Invasion of the Tall Buildings

Why San Diego doesn't scrape the sky

Postmodernist students look for meaning in the movement’s designs. Perhaps San Diego’s two screwdrivers, the Hyatt and One America — harbingers of shapes to come — are tools for its future.
  • Postmodernist students look for meaning in the movement’s designs. Perhaps San Diego’s two screwdrivers, the Hyatt and One America — harbingers of shapes to come — are tools for its future.
  • Rose Cassano

San Diego's downtown skyline isn't extravagant. It's not cutting-edge inspirational, monumentally powerful, or defiantly quirky. To many San Diegans, this is a good thing. The downtown skyline is a metaphor for America's sixth largest city. It's reserved, almost modest, conservative, and welcoming.

Through a combination of kismet, planning, stringent FAA regulations, and serendipity, the downtown profile has remained airily tame. It's ignored the leads of skyscraper kings New York City and Chicago, which have followed Genesis 11:4's mandate: “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven." Their Towers of Babel truly scrape the sky. San Diego's tallest building (One America Plaza) is a mere one-third the height of their superscrapers, the World Trade Center and the Sears Tower.

Downtown San Diego also has politely demurred to sister cities Portland, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, who have striven for dramatic profiles. It has snickered at giant neon pinball-table neighbor Las Vegas and declined Houston’s and Dallas’s challenges to become a postmodern Oz. And it has hesitated to adopt a towering mascot, like San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid, Seattle’s Space Needle, and St. Louis’s Gateway Arch. No, San Diego’s downtown skyline is happily restrained.

The FAA and Lindbergh Field have influenced downtown’s 20th-century growth. Because of FAA regulations and prevailing flight paths, downtown’s tall buildings can’t exceed 500 feet in height — just a few feet taller than the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza, built c. 2570 B.C. Some San Diegans worry that if the airport is ever moved, relaxed restrictions may allow for a towering wall of hotels, condos, and office towers to block bay views and turn streets into cold, windswept canyons. This has been the legacy of countless other cities.

Kathy McCurdy, director of the San Diego Film Commission, says that filmmakers like to shoot San Diego’s downtown because it’s compact and eclectic and so very different from other urban centers. “You can shoot a variety of ‘looks’ within a few blocks,” she says. And she’s right. There’s Victorian architecture in the Gaslamp Quarter. Sailboats moored at the marina. Blue-collar laborers in the low-rise warehouse district. And, of course, well-dressed office workers entering the sleek corporate towers of the Wall Street area.

“It looks resort-oriented,” adds Cathy Anderson, CEO of the San Diego Film Commission. “It’s not as cluttered as cities like San Francisco. You can actually see between the buildings.”

This is because San Diego was a Johnny-come-lately to the skyscraper scene, which evolved in four sporadic phases in other cities across the country. In the early 1800s, when East Coast downtowns were taking shape with neoclassical edifices, downtown San Diego was still a Native American settlement called Pu-Shuyi, whose center was the mudflats of Market Street.

In the Beginning...

The downtown’s first developer of sorts, William Heath Davis, platted New San Diego in 1850, after acquiring lands south of C Street and west of Front Street, to the waterfront where Seaport Village now stands. Expecting a barrage of new arrivals, Davis erected the San Diego Hotel at State and F, as well as several other buildings, using lumber shipped to him around the Horn. Some of the buildings were delivered in prefabricated form so they could be quickly assembled at their sites.

But Davis’s New San Diego didn’t catch on. Immigrants to the county remained entrenched in Old Town, four miles north, or at Point Loma, where their ships first anchored. By the early 1860s, Davis’s New Town — which had fallen into decay — had gained the nickname Davis’s Folly. Some of his buildings, now dilapidated and abandoned, were used as firewood.

Were it not for a 54-year-old furniture dealer named Alonzo Horton, Pu-Shuyi might have regained its mudflat holdings. Horton arrived at Davis’s Folly in 1867 and decided to walk the acreage while waiting for a wagon to take him to Old Town. It was love at first sight.

“It seemed to be the best place for building a city I ever saw,” he said later. Old Town, however, repulsed him. “I would not give you $5 for a deed to the whole of it,” Horton sniffed.

