A Select Few Quietly Size Up San Diego--On Paper

How do you persuade a banker to loan money for a building that doesn't exist? A building that is still only a set of blueprints?

Saying, "Well, hey--use your imagination! This is going to be the best-looking, most practical building ever constructed" obviously isn't likely to have the banker quivering to sign.

"But an attractive picture of the place might just do it," architectural illustrator Brad Powers said.

Powers, 72, was San Diego's first--"and only, at the time," he said--architectural illustrator. He was 19 when, working from the plans, he drew an elaborate drawing of what was to become the Civic Center on Pacific Highway (now the County Administration Center).

"It was the middle of the Depression, and it was the only thing being built," he said. "The architects were all fighting over it."

Fifty-three years later, despite San Diego's soaring growth, there are still only nine illustrators--seven men and two women--doing most of the city's architectural illustration.

Next week, some of their work can be seen in San Diego's American Institute of Architects chapter office on A Street downtown. Jonathan Finfer, an architect with the firm of Daniel Linn, organized the exhibit to coincide with "San Diego: By Design Week."

"As far as I know, there's never been a display of renderings here before," Finfer said, adding that he has always liked them.

"They make the building look like it's in the best of all possible worlds. The sky is blue. The bushes are flowering. They're an idealized image of what has been envisioned by the architect," he said. "Of course, the owner and the builder don't always see it quite the same way!"

"The whole thing is to try and make them believable," said Powers.

"In this business, you hand your work over to the client, and that's often the last you see of it. I'll have to borrow a few things back."

Glimpse of History

Powers was speaking in the midst of the cheerful, slightly museum-like clutter of his poolside studio.

One wall is papered in renderings from the days when he worked entirely in pencil, instead of the luminous watercolor he prefers now. His visitors can get fascinating glimpses of the Old Globe Theatre, the restoration of the Royal Presidio and the Museum of Man.

Photographs of the B-46 bomber he designed at Convair jostle for space with his licenses to practice aeronautical engineering and architecture and a photo of his third-grade class outside Grant school in Mission Hills, in 1924.

He isn't a native San Diegan, however. He was born in Chicago.

"My father, who'd had polio, had a lot of trouble slipping on the icy sidewalks. So when I was 9 we came here, by train," he said. "It was a peaceful place then. You'd go to the beach and there would be maybe four or five other people there!"

From a stack of photographs, he scooped out one of a painting of the newly restored Santa Fe railway station, painted while the restoration was still in the planning stage.

"Dwarfed by skyscrapers now," he muttered, sounding thoughtful. "It was the first building I saw here. I'm glad they restored it. It's a local landmark."

He's a kind-looking man. In fact, with his pipe, his fuzzy brown cardigan and his numerous cats, dogs and grandchildren, he has a Norman Rockwellian air about him.

He can't recall a time when he didn't want to be an illustrator. He grew up in the "golden age" of illustration, when magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal were illustrated by about half a dozen men he describes as "geniuses."

Many people, Powers says, think of artists and illustrators as one and the same.

"They're not," he said. "An illustrator cannot be whimsical. He must try to portray things as they really are."

He was still a student at San Diego High School when he landed his first illustrating job, painting posters of coming attractions for the Fox movie theater.

"I got the job by taking along portraits of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, and actor Leo Carillo as a bandit," he said.

The year was 1933. All four of San Diego's movie theaters required six to eight posters a week. They liked the luridly colored kind, with lettering along the lines of: "GREATEST EPIC OF THE CENTURY!"

"Six of us worked day and night in a small studio right behind the screen of the Orpheum theater," Powers said. "By the end of the week, I always knew the sound track by heart."

In those days, Powers recalled, jobs in San Diego were so scarce that men would work for $5 a week. However, because of the National Recovery Act, instituted to provide a minimum wage, the movie-poster illustrators were getting $14.

"When Mr. Pincus, the manager of the Fox, found out we were making so much money, he let three of us go! It was a terrible blow," Powers said.

He had planned to go to college, but couldn't afford it. (Later, during the war, when Convair desperately needed aeronautical engineers, Powers attended University of California classes right inside the Convair plant.) In 1934, he took the only job he could find, as an office boy for architects William Templeton Johnson and Richard Requa.

"I also did all the drawings of buildings they needed, but there weren't many," he said. "When I drew the civic building, Jess Stanton, the designer, said it was the first time he'd seen the rendering done by the same fellow who also swept the office floor."

After the war, during a boom period for San Diego, Powers designed buildings himself for a while. The last one was the Mission Bay Yacht Club in 1961, the year he was commodore.

He didn't stop designing because he didn't enjoy the work. The demand for architectural illustration simply became too great.

Enjoys Working at Home

"And architectural illustrators have it much easier than architects do," he said as he removed a large striped cat, named Tiger, from a pile of papers on the 104-year-old desk that once belonged to his grandfather.

"Architects have the worry of working within the budget. They have to rent offices . . . pay wages . . . get malpractice insurance. Architectural illustrators can stay home and work. It's a very nice life."

For anyone who may have been thinking of taking up that "very nice life," Powers says the key thing is understanding perspective. The first thing illustrators do when the architect hands over a set of plans is a perspective line drawing. Artistic ability is vital, but it has to be paired with an analytical mind.

The architectural illustrators who will be exhibiting next week all produce work in a style that's distinctively theirs, said Finfer, organizer of the exhibit.

Richard Edwards of Vista is the only one using 3-D computer programs. Edwards plans to display several boards, showing his work at different stages.

Final Edition Always Done by Hand

"In the middle stage, they look like the lithographs of 100 years ago," he said. "To do that kind of half-tone shading by hand would take forever. But the third, final polishing of the rendering is always done by hand."

According to Robert Watts, a former Navy combat artist, airplane designer and portrait painter of famous golfers, these are interesting times for an architectural illustrator in San Diego.

"I'm not at liberty to discuss some of the buildings in the planning stage," he said, "but they're so big they're mind-boggling. A fellow the other day said to me, 'In 10 years San Diego will be like Houston is now.'

"The few of us here who are doing architectural illustration are swamped with work. Dizzy with it! But it's a nice problem."

Two months ago, Watts met Powers for the first time.

"I'd been hearing about him for years. The veteran!" Watts said. "I thought he'd be crusty, but he was great."

There is one area, however, about which Powers--kind, Norman Rockwellian, Powers--gets decidedly crusty. It's beauty. Or, rather, the lack of it in some of the abstract art found around San Diego.

"Taking a steel triangle, painting it red and sticking it outside one of our public buildings. To me that's insane," he said.

For all of his working life, Powers said, he has strived to make whatever he did look as beautiful as possible. (The British magazine Aeroplane described the B-46 as the most beautiful plane ever designed in America.)

"I enjoy making something that's needed beautiful, rather than making it ugly," he said. "That's one of the reasons I get so much pleasure from doing architectural renderings."

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