Sometime during the San Diego construction boom of the 1980s, when interest rates were low and demand for space was high, good architecture lost out to hastily designed, rapidly built projects.
Often, these buildings were insensitive to their contexts and had little to offer their users in the way of interesting forms and spaces or solid craftsmanship.
This trend was especially apparent among small retailing projects that met the growing demand for services in both residential and commercial neighborhoods. From Chula Vista to Oceanside, San Diego to El Cajon, cheap-looking, peach-colored pseudo-Mediterranean strip centers became the norm.
Happily, there are signs that at least some developers are ready to try something new.
Two retailing centers in the Kearny Mesa area--one 2 years old, the other opening in March--are the results of developers’ spending money to hire competent architects, then letting the architects go to work.
These exemplary centers come from opposite ends of the design spectrum.
The Daley Square Shopping Center on Aero Drive just west of Interstate 15, designed by San Diego architect C.W. Kim, uses grayish cedar siding, laminated wood beams, raw concrete and a low profile to blend with its scrubby San Diego site in an admirable fashion that harks back to the “organic” ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright.
If the Daley project is organic architecture for the 1990s, the McGrath Court Retail Center on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard just east of Interstate 805 is on the cutting edge. Architects from SGPA Architecture and Planning in San Diego used bold, colliding forms and voids in the style that has come to be known as Deconstructivist to create a center with a delightful, sculptural energy.
For developer Laurie McGrath, the retail project, part of a development which will eventually be joined by one million square feet of adjacent office and light industrial space and a 300-room hotel, is a chance to make a statement in the name of her family, which has owned the property for 40 years. Her father, an excavating contractor, originally bought the land for the topsoil.
McGrath opened her development company in 1988 to develop the property. When she looked around Kearny Mesa, she decided some different architecture was in order.
“We wanted something that was fresh. This is the gateway to Kearny Mesa,” McGrath said. “Most of the projects around us are older, from the 1960s and 1970s. We departed from them for a fresh new look.”
Because the architecture of neighboring office buildings, strip centers, fast food outlets and auto dealerships is so mediocre, architects from SGPA had no solid precedent to adhere to. They were free to push their design into a new zone.
The retail center, scheduled to open next month, will be the colorful centerpiece of McGrath’s project--highly visible and more progressive in design than the other buildings.
Consisting of three one- and two-story buildings containing 42,000 square feet of space, the center is made of stucco boxes overlaid by space frames, grids and giant fins that look like overblown vestiges of 1930s Deco.
The sculptural forms of McGrath Court, although not always structural in their purposes, do not seem superfluous. The stucco buildings, rendered in industrial rust, white, gray, mauve and steel blue, hang together as attractive, balanced compositions. The architects have joined building elements at angles other than 90 degrees just often enough to make things interesting.
Deconstructivist architecture as a categorical style began in 1988 with a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show was organized by veteran architect Philip Johnson, the same one who had launched the Modernist era in American architecture with a show at the museum in 1932.
The Deconstructivist movement grew out of abstract theories of literary criticism. Both critics and fans of the movement, embodied in the work of architects such as New Yorker Peter Eisenman, Coop Himmelblau and Zaha Hadid, got so caught up in the jargon that practical implications were frequently obscured.
Now the positive implications of the movement are apparent in SGPA’s small project, a sign that San Diego architecture in the 1990s may find ways to move beyond sterile derivations of Modernist architecture and cluttered, superficial versions of historicist Postmodernism.
Presenting an optimistic note of a different kind is Kim’s 2-year-old gem.
The design of this 33,000-square-foot retail center is unassuming and sensitive to the site, and the buildings are finely crafted. Some developers argue that good design and quality construction are functions of budgets. Although they generally don’t say as much, what they really mean is that they are obligated to cut corners to turn profits.
This is poppycock, according to Kim. The Daley project, built by a partnership headed by San Diego developer Neal Hooberman, cost $34 a square foot, similar to the $35- to $40-a-foot price of a stucco, pseudo-Med strip center. The McGrath project also came in at roughly the same price.
Kim’s design serves as a gateway to the business park behind it, also designed by Kim. The retail center’s aura of quality and strong design help lure office space tenants, Kim explained.
Laminated wood beams, copper-toned metal roofs and cedar siding give the project a solid richness. Three wood space-frame pyramids rise above the flat roofs to give the center a light, graceful identity.
Kim took great care in the use of materials. The project resembles a giant piece of custom wood furniture in the quality of its craftsmanship. Beams are neatly joined to other beams, fastened with large, visible bolts. Laminated beams are married to the tops of concrete columns with hefty wood fittings designed by Kim. Exposed in this way, the structural system serves as a strong design element, without need of frilly ornamentation.
Although these projects prove there are at least two retail developers concerned with good architecture, the vast majority still seem to place profits ahead of design.
“How many builders recognize good design?” Kim said. “Most people don’t appreciate it. This was my first shopping center, and I tried to make a better little strip. I think most people just want to put up projects and sell them. I would say they like to make money; the goals are always the same. But some clients want to have a better design. They are not satisfied with just a stucco strip center.”