Acting quickly, he snapped up 960 acres of downtown and uptown San Diego property for $265. The area (which extended from the foot of Front Street north to Upas, east to Sixth, south to A, east to 15th, and south to the waterfront) became known as Horton’s Addition. At the time, there were only three run-down buildings standing on the newly purchased land. Horton erected the first commercial building downtown at Fifth between J and K. He used it as his office but later offered it to the Bank of San Diego, the county’s first financial institution.

Prior to the bank’s arrival, San Diegans carried their gold and silver coins on their persons, hid the coins in safes, stashed them in mattresses, or buried them in their gardens. Paper money was regarded with suspicion. Horton, the county’s richest citizen, kept his in a San Francisco bank and had it delivered to him by ship.

Convinced his Addition would supersede Old Town as the city’s center, Horton built 80-foot-wide streets, except for H Street (later called Market), which was 100 feet, and D Street (later Broadway), which narrowed at Third. He sank an artesian well on Eighth between E and F and put up a windmill. Then, when gold was discovered in Julian during 1870, Horton’s vision came true. People began arriving in droves. The elated former furniture dealer found himself selling $1000 worth of land daily out of his office. Because he was always on the move, Horton used his top hat as a traveling file cabinet.

When the population of New Town surged to 2300 that year and business began to thrive, Horton erected Horton House, a palatial 2 1/2story, 100-room hotel at D between Third and Fourth. Until Horton House’s completion, the Bayview Hotel at Fifth and F, built in 1868, had been able to bill itself as “the only hotel in San Diego that is lathed and plastered.” Horton’s luxurious caravansary offered gas-lit, walnut-dad rooms, with marble table-tops and washstands, supplied with fresh soft water. Suites rented for $ 1 a night, and ordinary rooms went for 50 cents, when other local establishments were charging 2 cents for overnight stays.

But as the downtown area grew more populous, local-government construction didn’t — or couldn’t — keep pace. A June 1869 Union editorial groused, “This county is $90,000 in debt and there is not a decent public building in it.” Although the assessed value of real estate in San Diego totaled $2,282,000, the county lacked a courthouse, jail, and city hall. The courthouse went up in 1872, followed by a jail. But a formal city hall wasn’t built until the early 1900s, at Fifth and G Streets.

Meanwhile, Horton was adding to his Addition. He created Horton’s Hall, probably the first “mixed-use” building downtown, which consisted of a store and roller rink on its first floor and a meeting hall and theater, which seated 400 persons, on its second floor. In 1871, he also built a large residence for himself at Tenth and G, which took up a full city block. He sank another well, put up a second windmill, and planted 90 types of trees and plants, including eucalyptus, pepper trees, and banana plants, to the astonishment of fellow downtowners who believed that only grain could grow in the local soil.

Alas, a stock market crash in 1873 put an end to the Addition’s boomlet. People left town, for there were suddenly no jobs. Buildings stood vacant. One man reported that, were a cannon fired down D Street from Fifth at midday, only the area’s serenity would be disturbed.

So what did this downtown look like in the 1870s? According to writer Waldo Chase, it resembled Knott’s Berry Farm’s Main Street. It was a typical Western town, lined with rows of singlestory wooden buildings. Along Fifth Street, the major thoroughfare back then, were rooming houses, general merchandise stores, lumberyards, blacksmith shops, Chinese laundries, and saloons. Locals brought their horses to be shod at the Big Shoe Blacksmith & Wagon Shop at Eighth and J. They dined at the United States Restaurant at the foot of Fifth. Ladies bought ready-made frocks at Felsenheld’s Brick Store at Sixth and F and accompanied ailing family members to the storefront of Dr. Fred Ephrat, a German physician/surgeon, who saw patients at Fifth and H.

“Sidewalks” on Fifth were 12-foot-wide planks that ran from the waterfront to C Street. Downtown’s streets were dusty and teemed with flies and fleas. Merchants and residents kept feather dusters at their doors so guests could dust off their clothes and shoes. Eventually, when water became more plentiful, men drove horse carts with water barrels up and down the streets, spraying the dirt to keep the dust down. But this generated mud, another muttered-about debacle.

A baseball field stood at the Lockling Block (between C and D, and Sixth and Seventh), where two teams, the Golden Eagles and the Young Americans, played. In 1883, when a building was slated to go up on the lot, the field was moved to the block bounded by A and Ash, and Third and Fourth.

