Built to Last: In Search of San Diego's Hundred-Year Buildings

The mission, Salk Institute, UCSD library - to name a few

Ellen Browning Scripps Park. Bench seats, open sides, and public access create a place to commune with the city’s past.
  • Ellen Browning Scripps Park. Bench seats, open sides, and public access create a place to commune with the city’s past.
  • Image by Peter Jensen

I stand in a cupola that rises above the Hotel Del Coronado’s red roof. Few people, other than maintenance crews, have been here. Scrawled in white chalk on raw wood around the windows, fresh as if written last year, are names of workmen who over a century ago topped off the hotel structure. I sense strongly that they knew — they knew — someone would be reading their names long after they were dead.

But as I walk and drive around San Diego, I wonder if there’s much being built today that will last another hundred years. Is a modern workman’s name, spray-painted on a steel girder, only a footnote to a few decades in a building’s short life?

Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Churches continue to be in San Diego’s advance (and rear) guard of long-lasting buildings.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Churches continue to be in San Diego’s advance (and rear) guard of long-lasting buildings.

What, then, are our “hundred-year buildings,” and how can San Diegans encourage architects and developers to build more of them?

When the city was still young, preservationists were already at work rebuilding the then-deteriorating Mission San Diego de Alcala (1811-14). The mission church was a structure well suited to early San Diego’s desire for the enduring edifice, and churches continue to be in San Diego’s advance (and rear) guard of long-lasting buildings.

Surprisingly, Temples of Tourism stand a good chance of surviving a century. The Hotel Del Coronado (1886-1888), a great Queen Anne pile of wood on a once-barren spit of sand, is more self-contained city than individual building. The Del shows how the eclectic-but-grand architectural vision, as long as it’s backed by fine craftsmanship and flexibility of use, can welcome generation after generation.

Buildings survive ten or more decades because of economic viability. Architectural vision, sound construction, quality material, flexibility of use, proper siting, public affection, and plain luck all count. But, return on investment is the key. If we are to build projects today that we want to have around tomorrow, accountants must have their place at the table.

Architectural pilgrims come from around the world to walk the terraces and touch the concrete walls of the Salk Institute.

Architectural pilgrims come from around the world to walk the terraces and touch the concrete walls of the Salk Institute.

In the Greed and Glory days of the ’80s, we saw Trophy Buildings rise up in downtown San Diego and on nearby mesas. Fueled by liberal tax incentives, foreign investment, and laissez-faire lenders, these commercial office complexes have the best chance of lasting one hundred years. Unfortunate, isn’t it, that so few of them are architecturally memorable? But there were some, including the Naiman Tech Center (now called San Diego Tech Center) at 9675 Scranton Road off Mira Mesa Boulevard, where a clean-lined but undistinguished metal-skinned building was overshadowed by an extraordinary Japanese garden, a farsighted employee recreation center and “park,” a signature piece of public sculpture (Alexander Liberman’s rocket-like bundle of red, tubular shapes), and attention to detail in the entry.

The center stood alone on a hillside, bathed in colored lights at night, a symbol of some wild and glorious faith in the future and a crasser but necessary message: “Rent Me.” Today, the center is cheapened by a surrounding hodgepodge of glass cubes and has lost all sense of place. Still, it will survive — while others around it won’t — because of its garden vision. The five-and-a-half-acre park, originally conceived as a meditative place for stressed-out office workers, has been turned into a beer garden and restaurant: additional proof that an outdoor space can add to a building’s hundred-year flexibility.

UCSD Central Library's usage alone justified its immense respect.

UCSD Central Library's usage alone justified its immense respect.

Another trophy building that will join the ranks of centenarians is the Helmut Jahn-designed One America Plaza, Broadway at Kettner, across from the Santa Fe Depot. Even the weight of its front doors shows an old -fashioned commitment to permanence that harkens back to the days of the first great banking temples. The only thing really wrong with this building is its stunted growth; it should have been twice as tall to taper gracefully to its oft-lampooned “Phillips-head screwdriver” crown. Now it looks like a squat stalk of asparagus. The quality, however, is still there, combined with a wonderful grafted-on appendage: the trolley station and its metal wave roof.

