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How to End Boring Faces Stores Wear

In San Diego, where too many shops and restaurants are located in drab, elephantine malls, the International Male store in Hillcrest and a new Roberto’s Mexican food stand in Solana Beach stand out as spirited, intelligent departures. Both serve as eye-grabbing, three-dimensional billboards that flag down passing motorists.

The International Male store, a Frank Gehry-like collage of industrial parts, completed in 1989, is the unlikely brainchild of San Diego architect Milford Wayne Donaldson. Donaldson built his excellent reputation on historic preservation projects, primarily in the Gaslamp Quarter downtown. International Male’s management was impressed with Donaldson’s attention to detailing and gave him a shot at going contemporary.

Roberto’s, a small, angular yellow stucco building with a wavy sombrero-tortilla of an awning that calls out to motorists along the coast highway, opened last July and was designed by Solana Beach architect Tom McCabe.

In forms and materials, these buildings speak entirely different languages. Yet they achieve parallel results of a variety all too lacking in San Diego.

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Both make fresh use of forms and materials, both suit their contexts in scale and character. Both combine broad gestures designed to appeal to motorists with fine-grained pedestrian-pleasing details.

And most importantly, both make retailing a playful experience for customers, sending the message that a building can be functional and still be a whole lot of fun.

International Male has three stores--in Hillcrest, Escondido and West Hollywood--but the 3,800-square-foot Hillcrest outlet is the company’s largest and its only cutting-edge work of architecture.

The company scoured the county in search of a new location before settling on a long, narrow 1940s building on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. The building originally housed a post office and, more recently, a piano dealership. Needless to say, Donaldson remodeled aggressively.

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Hillcrest is one of the county’s most exciting neighborhoods when it comes to night life and culture. International Male, which sells tailored, broad-shouldered suits, wildly patterned silk shirts, sleek leather jackets and other new wavy clothes for men, wanted a store that would suit both its fashions and its fashionable customers.

Glass display windows run all the way down to the sidewalk, providing a large, daylight-washed stage set for the company’s mannequins--which also were designed by Donaldson.

Materials are a mix of industrial chic and high-end. A curved awning of corrugated aluminum flies through the glass at an angle above the entry, transforming the front facade into kinetic, three-dimensional sculpture, creating ambiguity as to where outdoors ends and indoors begins.

Exterior walls flanking the display windows are covered with green marble tiles (the tiles on one side have fallen off and are due to be reinstalled), applied with diagonal seams that create energetic angles within the potentially placid rectangular storefront.

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Just behind the glass, a framework of vertical pipes and a horizontal strip of steel flanked by green-neon pin stripes divide the display window into a quilt of unconventional shapes.

Inside, the store is as lively as the company’s clothes. Six monitors play videos as music ricochets through the warehouse-like space. Three of the monitors are arrayed on a side wall, each framed by a square of corrugated metal.

Clothes are displayed on racks made of steel and copper piping, lit from overhead by a Medusa-like field of suspended stalks with light fixtures at their ends.

The store is part polished and confident, part brash and unsure, fine and rough finishes are carefully balanced. The sleek glass entry, for example, is flanked by jackhammered stone footings left from a previous incarnation of the building. Changing booths are enclosed by walls and doors of corrugated metal, and an interior wall of exposed concrete block has been spattered with gray, black and green paint that blurs into greenish gray.

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I-Male’s Hillcrest outlet might be even more vibrant were it not for the local community planning group, which nixed Donaldson’s proposal to run Italian tile from within the store right out onto the sidewalk, further blurring the indoor-outdoor, polished-rough margins.

In Solana Beach, McCabe’s subtly whimsical Roberto’s captures the youthful, surfer spirit of this beach community while transforming this busiest of four Roberto’s outlets, owned by Cecilia and Rolando Robledo, into a genuine flagship.

McCabe, who also worked on the Del Mar Plaza shopping center in downtown Del Mar and Beachwalk, a colorful mini-mall now under construction along the coast highway in Solana Beach, was able to take more chances on this smaller project.

At 740 square feet, this is a modest building, but twice the size of the earlier ramshackle hut from which Roberto’s dispensed its legendary burritos and tacos.

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Situated along the busy coast highway, where motorists pass at 40 to 50 m.p.h., the new Roberto’s serves as a giant, three-dimensional billboard. The wavy tortilla-sombrero, with four neon stripes running along an underside of galvanized metal, shades customers from the elements and beckons to streams of cars on the coast highway.

McCabe pays subtle homage to early San Diego Mission-style buildings with smooth stucco walls and a sloping clay tile roof facing the alley behind the building. Wooden trellises and beams that jut from the building, along with the stucco walls and the clay tile roof, are intended as a loose collage that captures the exciting, random variety of Tijuana’s residential neighborhoods.

This restaurant’s “dining room” consists entirely of outdoor tables shaded by a wooden trellis and canvas awnings, an open-air atmosphere uniquely tailored to San Diego beach life.

As San Diego grew up over the last three decades, huge, relatively anonymous malls littered the urban and suburban landscape as the 1950s norm of neighborhood shopping evolved into large, bland, auto-oriented commercial strips and regional malls. These new, super-scaled shopping environments failed to capture the intimate, human warmth of neighborhood retailing.

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International Male and Roberto’s could serve as prototypes for recapturing some of the old intimacy in new, spirited ways. The current recession in retailing will be of value if it forces retailers from their 1980s mode of rapid, poorly designed expansion into a new, 1990s mode of more conservative growth accompanied by intimate yet provocative design.


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