The stock market bust prompted a northerly merchant migration from the lower end of Fifth Street to the cheaper lots of H and D Streets. Meanwhile, despite oppressive financial turns, the bawdy Stingaree District, centered at Third and I Streets, continued to thrive. Although it contained legitimate businesses such as Chinese laundries and vegetable and fish stands, it also overflowed with gambling halls, opium dens, saloons like the Tub o’ Blood and the Silver Moon, and brothels like the Canary Cottage and the Turf, where “hay-tosses” could be had for $2 (“cheaper rates up the alley”). At the waterfront, from the bottom of 11th Street westward, a squatter town of rickety shacks on stilts took shape near Gumbo Slough and Pirates Cove. Traversing the shantytown’s main drag, Wildcat Alley, after dark was considered dangerous and foolhardy.

Wyatt Earp, who listed himself in the county directory as a “capitalist,” was a downtown landholder at this time. He controlled three gambling halls, one in the 800 block of Sixth, next to the Hotel St. James, another on the north side of E Street at Sixth, and the last at Fourth Street, between D and E, across from Horton Plaza.

A contemporary account of the downtown area branded it “a store of profligacy and vice...theft, murder, incendiarism, carousals, highway robbery and licentiousness.” Fortunately, however, after 1886, the area began to pull itself out of its economic depression, and investment money once again flowed into Horton’s Addition. Lots, which had been selling for $500 a front foot, jumped to $2500. Corner lots brought $40,000 apiece. By 1889, the area was receiving fresh water via a flume from the mountains. Electric trolleys were running. Gas mains were installed. New wharves and commercial buildings were being built. Downtown San Diego was beginning to grow up.

Meanwhile, Back East...

In 1855, Walt Whitman called for an architecture of prayers in the 1880s. In frontier Chicago, real estate prices had skyrocketed from $130,000 an acre to $900,000. Land was at a premium. There was nowhere to build but up.

The word “skyscraper” had been bandied about since the 1840s to describe a “towering” four-story building, a tall tale, or a big man. “High-rise” was a term that would come later, to signify a building tall enough to require vertical transportation — an elevator. As buildings got taller, the definition of skyscraper changed. By the 1900s, a skyscraper was a building 10 to 20 stories in height. Nearly a century later, it was an edifice greater than 40 stories. “Superscraper”—a tower of 100 stories or more — was introduced to the architectural lingua franca in the 1980s, when the super-scraper’s existence in urban horizons became more commonplace.

William Le Baron Jenney is considered the father of the skyscraper. In 1885, he erected the ten-story, 180-foot-tall Home Insurance Building in Chicago and announced, “We are building to a height to rival the Tower of Babel.” The Home Insurance Building wasn’t the tallest building constructed to date, but Jenney had devised the first true skyscraper construction. He designed a steel skeleton for his building that could distribute floor weight evenly to columns, so that the Home Insurance Building’s exterior masonry could be a nonstructural element. Before this, tall buildings required massive masonry walls to support the weight of their upper floors. Their bases could be as much as 17 feet thick.

After Jenney, architects and engineers began to erect tall buildings with thinner walls, greater window space for sunnier interiors, and increased floor space for free-flowing office design. The “Gearless Traction Electric Elevator” of 1903, a vertical light-rail system that supplanted the steam-powered elevator, further spurred up-ward-ho growth. Manfredo Tafuri in Architecture Today (1975) called the elevator’s advances “veritable chain-re-action bombs” that overturned the 19th-century urban real estate market. Now, commercial building rents for every floor could be equalized. Top floors, once the exile destinations of cheap tenants-cum-stair-climbers, became the most desirable, and priciest, office spaces.

The earliest tall buildings were utilitarian in design. But the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan believed this was not enough. According to Sullivan, the new skyscraper should express “the force and power of altitude.” “It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exaltation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a dissenting line,” he wrote. While his nervous contemporaries downplayed their buildings’ verticality, to allay fears of the public that the tall monsters might topple, Sullivan emphasized it in his designs.

Soon, confidence soared skyward in the tall buildings. And they grew ever taller. A parade of increasingly larger giants followed Jenney’s Home Insurance Building: the 20-story Masonic Temple in Chicago (1891); the 50-story Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower in New York, modeled after the Campanile of St. Mark’s in Venice (1909); the 55-story neo-Gothic Woolworth Building in New York (1913); the 77-story Art Deco Chrysler Building in New York (1930); and its Art Deco sister, the 102-story Empire State Building in New York (1931).