The incentives that created trophy properties have now changed, according to Robert Lipsey, an accountant in San Diego who specializes in commercial real estate. “The current laws discourage putting any dollars into the project that you don’t absolutely have to,” he says. “Unless there is some kind of special incentive [i.e., tax write-off], the cost of producing a property that can last many, many years is not justified. Quite honestly, you don’t build anything today unless you can rent it up quickly. The depreciation has been stretched out to a 39-year life [of the building].”

But in spite of economic constraints, adds Lipsey, “There are some who care enough to come up with an alternative that is longer-lasting. It’s just a question of caring.” In a city noted for millions of square feet of unleased commercial real estate, one can see that the only commercial buildings going up in the near future will be minimum-cost tilt-ups where rents sink as low as design imagination.

Some developers stay the course no matter what the numbers say. The Del Mar Plaza, winner of a prestigious Urban Land Institute award for planning and design, was built for over $400 a square foot five years ago ($50 a square foot is considered to be about normal) and takes its place among potential centenarians by layering its village style with expensive aesthetic details: fountains, stone walls, tile walks, view corridors, sculpture, hanging gardens. The effect is, once again, to confuse time, to comfort us with signals of the past, like ancient-looking walls while exciting us with an unexpectedly large public plaza overlooking the ocean.

Perhaps it is a fool’s paradise to build with such attention to detail, but the plaza’s developers, Ivan Gayler and David Winkler, believe it has paid off. The building is completely leased.

“If we would realize that people value organized, humane, complex spaces with human scale and textures, the culture would support those structures instead of being left with a ‘Wild West’ of temporary buildings,” says Gayler. “Our philosophy is to build so well that the cost of operating and maintaining the building over a long period is far less. We can bring that capital back to the present to create a better building.”

Yet despite a pledge, from the beginning, to expensive design elements, public plazas, and quality materials, developers struggled for approval from the City of Del Mar. Ironically, much of the debate centered on the building’s success — a success that would draw more cars and more people to a town many residents thought already overburdened by beachgoers, fairgoers, and racetrack patrons.

Architects have few qualms about studying the past in order to create the present. On a work trip to Spain regarding designing a building in Valencia, architect Chuck Slert remembers touching walls that were built in the 14th Century. Dents from cannonballs were still clearly evident.

“I was reminded, once again, that San Diego is going through architectural adolescence at best. Edifices, such as that wall in Spain, weren’t built for me to admire in the 20th Century, but (they stand today] because they were done with conviction and commitment. The buildings in America that stand out in the last 100 to 200 years are, in most cases, civic, ecclesiastical, sports-related, or centers for higher education. When you think, ‘Is there something common to each of these?’ you see a relative importance in the way they evoke some kind of inspiration, if not a spirit. They were done with civic consciousness and probably built with some kind of time-enduring material.”

Slert’s favorite enduring buildings in San Diego County are the Salk Institute, the UCSD Central Library (including Gunnar Birkerts’s recent “non-architecture” addition), Jack Murphy Stadium, the missions, the buildings of Balboa Park (despite most of them being temporary when built), and Escondido City Hall (“If only we could have afforded to build it out of cast-in-place concrete like the County Administration Center”). Slert is presently best known for designing “The Pyramid” (Miramar Metroplex) on Miramar Road, a soaring space-frame structure surrounding a building that he kept flexible in floor plan to accommodate retail businesses.

Will the pyramid, ultimate symbol of architectural endurance, last 100 years? “It’s curious,” says Slert. “Look at the difference in technology. The history of architecture has been about the reduction of mass. The pyramids at Giza are all mass with a tiny temple room. Now you can make a pyramid that is all volume. The key to a building’s survival today is flexibility.” If the Miramar pyramid is to last, it will have to be repainted every 20 years: that’s the warranty period on its special baked-on paint.

A neighborhood also determines a building's longevity. In an architectural smorgasbord, no building stands out and seems worth saving. Or just the opposite occurs, as in the Gaslamp Quarter, where all buildings combine to create a district worthy of a century or more of life, whether its use is for sleaze (the Gaslamp in the ’60s) or nightlife (the ’90s). The unique sculptural effect of Jack Murphy Stadium is due to its power-pulpit site in a sea of parking lots.

Landscape architect Roger DeWeese cites Balboa Park’s landscape as San Diego’s most enduring feature. “Our society has been borrowing on the foresight of some real visionaries for three or four generations now,” he says. “I wonder how long we can do it. There’s no way in hell we could design a Balboa Park by today’s standards. We’ve precluded imaginative design.”

