A group of architects including Rob Quigley, Ted Smith, Tom Grondona and Randy Dalrymple brought national attention to San Diego during the 1980s with their wild, imaginative designs. All are in their 40s now. And all have matured in their careers.
Now, a new generation of San Diego architects is emerging with fresh optimism and ideas. As the preceding generation did, the new crew rejects stylistic labels, preferring to focus on how each building solves design challenges. They are striving for a humane, intelligent architecture, not the superficial facadism that often graced design magazines during the 1980s.
They see many faults with San Diego's recent urban planning and architecture--the results of the 1980s building boom--and hope that the future can bring better solutions. At 30, Catherine Herbst is one of the youngest designers in Quigley's office. Brad Burke, 36, founded Studio E Architects in 1986.
Architects Eric Naslund, 32, and John Sheehan, 31, came aboard in 1986 and 1989, respectively. During Herbst's three years on Quigley's staff, she has made significant contributions to major projects, including a proposed design for a new University of Nevada, Las Vegas Architecture School building, a spectacular new concrete house in Capistrano Beach and 10 units of low-income housing planned for Encinitas. Herbst was born in Champagne Urbana, Ill.
, attended high school in Los Alamos, N.M., and graduated from Montana State University in 1985 with her degree in architecture.
She dropped off resumes through several Western states and accepted a job offer from now-defunct Pacific Associates Planners & Architects, a firm co-founded by Dalrymple. After working in several other local offices, Herbst grew tired of not doing much design and of working on projects that never got built. She says she was almost ready to give up architecture when she landed a job with Quigley.
In Quigley's 10-person office, staff designers (Herbst is not yet a licensed architect; she is still completing state licensing exams) are encouraged to speak their minds. If a good idea emerges, it will be used. And, while Quigley is one of the city's most progressive architects, he is also seeing many of his projects realized.
Earlier this week, Herbst sat at a table in Quigley's downtown office to talk about her work. She started with a competition entry for the Las Vegas Architecture School, a design of which she is extremely proud, even though it inexplicably finished last among four entries. Instead, competition jurors selected a design by a Las Vegas firm that includes a faculty member from the school.
(The competition process is now being investigated by the state for possible conflict of interest.) Herbst took the lead on the school's design, collaborating with Quigley. The result is a highly disciplined group of buildings that achieve great variety and visual appeal through simple, honest use of basic materials.
Herbst's concept was that the buildings could serve as design-and-materials laboratories for architecture students. A main five-story structure of reinforced concrete would have had west-facing steel-frame sunshades, illustrating steel construction, showing how shading devices control hot sun and cut utility bills. A library of pre-cast concrete panels, tilted into place and bolted together, would have enclosed an expandable steel-truss system of interior floor supports.
The number of floors could have increased from three to five as the school grew. Towers of concrete block would have demonstrated another materials application. "In school, you sit in a class and get taught about environmental controls and structures, and it seems like a dumb way to learn," Herbst said.
Herbst has traveled in Europe several times, studying its architecture, but doesn't buy into the architect's standard postgraduate tour of Europe as the sole means of completing his or her education. For one thing, she thinks there are plenty of good, underappreciated American role models. "It's really standard for architects to study in Europe, but how many people have been to Grinnell, Iowa?
" she asked. "They have a beautiful town plan. The center of the city is a commercial block instead of a city hall.
It is really urban, and it has that density and pattern that Manhattan has, only on a much smaller scale. Flagstaff, Arizona's like that too. It has a dense little core that is really vital.
" Among 20th-Century Southern California architects, Herbst admires the Los Angeles work of Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, but she is equally inspired by several simple San Diego buildings whose architects are forgotten. She praises the tennis clubhouse at Morley Field in Balboa Park, a simple stucco box with a redwood trellis, an appropriate and modest response to a warm-weather setting and simple recreational needs. She also likes a 1950s-era seafoam-green apartment building on 6th Avenue near Upas Street, an efficient, modern-influenced design, cloaked in an unusual color not typical of modern buildings.