These great buildings were monuments of the new secular religion, corporate America. They were designed to resemble Greek temples, Gothic cathedrals, Renaissance palazzi, and French chateaux — even, in one case, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.

But because of San Diego’s far-west location and late development, the city did not participate in the tall-building explosion that was occurring back East. This was a good and bad thing. Good, because San Diego could learn from the mistakes of skyscraper pioneers. Their rows of 20-story ziggurats lacked setbacks, blocked views, and darkened streets, creating the claustrophobic feel of a walled medieval city. But San Diego’s stunted development was bad, said planner John Nolan, who appraised the downtown district at the time, because the city was “neither interesting nor beautiful. It has no wide and impressive streets, practically no open spaces in the heart of the city, no worthy sculpture.... It has done lit-de or nothing to secure for its people the benefits of any of its great natural resources.”

Downtown San Diego, at 19th Century’s end, remained largely a collection of single-story commercial buildings that sported ads on walls and roofs for Furnished Rooms, Cloaks and Suits, Southern Pacific Railway tickets, Coca-Cola, and still photography. But within the next decade, the city would enjoy a building boom that, while generating little exceptional building design, would give it a more contemporary, modern skyline.

Unsettled by the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, John D. Spreckels arrived in San Diego ready to purchase land that wouldn’t shake him. He bought up the downtown lots on the south side of D Street and erected San Diego’s first reinforced-concrete structure, the Union Building, on Broadway, to house his various enterprises. Near it, he built the Spreckels Theatre, then commissioned the Hotel San Diego at 339 West Broadway, the largest reinforced-concrete building in California at the time. It would eventually welcome visiting Hollywood dignitaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Gloria Swanson, and Cecil B. DeMille.

A rival hotel, the nine-story Italian Renaissance-inspired U.S. Grant, had previously opened for business at 326-396 Broadway, where Horton House once stood. The E-shaped hotel, which was, for a time, the largest building in all of San Diego, boasted 400 bedrooms, 200 baths, and a top-floor ballroom.

Other buildings, most of them humble brick-and-concrete Edwardian commercial establishments and plain Spanish Colonial-style storefronts, sprouted in the district. They became the subject of an acrimonious political-campaign war between banker Louis Wilde, who envisioned San Diego as a “Pittsburgh-on-the-Pacific,” and merchant George Marston, who hoped the city would remain a pastoral resort town attractive to tourists. Wilde branded Marston “Geranium George” and handily won the mayoral election. But over the course of the century, Marston’s vision would mostly prevail.

Zoning Wars, Glass Boxes, and Neoclassical Potpourri

By 1916, New York City builders had realized the errors of their ways. When developers announced plans to build the 39-story Equitable Building, neighboring property owners balked. They pleaded with Equitable’s developers to top off the building at a lower floor. But since there were no zoning ordinances to prohibit the big edifice, the developers erected the 39-story building as they pleased.

Equitable’s hulking bulk and the veritable streetside eclipse it created sparked New York City’s first zoning laws, which restricted tower heights and floor areas and mandated setbacks so that adjoining lots could be assured adequate light and air.

In contrast to the Brobdingnagian constructions being built in American cities during the 1920s, European architects Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were introducing a revolutionary, delectable design concept: the tall building as a glass prism. Their “glass boxes”—simple glass-encased shells framed in metal grids — contrasted markedly with the ornate, bulky behemoths that continued to crowd American skylines. Theirs was an aesthetic of Euclidean simplicity, in which seemingly lighter-than-air buildings had no bases, middles, or tops. Perhaps they had yielded to the words of Adolf Behne who, in 1919, wrote in “The Return of Art”: “Glass... reflects the sky and the sun; it is like clear water; and it has a wealth of color, form, and character which is indeed inexhaustible.”

The first Modernist multistory glass box in America was Holabird and Root’s A.O. Smith Research Building in Milwaukee, completed in 1928. The movement would gain increasing stateside acreage as fluorescent lighting, synthetic weatherproofing, and air-conditioning technologies further developed.

