Cruz’s Winning Style : Design: Architect is first San Diego recipient of coveted Rome Prize Fellowship.

For the first time, a San Diego architect has been awarded the coveted Rome Prize Fellowship, which affords an architect six months to two years of expenses-paid study at the American Academy in Rome.

Teddy Cruz, 29, was one of only two architectural winners selected this year from among 1,010 applicants from a variety of disciplines. He joins an elite group of past Rome Prize Fellows that includes Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, Louis Kahn, Richard Meier, Charles Moore and James Stirling.

Fellows use their time abroad to pursue independent studies in their fields. Cruz’s prize carries an approximate value of $50,000, according to a spokesman for the American Academy, and covers room, board and travel expenses. Cruz will be in Rome for a year, starting in September.

He plans to pursue two lines of inquiry: testing his own conceptions about architecture against the ideas of the past, and studying how Baroque architects were influenced by ancient frescoes unearthed at Pompeii.

Cruz, who works for San Diego architect Rob Quigley, presented Rome Prize jurors with a convincing package of talents. His portfolio proves that he began turning out highly sophisticated designs even before graduating from architecture school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1987. He has a special gift for using idiosyncratic color renderings to explore forms and meanings in an abstract, painterly fashion.

“In my own architecture, I have been fascinated by the whole confrontation between representational and abstract art,” said Cruz, who was born and raised in Guatemala City and immigrated to San Diego in 1982. “Some think abstract art is not art, that art has to be ‘real,’ to portray concrete symbols,” he said.

“In the U.S., people want everything to be familiar and comfortable. There is a general sense that in the architecture schools, people are not being taught to think on their own. I want my work to challenge the mind and emotions like a piece of abstract painting or sculpture, where you read different layers of meaning.”

Soft-spoken and slight of build, Cruz is obviously a man of weighty ideas. His inevitable solo career will undoubtedly be an uphill struggle against the status quo. But Cruz has already demonstrated some staying power.

Last year, he was hired, independent of the Quigley office, to design a house for a speculative builder who probably thought he would get a cheap, serviceable set of plans from a hungry young architect. Instead, on his first built solo project, Cruz persuaded his client to depart from a cliched, Spanish-flavored notion in favor of Cruz’s harder-edged, clean-lined original design.

Along with successes have come learning experiences. Last year, for example, Cruz and a handful of fellow young architects presented “Unsolicited Patterns for a Reluctant City” at the Simayspace Gallery downtown. Their practical thesis that a redesigned airport could make vital connections to the city didn’t entirely come across because the graphics used were all abstract.

There was, however, a payoff. A local art consultant saw one of Cruz’s renderings and commissioned several new works--purely as art--for a client.

In Quigley, Cruz has a mentor who is 100% in tune with his interest in the philosophical, theoretical and abstract aspects of architecture.

“He’s able to put into his work and drawings a wonderful blend of Latin sensuousness and extroversion without losing a sort of Anglo, cool intellectualism,” Quigley said. “A lot of his work looks like it could have come out of the (Architectural Assn.) in London"--a highly respected but rigid school of architecture--"but there’s a joy that would never be found in European architecture.”

Cruz’s graphic abilities have found a home in the Quigley office, as they did during the mid-1980s in the office of San Diego architect Randy Dalrymple. Cruz’s renderings of a home designed by Dalrymple graced the pages of Progressive Architecture magazine in 1986, and Cruz’s abstract pastel drawings played an important role last year as Quigley refined his design of a new home in Telluride, Colo., for movie director Oliver Stone.

Philosophically, Cruz rejects much of the trendiness that characterized the 1980s, when superficial references to classical forms were the in thing, and the movement dubbed postmodernism, spearheaded by architects such as Michael Graves, sought a warmth, humor and richness many late modern buildings lacked.

“I’ve really been a big fan of modernism,” Cruz said. “Le Corbusier is a big idol of mine. I think it’s too bad that modernism degenerated into what it did, the work that happened in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s. I think the real intentions of the modern movement were lost.

“The other day I visited (architect Louis Kahn’s) Salk Institute. People talk about modernism being cold and impersonal, but that building gave me a great sense of humanity. It’s just a fantastic place, a place of meditation, almost like a monastery. It proves that modernism is not necessarily cold and impersonal.

“The new work coming out of Spain would be another example, by architects like Ortiz, Bach and Mora. The feeling I get is that they have understood the lessons of modernism, but at the same time they respect history. Their use of materials, forms and commitment to creating great spaces really shows that the solution is not rejecting modernism for a lack of humanity, but at the same time not rejecting history.”

Cruz said he showed no particular artistic promise as a child. In high school in Guatemala, he considered becoming a doctor, but one traumatic experience caused him to seek other options.

“A friend took me to see an autopsy and I almost fainted,” he recalled. “I had another friend who was in his fourth year of architecture school, and I went to visit him. As corny as this might seem, I saw his drawing table next to a window, it was raining outside, and he was there with his cup of coffee and his drawings, and there was some sense of adventure.”

Cruz studied architecture for three years at Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala City before immigrating to the United States when political tensions caused social upheaval there. He enrolled at Cal Poly in 1984 after he had learned enough English to survive.

With Dalrymple and Quigley, Cruz’s contributions have been largely to residential projects, but he hopes for a broad career.

“I would like to design everything from a chair to large projects. With the problems of liability today, architects tend to specialize, to build up knowledge about one type of building. I would like to explore many different types of architecture,” he said.

The first Rome Prize Fellowship was awarded to architect John Russell Pope in 1897. The Rome Prize jury for architecture this year included Adele Naude Santos, dean of the architecture school at UC San Diego; Los Angeles architect Frank Israel, a past Rome Prize recipient; New York architect J. Michael Schwarting, and Atlanta architect Mack Scogin. Twenty-five fellowships were awarded in nine disciplines. The other winner in architecture was Los Angeles architect Cameron McNall.

DESIGN NOTES: San Diego architects Rob Quigley and Michael Wilkes have been named fellows by the American Institute of Architects. The two will be formally inducted into the AIA’s College of Fellows in ceremonies in Washington on May 18. . . .

“Housing Environments: A Cross-Cultural Perspective” is the title of UC San Diego’s annual forum on architecture, which opens this Sunday night at 7 with a keynote speech by Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi and continues all day Monday with a panel discussion including Moshe Safdie, Felix Sanchez, Theo Bosch and Witold Rybczynski. Registration is $60, and the forum is open to the public. For more information, call 534-5305.