the Year Award,” given by California AIA to Steinberg Hart, an international architecture company with offices in major cities including San Diego and Shanghai.
Amid all this hoopla, one humble and un-awarded submission in the “small and unbuilt” category really touched me. It is a proposal for a Total Immersion School at the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe in Arizona, in one of the poorest counties in the U.S.
The scrappy design emphasizes sustainability and respect for the environment. It utilizes readily available materials such as earth berms, straw bales and found objects to be gathered by students. Interior spaces are sheltered by vegetated roofs that filter rain into cisterns for daily use. Also, the roof gardens would produce fruits and vegetables.
Pine Ridge’s proposed school was inspired by the extinction and lore of the great white buffalo. According to the awards submission, the low sprawling complex “takes the form of an abstracted buffalo carcass” that “signifies life’s fragility.” Indeed, a bird’s-eye sketch evokes the giant creature’s sprawling paws and head.
In spite of the power and range of this year’s AIA award winners, I did not sense this same sort of natural spirit running through them. Maybe that is not attainable in urban America, 2023. Or, maybe I am simply an ornery white buffalo, bound for extinction.
Sutro writes about architecture and design. He is the author of the guidebook “San Diego Architecture” as well as “University of California San Diego: An Architectural Guide.” He wrote a column about architecture for the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times and has also covered architecture for a variety of design publications.