Glass boxes generated large heat loads, and their curtain walls required tight seals to repel wind, snow, and rain. In 1922, Willis Carrier showcased his “man-made weather” system—a heating, humidity, and cooling device — at Graumann’s Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles. He soon installed the first air-conditioning system and central refrigeration plant in the 21-story Milan Building in San Antonio, Texas. Twenty-two years later, Carrier would unveil a more sophisticated “Weathermaster system” that could deliver air through ceilings and piped coil convectors inside the glass box’s walls. Carrier’s invention would be used to cool most all-glass skyscrapers until the mid- 1960s, when additional cost-saving advances in air-conditioning technologies were made.

The skyline of downtown San Diego after World War I was still modestly tall and neoclassically influenced. But just prior to the Great Depression, a few notable buildings established residency in the neighborhood.

Architect Frank Stevenson completed his 13-story steel-and-concrete Italian Renaissance-inspired Medico-Dental Building (later the Centre City Building) at 233 A Street in 1926. The following year, renowned builders John and Donald Parkinson erected the Pacific Telephone Building at Ninth Avenue and C Street, while John Spreckels finished an elaborate office building that was purchased after his death by Bank of America. The bank would occupy the building for the next 56 years. Streets away, the “Gothic commercial-style” Pickwick Hotel (which now shares its property with the Greyhound Bus terminal) took form at 102-150 West Broadway. The combo Art Deco/Gothic San Diego Athletic Club (later the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Building) of poured-in-place concrete rose 13 stories at 1250 Sixth Avenue.

Perched on a hill at 702 Ash Street, the El Cortez Hotel, a Spanish Renaissance building owned by Haroun al Handlery, held the title of downtown’s tallest building when it opened in 1927. It gained notoriety for possessing what may have been America’s first glass outside elevator—“The Starlight Express,” a.k.a. “Haroun al Handler's Flying Carpet” — which had been built at a cost of $400,000. Years later, the hotel would install a moving-sidewalk bridge called “The Travolator” across Seventh Avenue to allow guests easy transit to a motel also owned by Handlery.

Perhaps the most significant structure erected downtown during this era was the 13-story San Diego Trust & Savings Bank built in 1928 at 530-540 Broadway. Designed by beaux arts-trained architect William Templeton Johnson (who later built San Diego’s main library at Eighth and E), the 240-foot Italian Renaissance Revival structure became the county’s tallest commercial office high-rise. Its massive pillars, marble floors, and heroic arches emanated luxury and power. At a time when most buildings’ elevators traveled 300 feet per minute, the Trust & Savings Bank Building’s elevators ascended at an ear-popping 660 feet per minute. Crowning the building’s roof, most appropriately, was San Diego’s first aviation beacon, visible for a 25-mile radius.

Downtown Redux

The Depression quelled commercial construction throughout America for several years. It particularly impacted San Diego’s downtown core, sending it on a fiscal death-spiral that would last more than two decades. By the late 1950s, a mass exodus of merchants and businesses from downtown had resulted in a wake of abandoned buildings and a precipitous decline in property values. Though between 1950 and 1957, San Diego’s population had grown from 334,387 to 494,201, its downtown population dropped 8.6 percent from 12,204 to 11,157. Downtown’s pedestrian traffic also plummeted from 94,155 in 1948 to 58,588 in 1957.

Four miles to the north, developers were buying up Mission Valley farmland to construct restaurants, hotels, and stores. The rise of Mission Valley as a commercial center appeared to be the final blow for San Diego’s downtown core, particularly the area below Broadway. A few wags joked that this was “Old Town’s Revenge.” But they didn’t foresee the nationwide urban-revitalization trend of the 1960s, nor the surprising impact of local nonprofit organizations like San Diegans, Inc., which stirred downtown’s redevelopment, and the San Diego Downtown Association, which stimulated downtown retail sales through advertised “Dollar Days,” “Bargain Days,” “Window Display Contests,” and even “Mother of the Year” competitions.

In the early 1960s, nearly a dozen major high-rise projects (including the 23-story concrete Chamber Building at 110 West C Street) were initiated in the downtown area, most north of Broadway. The 1970s would be San Diego’s Decade of Banks, as the Union Bank, Security Pacific Plaza, San Diego Federal, and the Central Federal Building gained footholds in the area. Glass boxes were arriving in the district and would continue to be prominent into the Reagan years, when other cities had cast them aside to celebrate postmodernism.

“Arcology” — the confluence of architecture and ecology — had become an important concept in America. Urban inhabitants and workers called for greenery and sunnier streets, while property owners clamored for more cost-effective buildings. Throughout the United States, a host of zoning ordinances were enacted to encourage parks, plazas, and office greens at the bases of skyscrapers, which were growing ever taller. More than before, engineers were pressed to make these obelisks stronger, safer, and sleeker.