In the suburbs, something strange has happened. The passage of time is now viewed as the enemy. San Diego builds vast suburbs governed by CC&Rs (Codes, Conditions or Covenants, and Restrictions), which try to lock on to a particular architectural moment. Most trade on a romantic past — the Mission Era — while repackaging it with a new “Mediterranean” handle. Individual homeowners may not alter the architecture, exterior colors, and some other elements of their home and garden. Even their lifestyle (pets, basketball hoops on the garage) is subject to review.

By “freezing” a tract house’s look and function for decades and mandating how and when it will be maintained, are we assuring that it will last longer? Possibly, but to what social end?

A marketing term has been coined for most of these houses: move-up. The very term implies move out before you feel the urge to create your own history. Stay for a while if you must, then turn the keys over to someone else who doesn’t have time to worry about paint colors and things like “architecture.” Never pass your home on to your children; they’ll be labeled parasites, and you’ll discourage their incentive to move up.

People crave a certain layering effect in neighborhoods, ranging from decaying houses and their remodeling under new ownership, to newly built houses whose style echoes the moment. When longtime residents of a neighborhood know that the look of any house can change — will change — they more comfortably accept what’s new on their block. Eventually, the intermingling of old and new structures creates a valuable, coherent manuscript in which pages have been shuffled.

Architectural pilgrims come from around the world to walk the terraces and touch the concrete walls of the Salk Institute (1959-1965). The late Louis Kahn’s highly formalized canyon of laboratories is the ultimate centenarian building. A new addition under construction nearby has been decried in architectural and preservationist circles for changing the original building’s access via a eucalyptus grove (now gone). Still, the mark of a great building is its ability to endure. Kahn’s plan, in this case, has such vision and his material such permanence, that the Salk Institute’s power to remain centerstage as one of San Diego’s premier buildings will remain undiminished.

Will concrete, because of the undeniable power of buildings like the Salk Institute, come more into vogue in the next decade? Tom Grondona, best known for his residential designs and commercial storefronts that often take a decidedly deconstructivist bent (everything looks slightly “exploded,” like a young boy’s whimsical fort in the backyard), is also becoming an expert on concrete. “When a concrete wall is poured, the imperfections become a history of the building,” says Grondona. “I even date pours by writing in my name or explain something by placing foam letters in the forms.”

In years past, Grondona created work that looked like highly inventive stage sets. Today a structure’s permanence is paramount to the Point Loma-based designer. “It has to do with energy,” he says. “It can come from the material within or from a society that wants to save it. Buildings also have ‘importance factors.’ A hospital, for example, is thought of as being more important than a house. It’s where people go to get saved when an earthquake knocks down all the houses. In this case. I’m building a structure where my best chance of survival is right there.”

Other buildings in San Diego that will probably gain admission into the Centenarian Hall of Fame are: Irving Gill’s La Jolla Women’s Club, the La Valencia Hotel, Santa Fe Depot, County Administration Building, Mormon Temple, Scripps Clinic (for its homage-to-Wright block patterns), the Convention Center, the Hyatt-Aventine complex, several of our CalTrans bridges and interchanges (they may someday be set aside as freeway parks), and the triangular glass brick Wateridge pavilion, just above 805 where it merges with I-5. Pereira’s original Central University Library at UCSD merits a special mention now that the Gunnar Birkerts-designed below-grade addition is complete, substantially altering the effect of the original “spaceship” in the trees, but not ruining it. On a recent spring Saturday, the library’s usage alone justified its immense respect in the architectural community: thousands of students filled every chair, every study desk.

Of course, there will be surprises. Sometimes the most temporary or humble structures stand a good chance of surviving. Not everything has to be concrete, stone, or steel. In La Jolla there are three tiny structures that most certainly would be left off any hundred-year list that includes buildings by Kahn, Gill, and others. But in some respects they are equally important. Each occupies a cliff-edge position in Ellen Browning Scripps Park just downcoast from the Cove. These green pavilions, about eight by ten feet, are San Diego’s simplest public structures. They will last another hundred years. Bench seats, open sides, and public access create a place to commune with the city’s past and even its distant future and to coordinate our lives with the passage of a day’s time.

It doesn’t take much, after all. Sometimes it’s what you don’t build that’s as important as what you do.

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