"It almost looks like an old, abandoned aquarium," Herbst said enthusiastically, invoking a quirky, refreshing way she has of seeing old buildings in new ways. Burke, Naslund and Sheehan all earned their architecture degrees at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo , where Naslund and Sheehan became friends while working on student projects together. All three are Christians, and they said their faith gives them a common ground for working together and a special sense of responsibility toward their clients.
Studio E is best known for residential work. Houses that Burke and Naslund designed for themselves won Citations of Recognition at the design awards program held by the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects last month. Quigley/Herbst's architecture school received a higher-level Merit Award.
Naslund met Burke at the Austin Hansen Fehlman Group (now the Austin Hansen Group) in 1984, where, at the height of the building boom, they cranked out drawings at a frenetic pace from side-by-side drafting tables in "the pit," an open area where several young architects toiled together. "It was a tilt-up a week, practically," Naslund said, recalling the tens of low-budget tilt-up concrete buildings he worked on. While Naslund mostly designed commercial buildings, Burke was director of housing at Austin Hansen, specializing in residential structures ranging from single-family homes to condominiums.
Burke left to open his own office, and Naslund soon followed. The house Burke designed for himself was praised by jurors in last month's AIA awards program for its strong, unifying design concept. On a steep, narrow hillside lot north of downtown, Burke augmented his home's basic, boxy forms with a diagonal wall of windows that cuts across one side, aimed at fantastic views of downtown.
This wall also generates some exciting interior spaces. Naslund's house, which he expects will be completed by summer's end, is planned around a majestic old mock orange tree on a lot in Golden Hill. Where Burke's house appears aggressive because of its slashing diagonals, Naslund's takes more placid, rectilinear forms.
The house provides evidence that the varied look of Studio E's buildings is driven by logical interior plans, not trendiness. Studio E often subordinates egos to the needs of clients. Its design for 17 small affordable homes scheduled to begin construction later this year in Riverside, for example, leans on California's tradition of modest stucco bungalows.
"We wouldn't have felt comfortable asking these people with classic middle-class aspirations to get used to some wild vision we had," Sheehan said. Like Herbst, the architects of Studio E are as inspired by modest, unsung buildings as they are by such heroic figures of 20th-Century architecture as Alvar Alto, Le Corbusier and Portugal's Alvaro Siza , winner of this year's prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture. Burke, Naslund and Sheehan agree that some San Diego buildings commonly regarded as "dumb stucco boxes" actually illustrate sound, basic responses to the challenge of providing livable, well-lit spaces, and that these plain forms are the logical result of straightforward, rational plans for tight urban sites.
Naslund and Burke disagree as to the merits of Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry 's flamboyant buildings. Naslund views Gehry as a supreme artist and sculptor, creating buildings that "capture the idea of a place without doing it in a literal way." Burke thinks Gehry dreams up "weird" buildings just to get attention, without solid logic behind his designs.
Together, however, Burke and Naslund are each other's best critics, pushing their architecture to higher levels. In a San Diego where the downtown skyline has been dominated in recent years by high-rises designed by out-of-town architects with little regard for the unique characteristics of the city, Burke, Naslund and Sheehan believe San Diego buildings should do a better job of addressing this area's broad cultural heritage, especially its Latin roots. Herbst is appalled by the way high-rises have walled off San Diego's bayfront from public views and access, and by blockbuster commercial projects in neighborhoods like Hillcrest that have replaced modest-scaled, friendly, old storefronts.
These young careers are shaping up at a time when there is no dominant movement in architecture. Postmodernism is regarded as passe, deconstructivism has peaked. The common thread running through the best new buildings during this limbo period seems to be a dedication to intelligent, non-faddish design, to buildings that provide comfort and joy for their users.
"I think now is a weird time in architecture," Herbst said. "But for me, now is a great time." DESIGN NOTES Seen any disgusting or delightful buildings lately?
It's time to fill out ballots for Orchids & Onions, the annual awards program presented by the American Institute of Architects and six other design and professional organizations. Based on public ballots, the program honors the best and worst of local planning and architecture. Watch for giant orchid and onion characters passing out ballots in your community.
Or pick up a ballot at your branch library or at the AIA office downtown, 233 A St. The balloting deadline is July 31. Awards will be handed out at UC San Diego's Mandeville Auditorium on Oct.