As the buildings grew, their elevator systems had to be rethought. The ubiquitous single-deck elevator systems in skyscrapers could not efficiently serve giants like the World Trade Center, whose two 110-story towers welcomed Super Bowl-sized crowds of 130,000 daily. “Sky lobby systems” were introduced to save elevator-shaft space. Passengers could take large express elevators to upper floors, then transfer to “local cars” that would bring them to their destinations. A third type of elevator format, the economical “double-decker elevator cab system" required passengers to sort themselves at a building’s two-tiered base, according to odd- or even-floor destination.

High-speed elevators can travel nearly 1675 feet per minute today. Their speed is only limited by human physiology. Engineers have found that 1675 feet per minute is the fastest acceleration that passengers can accept during ascent without experiencing dizziness or eardrum discomfort from air-pressure changes. But elevator descents are programmed to be slower. Aircrafts “recompress” (during descent) at a maximum speed of 500 feet per minute, which, in elevator terms, would equate to about three floors per second. Faster recompression can cause queasiness and eardrum distress.

Gone with the Wind — An Engineering Intermission

Before the 1960s, tall buildings’ bracing and support were focused at their cores, to combat two fundamental forces: vertical loads, imposed by gravity; and lateral loads, induced by wind and earthquakes. Gravity loads were not problematic for contemporary skyscrapers. Their steel-and-concrete columns were already highly resistant to compression. But lateral loads still proved daunting challenges to engineers. Though many laypersons aren’t aware of this, wind forces against buildings can be far more powerful than the seismic forces produced by earthquakes, even in shaky cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Whereas earthquakes rattle buildings’ bases, wind — whose tension is measured in thousands, and sometimes millions, of pounds — slams against a building’s sides, attempting to topple the structure.

The power of these wind forces increases at greater heights. For example, wind is 4 times stronger at the 100th floor of a building than it is at the 50th floor. It’s 16 times stronger at the 200th floor than it is at the 100th floor.

In the past, engineers combated wind forces by building wide bases to spread out loads and improve stability. Most extant skyscrapers have heights no greater than six to eight times their width. Without appropriate support, these buildings would sway significantly. Were the Sears Tower to have been built twice as high (about 3000 feet), maintaining its thin frame, it would whiplash 70 feet from side to side in high winds.

During the 1960s, engineers discovered that by shifting bracing and support to skyscrapers’ perimeters, they could make outer walls stiffer, stronger, and safer, against the wind’s lateral forces. By doing so, they made the tall buildings perform like giant tubes. Examples of these new tubed skyscrapers included the “frame tube” World Trade Center in New York City, which has closely spaced columns on its exterior; the “trussed tube” John Hancock Center in Chicago, which has cross-bracing on each of its sides; and the modular-tubed Sears Tower, which is actually an assemblage of nine tubes of varying heights.

Wind sway, if not checked in tall buildings, can make people queasy. It can cause glass to pop out, partitions to crack, elevators to jam and bump against the sides of their shafts, and trim to burst from a building’s sides and hurtle to the sidewalks below. Even relatively small amounts of sway can affect a building’s operation. When Boston’s John Hancock Tower was built, its top swayed 12 inches each way during high winds, causing doors to open and close and water to slosh in the toilet bowls.

The fickleness of wind exacerbated engineers’ problems. Strong winds create tension on a building’s windward side, akin to a giant lifting the building off its foundation. The building’s leeward side experiences compression, as though an opposing giant is pushing the edifice’s columns deep into the earth. On the windward side, particles of the building’s structural materials are pulled apart, while particles on the leeward side are forced closer together. This melee causes a deformation called “shear,” which occurs along columns at the sides of the building that are parallel to the wind. Shear is strongest at the base, where tension and compression occur simultaneously.

Meanwhile, a phenomenon called “vortex shedding” further complicates things. When layers of air swirl around a buildings front corners, eddies or vortices are produced that, at certain wind speeds, can match a building’s natural period of oscillation and reinforce it, until the building is in danger of toppling.

