Architectural competitions can be an effective way to bring fresh design ideas to a project within a short time. In San Diego County, competitions have resulted in the Oceanside and Escondido Civic Centers, for example, both of which won national critical praise.
But, although competitions are being used more and more for civic centers and other significant public projects, they have not had much effect housing design. There have been a few recent low-income housing competitions, such as one last year in conjunction with the Case Study Houses exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. But, in the field of custom home building, where developers typically sell lots to speculative builders or buyers who intend to build their own homes, no one in San Diego County has attempted to make use of competitions.
Until now, that is.
Last month, Hillman Properties, developer of the luxurious, 1,000-acre Aviara community now under construction just north of the Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad, announced winners of a competition to design two prototype custom homes for a 71-lot custom neighborhood called Aviara Point. The developers hope that, by establishing a high standard up front, the neighborhood will mature with the best possible interpretations of the period styles they are requiring.
The competing architects were asked to capture the sort of traditional, Spanish/Mediterranean flavor of early California homes in places like Santa Barbara. They were given hypothetical clients: some of the 10 finalists, selected from a field of more than 100 architects who entered the competition, designed a home for a family with children, while others created a house for a mature professional couple with no children at home.
If all goes as planned, the two winning designs, which will set the tone for homes in the neighborhood, will be constructed by Hillman and completed in 1992. Eventually, designs by all 10 finalist architects will be offered to buyers of lots at Aviara Point in a booklet suggesting architectural alternatives. Although these designs will not be mandatory, property owners will have to build their homes following the same design guidelines as the competing architects.
Of the two designs, one--by Richardson, Nagy Martin Architects-Planners of Newport Beach--is outstanding for the way it adapts traditional Spanish Colonial design ideas to a contemporary lifestyle while adhering to the developer's tight design guidelines. Jurors had reservations about the other winning design, by Mainstreet Architects of Ventura; it didn't come close to Richardson, Nagy's in inventiveness, quality or detailing.
Both houses are expected to carry a price tag of more than $1 million.
Hillman's concept at Aviara is to recapture some of the romance of early California architecture. The company's thorough design guidelines--written by San Diego architect Mark Fehlman--specify three different architectural styles: Mediterranean, Monterey and Spanish Colonial.
The guidelines deserve as much praise as the competition. Through thumbnail sketches and concise text, they spell out exactly how architects can achieve authentic, competent results within the three suggested styles. Other communities that have utilized period themes have flopped because guidelines weren't specific enough.
Indeed, details are the key to the winning design produced by Richardson, Nagy Martin, which will gracefully step down on a two-level lot. It will have a courtyard entry in the Spanish Colonial tradition, with meticulous detailing right down to the colorful ceramic tile lining the entry stairs.
"The roof also plays a big part," said architect Bob White of Richardson, Nagy. "The true Spanish Colonial house had a variety of roof forms, gabled and shed roofs, at different pitches."
Also in the Santa Barbara-style Spanish Colonial tradition, White and his associates used a circular tower as the focal point of their design, with hallways radiating from this central two-story space.
What's contemporary about the house is its sizable vertical volumes (ceilings at 15 to 20 feet), the casual flow between such related rooms as the kitchen and breakfast area, and the spaces within the huge master bedroom suite.
One might well question whether Southern California needs any more homes derivative of Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial architecture. Gawdy interpretations have been done to death, and White reports that 75% of the tract housing done by his company is still designed in these traditions.
"I think the idea of Mediterranean architecture is both market-driven as well as builder-driven," White said. "The simplicity of materials makes the style easy for builders to use, and I've been told that buyers perceive stucco as a higher quality material than wood.
"But I think people are getting burned out on it. It has been overdone, in some cases in bad ways. Builders tend to max out a two-story box and put on some wrought iron and shutters and call it Spanish Colonial, and it doesn't come off as historical. But Aviara is an example of taking a small-lot house and using historic references accurately."
The other winning entry, a family home designed by Mainstreet Architects of Ventura, is much less successful. It lacks meticulous detailing in forms and materials, and its landscape plan is much less alluring than Richardson, Nagy's palms, cypress, bougainvillea and other colorful materials, which will give lacy, natural ornamentation to smooth stucco walls.
While the competition should be seen as a creative, positive, progressive step, it had drawbacks.
Five jurors--including internationally renown U.C. Santa Barbara architectural historian Dr. David Gebhard--were paid $2,000 apiece for their day of work. The jury also included San Diego Home/Garden Editor Peter Jensen, San Diego architect Ralph Roesling, San Diego landscape architect David Reed, Santa Barbara architect Henry Lenny, Carlsbad accountant and community leader S. Elaine Lyttleton and Peggy Collins, director of sales and marketing at Hillman.
Several of the jurors criticized the competition process and some of the resulting designs. But, although their names appear high up in Hillman's press releases, there is, naturally, no mention of the criticisms.
Some of their advice will, however, be passed on to the winning architects, who will refine their designs before they are constructed.
Several jurors said they advised Hillman that these 4,000-square-foot homes are far too big for their 10,000-square-foot lots. This ridge-top, ocean-view neighborhood will be too dense, they argued, and homeowners won't have adequate privacy.
Roesling, a San Diego architect, wished competitors had been encouraged to interpret the nostalgic styles in a more contemporary vein. And Reed found the landscape design of most competition entries mediocre.
Gebhard could not be reached for comment, but he reportedly was disappointed with the overall quality of entries--still, in a press release, he is quoted as stating that the winning entries, "masterfully integrated the balance between functional living and architectural creativity."
Even with its flaws, Hillman's competition offers one possible new path toward better architecture in high-end, custom-home communities like Fairbanks Ranch, where the architecture has been almost uniformly banal.
Ideally, the idea of competitions will filter down through the ranks to builders of middle- and low-income housing. It is in these areas, in tract, condo and apartment projects, where creativity is most often lacking. If developers make architecture a higher priority, they may find their projects generating new enthusiasm on the part of the public and the press. This could translate into profits, which would make builders and developers as happy as the people the people who might inhabit their well-designed homes.