Out-of-Towner Has a Feel for San Diego

In recent years, a wave of buildings by famous out-of-town architects has hit San Diego.

Michael Graves, Mitchell/Giurgola, Antoine Predock, Helmut Jahn and Skidmore Owings Merrill are among the big names coming to town.

In many cases, though, these architects are merely importing signature styles, with little regard for how architecture can be adapted to unique aspects of our culture and climate.

That’s not true of Charles Moore, who has five of his designs under construction in San Diego--intelligent, inspiring projects suited to the region and quite different from what he’s done in other cities. In addition to this sensitivity, Moore has shown an uncanny ability to make architecture a collaborative process, one in which he and his co-designers effectively listen to clients and citizens, then produce buildings that meet their needs while retaining the architects’ strong imprint.


Known for Sea Ranch

Moore is best known for his 1960s designs at Sea Ranch, an enclave of vacation homes along the coast of Northern California where the architect adapted a woodsy-shed vocabulary to scenic coastal bluffs, with a special concern for bringing natural light into the spaces.

Subsequently, his slate of projects has ranged from the Piazza d’ Italia in New Orleans, a Cubist collage of classical forms and moving water, to many large public and university buildings.

Moore has taught at several architecture schools, including Yale, UCLA and, at the moment, the University of Texas.


His current San Diego agenda includes the Oceanside Civic Center (in conjunction with Urban Innovations Group) now under construction; a theater complex for the city of Escondido (designed by Moore in conjunction with John Ruble and Buzz Yudell, based in Santa Monica); a molecular biology research lab on the UC San Diego campus (also by Moore, Ruble, Yudell); a church in Fairbanks Ranch (in conjunction with San Diego’s Austin Hansen Fehlman Group), and a building for Phoenix House--a program for troubled high school students--several miles east of San Diego.

Moore commented on San Diego recently by phone from his home and studio in Austin, Tex.

He called Escondido’s new City Hall, designed by Pacific Associates Planners and Architects of San Diego, a “very skillful piece of work. I think that the openness to the outdoors, the way it opens outward toward the park and toward the entrance circle, all are very much in the spirit of Southern California.”

In mid-February, Yudell presented initial ideas for the theater complex to Escondido city officials. Although it’s too early to give specifics, Moore and his partners have some ideas as to how they will design the complex, with its 1,700-seat theater, smaller theater and outdoor amphitheater in Grape Day Park.

Moore acknowledged the lack of a strong architectural heritage from which to draw on in Escondido.

“Our building’s happening mostly from the inside out, in the time-honored way architects of my generation were taught. Considerations of what kind of light will be in the theater will have more to do

with what the building looks like than any image we’ve got.”

In a different way, the Oceanside Civic Center, scheduled to open later this year, also fits its setting. The design acknowledges nearby buildings by early San Diego architectural master Irving Gill, but not in a literal way. Where Gill was known for rounded arches, Moore’s large openings are squared. As with some of Gill’s buildings, Moore’s outdoor spaces are extremely important. A plaza at one corner of the project will feature a grove of palm trees and a water feature that Moore refers to as an “alluvial fan.”


The opportunity for citizens and city officials to offer opinions on the design resulted in minor changes, he said. Most significantly, the city bureaucrats rejected Moore’s first design for the doors to the City Council chamber. Instead of colorful baked-on porcelain, they will be made from plain gray metal by Texas sculptor Robert Phillips.

Moore’s Church of the Nativity in Fairbanks Ranch, designed in collaboration with the local Austin Hansen Fehlman Group, shares with the Oceanside complex sensitive indoor-outdoor relationships and such California details as color ceramic tile around windows and doors.

Harder-Edged Look

The Molecular Biology Building at UCSD, scheduled for completion this spring, finds Moore working in concrete and glass, a harder-edged look than the stucco that will cover the buildings in Oceanside. But he softens the effect with fine detailing, breaking the facades with abstracted pilasters and romantic little balconies. A central atrium continues the architect’s search for uniquely “San Diego” solutions.

Is he developing a San Diego palette?

“Certainly there are things we do elsewhere that I wouldn’t think of doing in San Diego County,” Moore said. “In Oceanside, every design decision reflected what Gill would have done, whether he’d approve. I’m torn, because I like Gill a lot, but I also like (Bertram) Goodhue,” he said, referring to the designer of the ornate California Tower in Balboa Park, a 180-degree contrast to the stark work of Gill.

What does Moore think of Fairbanks Ranch?

“It would be better if I didn’t comment,” he said, pausing. “I just don’t understand it. I think it’s meant to be Spanish, but it hardly ever gets the feel right.”


Downtown San Diego?

He’s never visited Horton Plaza, but complimented the historic preservation efforts in the Gaslamp Quarter.

The UCSD campus?

“I’ve written negative things about it,” said the one-time student of Louis Kahn, designer of the masterful Salk Institute just across Torrey Pines Road from the campus. “I have never figured out the scheme of the campus. I can’t locate myself when I’m on it, or understand the relationship between the buildings.”

Perhaps Moore’s designs and observations will inspire a more thoughtful generation of local buildings in the 1990s.

DESIGN NOTES: C. W. Kim, Lorimer-Case and Naegle Associates, all San Diego architects, have designed the three proposals recently received by the Centre City Development Corp. for a high-rise development at Broadway and State Street. Both Lorimer-Case and Naegle hope to cross over from tract home work into the high-rise big leagues. . . . The Del Mar Plaza project in downtown Del Mar, an eclectic blend of shops and restaurants in a complex designed by Horton Plaza architect Jon Jerde, is months behind schedule and as much as $5 million over budget, sources say. Developers attribute the difficulties to complex improvements for such tenants as the Il Fornaio restaurant.