This was particularly troubling to engineers because skyscrapers across America were becoming lighter. The development of higher-strength steel had reduced the size and weight of columns and beams. The introduction of artificial diamonds in cutting tools during the late 1970s had made it possible to slice wafer-thin sheets of granite and marble as economically as glass, for use as cladding on curtain walls.

According to William Trefil, author of A Scientist Looks at the City, some modern skyscrapers are lighter than the rock they displaced, that had been excavated to make room for underground garages and utility rooms. “[T]he bedrock is actually supporting less of a load after construction than it was before,” he notes.

By rigidly connecting outer columns to a solid wall of material, such as a steel frame or set of diagonal cross-braces, and by fortifying buildings’ perimeters, engineers have succeeded in making skyscrapers safer and stronger against their nemesis, the wind. The “tuned mass damper” further aided in this fight Installed within a skyscraper’s top floor, the damper helps control the building’s oscillations during high winds. It typically consists of a 400-ton block sandwiched between a large spring and hydraulic piston, which serves as a shock absorber. When the wind gusts mightily, the block moves in the opposite direction of the wind’s forces, thus dampening the building’s sway.

Wind isn’t a problem just at the tops of skyscrapers. It creates gusty microclimates at high-rises’ bases and generates strong drafts that can flow into buildings when there are differences in internal and external air pressure and in air temperatures at buildings’ bases and tops. For decades, elevator shafts and stairwells were major wind conduits. But the introduction of energy-efficient double revolving doors changed that. The doors prevented cold drafts from sucking into buildings during winter and escaping in summer. Tinted glass, developed during the 1950s, also helped regulate the interior temperature of skyscrapers, for it more efficiently reflected and absorbed sunlight than its nontinted incarnation.

With so many technological advances, architects were poised to abandon the glass box and embark on a skyline-sculpting jihad that would forever transform America’s urban landscape. Postmodernism had dawned...but not in San Diego.

Escape form Blandness

It was 1984, Orwell’s favorite year. Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Golberger of the New York Times had just visited San Diego’s downtown core. He was underwhelmed. “[T]here’s a continuous absence of any real, significant downtown architecture here,” he said. “It’s dismal.... The office towers would be a source of embarrassment even in Dallas and Houston.”

While other cities had curtailed their “crew-cut Modernism” building campaigns, downtown San Diego was just getting into the thick of it Throughout America, it had finally dawned on architects and city planners that the public hadn’t warmed to the heat-intensive glass box. People said they were repelling, sterile, aloof, and devoid of personality. Their flat roofs, empty plazas, and boxy silhouettes made them seem like giant filing cabinets for workers.

“Buildings are often loved or hated purely on the basis of their looks,” wrote Hijas Kasturi in The Intelligence of Menara Maybank: A Case Study (1988), “and despite all the sophisticated technical input that goes into their realization, without some spiritual interaction between the structure and its city and people, it can only be regarded as a failure.”

San Diegans were not yet bored with the box. In 1982, a generation of modernist skyscrapers took shape on downtown’s soils. Twenty-seven-story First National Bank at 402 West Broadway rose, followed by the 24-story, black-glass Imperial Bank Building at 701 B Street (which some later called the “Darth Vader Building”). The pyramid-shaped 27-story Columbia Centre was erected at Columbia and B Streets.

And at 101 West Broadway rose the award-winning 20-story octagon known as the Wells Fargo Bank Building, which was the first downtown building to use a reflective glass exterior.

Fifty percent of the tenants of these and other downtown office buildings were law firms. Accountants, financial institutions, investment brokerages made up another large percentage of office inhabitants. Perhaps the then-staid images of these industries called for encasement in modernistic boxes. But this would change in years to come.

Elsewhere, postmodern architects gleefully rummaged through history books to appropriate architectural and artistic styles of the past for their clients. Corporate America was experiencing an Edifice Complex. It wanted its headquarters to stand out, to hijack attention, to make a statement.

Said César Pelli, dean at Yale’s School of Architecture, “We are now free to create a new generation of skyscrapers — optimistic, celebratory, joyful, public, accepting their roles as icons. Unlike the bland high-rises of the ’50s and ’60s, they...act in human scale on the street and in epic scale on the skyline.”

Spurred by Philip Johnson, who created a 647-foot building with a top resembling a Chippendale highboy and a base modeled after Brunelleschi’s 15th-century Pazzi Chapel for AT&T in New York City, architects struggled to outperform each other. Up went combination Renaissance, Gothic, even Cubism-influenced buildings of overwhelming scale, unexpected angles, and intense impact. Some were mere caprice. Others, like Boston’s Fort Hill complex, a composition of vertical and spherical shapes crashing into each other, reflected historical works of art.

Not all architectural critics liked architecture’s new direction. Some accused Johnson and gang of “aesthetic malpractice.” Others agreed with San Diego’s Bob Mosher, FAIAE, retired founder of Mosher, Drew, Watson & Ferguson, who built San Diego’s modernist Central Federal Savings & Loan Tower. “When there’s money to be spent, when architects are challenged to do something that will stand out and be unique in a community, they may resort to silly things. Instead of seeking excellence, they go for flash.”

In the late 1980s, downtown San Diego took a tentatively committed step away from modernism. This stride was facilitated in part by an unprecedented building boom, the largest in the city’s history. By 1988, 21 major commercial projects were under way.

Up went modernist/postmodernist hybrids that radically altered the downtown skyline. The pink-granite, 34-story Symphony Towers at B Street between Seventh and Eighth was completed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in 1989. Thirty-story Emerald Plaza, which consists of eight hexagon-shaped towers, was designed by developer Sandor Shapery to be metaphorical crystals growing out of downtown’s bedrock. The 497-foot gable-roofed Hyatt Regency at One Market Place (the tallest waterfront hotel on the West Coast) resembles a screwdriver in silhouette. And tallest downtown resident, One America Plaza, at 500 feet, has a Phillips screwdriver-shaped rooftop that complements the Hyatt and offers a panoramic view of Balboa Park, the airport, San Diego Bay, and Coronado.

Postmodernist students look for meaning in the movement’s designs. Perhaps San Diego’s two screwdrivers, the Hyatt and One America — harbingers of shapes to come — are tools for its future. With luck, Emerald Plaza may serve as a New Age talisman against overbuilding and outrageous flash. Each of these structures is striking, contemporary, luxurious, yet appropriately subtle for America’s sixth largest city. They’re good urban citizens and positive role models for future constructions. They can lead architects away from temptations to create audacious things: futuristic beehives, rocketshaped megaliths, and skypiercing obelisks that frighten pilots.

On drawing boards of architects in America, Europe, and Asia, however, are such creations. Bearing weird names like “X-Seed 4000,” “Mother,” and “Dynamic Intelligent Building,” they are poised to rise anywhere from 2000 to 13,123 feet above sea level if they are green-lighted one day for construction. Most are planned for Asia, whose recent financial crisis may have postponed their development. But a few are slated for U.S. soils — New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, and even Newark.

San Diego Futurama

Whither goest San Diego’s own skyline in the 21st Century? Upward bound? Radicalized to reflect future design trends? If San Diego’s airport is moved, flight patterns may change. And if the FAA’s height restrictions are abandoned, or even eased, the sky literally will be the limit for downtown’s edifice height.

But “Geranium George’s” ideological descendants — thousands of them — would protest this, yes? And they probably would triumph, unless 21st-century San Diego becomes hard-pressed for living and working space. Certainly, it’s unlikely that San Diego will ever host superscrapers like Chicago’s quarter-mile-high Sears Tower, which is, in actuality, a self-contained city of nearly 165,000 people. But San Diego may have to grudgingly welcome taller skyscrapers to its waterfront.

Oddly enough, it may be technology that keeps San Diego’s skyline friendly.

“Tall buildings don’t make sense in the telecommunications age, either economically or socially,” says Ken Carper, professor of architecture at Washington State University. Telecommuting, the Internet, advances in telephone and cable technologies (which permit us to set up bases where we’re comfortable), and, most of all, our species’ sociable nature ultimately may deter us from choosing the claustrophobic, spaceshiplike existence offered by a super-scraper, where one would live, dine, shop, and work. Such a contained life sounds too much like house arrest, at least to our 20th-century sensibilities.

Downtown San Diego will have to continue to deal with the challenges posed by an increasing population and “occupancy migrations,” when eager tenants abandon older buildings for newly built luxury high-rises. And, as it becomes a 24-hour city, it will have to shoulder more full-time residents, tourists, commuters, shoppers, and, yes, even additional transients and crime.

But because San Diego continues to cautiously follow the foibles and triumphs of its urban American sisters, it may enjoy another 100 years of intelligent development.

Geranium George is betting on it.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader