On Their Mark

On Their Mark


Nine San Diego architects and designers are redefining housing, development, and urban design in their own city and beyond. The La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art has taken notice, giving over most of the museum to installations that encapsulate the concerns and craft of a generation that is dedicated to making a difference.

In 1982, the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art (now known as the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, or MCASD) held an oddly-named exhibition called The California Condition: A Pregnant Architecture, which presented the work of 13 highly original California architects. The show augured great things for the designers, including then-rising stars like Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, and Rob Wellington Quigley. “A group of risk-taking, rule-breaking, inventive, and innovative architects is creating a new architecture in California today,” said one essay in the exhibition catalog.

Now over 25 years later, the museum is embarking on another blockbuster exhibition, called Mix: Nine San Diego Architects and Designers, showcasing the original, risk-taking talents of another generation. This time, the designers, who graduated from architecture school in the 1980s, are all from San Diego—a center for emerging talent and creative practice that has been somewhat overlooked nationally. The show, which has taken over most of the museum, is on view through September 6. It is not just a roundup of each firm’s work, but a series of installations developed and inspired by creative processes, by theories of architecture (and of society, politics, and community), and, perhaps most importantly, by each firm’s own work.

“It’s a moment of self-analysis,” said Lucia Sanroman, assistant curator at MCASD, who curated the show. “It’s very much about the process of design and a focus on experimentation. The gallery becomes a sort of studio.” Sanroman noted that the participants are all medium-sized firms with sophisticated, distinct styles, whose work is highly specific to context, and who have developed interdisciplinary practices with their own idiosyncratic presences in the city. Some are developers as well as architects, some create furniture and other crafts, some are activists for sustainable architecture and urbanism, and others have created new models for collaboration in San Diego and elsewhere. The seven firms (which include nine principals, hence the nine in the show’s title) are estudio teddy cruz, LUCE et Studio Architects, Sebastian Mariscal Studio, Public, Rinehart Herbst, Lloyd Russell, and Jonathan Segal.

Each firm has been given a gallery space to occupy inside the museum. Some spaces are rectilinear, while others have irregularly-shaped walls, or are even hallways. Sanroman assigned the galleries based on an intuition of each firm’s work. For instance, she felt that Mariscal’s intricate designs would suit a more enclosed, intimate space, while Segal’s muscular creations would suit a lofty environment and Luce, who specializes in interiors, would adapt well to an unusually shaped space.

A visit to the museum about a week prior to the show’s opening was more exciting than your usual gallery installation. Dust filled the air, saws were grinding, hammers were banging, and concrete was being pounded. Sanroman said there had never been this many people working at the same time inside the museum. Amid the tumult, Segal and his team were creating an exhibition that would showcase the cost-efficient, multifamily developments for which they are known around San Diego. An entry corridor—with angled fins that echo the design of his latest building, called the Q—will present small models of projects, along with detailed business plans that show the hard number-crunching behind his work as a developer and builder. A larger section of the space will showcase much larger models and pictures of his projects, intended to give viewers a feel for the expanding scale of the work.

Nearby, Lloyd Russell and his team were thumping freshly-watered Quikrete with wood planks to help set a pedestal for one of his models. Russell is becoming well-known for his craft-driven, quirky designs—many of which he has developed himself—such as the Triangle Building in San Diego’s Little Italy and the Rimrock Ranch house in Pioneertown, California. Here he’s riffing on his distinctive model-making process, in which he hand-works primitive blocks of wood and metal. Models are showcased in several ways: hanging from the ceiling, set on steel rods (into a creation he calls the “abacus”), and presented in varying scales on rough pedestals. “I hate the idea of architecture being precious,” said Russell.

Next to Russell, Sebastian Mariscal, known for poetically combining refined and imperfect materials in residential projects like Two Inns and the Wabi House, is building four varied spaces: a long, narrow entrance tunnel made of unevenly stacked recycled wood planks; a large room full of “vestiges” of the firm’s work, like models, pictures, and shop drawings; and two video rooms focusing on process and completed work.

For their part, Public, who have created original architecture at a variety of scales in San Diego, from small houses to block-sized downtown condos, are presenting a 3-D diorama of all their built work on one gallery wall in the form of a shallow relief, models, images, and projections. The firm is also presenting models inside clever toolboxes, and a mural of text by partner Jim Brown that relates to his development schemes for the no-man’s-land between the United States and Mexican borders. Rinehart Herbst, a firm that has gained a reputation for its skillful use of low-tech materials to create very contemporary structures, is dividing their gallery with a lightweight “fence” created from a folded model of one of their recent projects: the elegant, lofty, and colorful Woodbury University School of Architecture, itself built out of the utilitarian frame of a former hardware building. The fence is woven with photos, drawings, and surfaces with varying degrees of transparency.

Probably the best known in the group, Teddy Cruz, whose community-oriented development schemes have changed the urban dynamic in places like Hudson, New York, and throughout Mexico, is focusing his installation on his efforts to help residents in the rural Nicaraguan village, La Prusia, become their own construction crew for prefabricated housing. The installation, which Cruz had not yet built at press time, is to include models and even a piece of truss section from the project as well as a huge mural, practice diagrams, and maquettes from such past investigations as Living Rooms at the Border, a community center and housing project in Ysidro.

One of two woman in the show (along with Catherine Herbst), designer Jennifer Luce, is known for her use of precious materials and for her exquisite craftsmanship. Luce is layering several ideas into one as a reflection of her entire body of work, which includes pristine homes, steely tables, and glamorous showrooms. Her team is using chalk to create a full-scale construction drawing of their exhibition space, including delineated measurements on the floors and up the walls, along with an 80-foot stretch of table made out of steel, acrylic, and wood (a reflection of the materials the firm uses) to create a border surrounding an intimate inner exhibition space, to contain her sketchbooks, models, and films. Among other display elements, Luce is dedicating a corner to objects collected from those who have inspired her, among them Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and landscape architect Andy Spurlock. “It’s been retrospective and introspective and tough sometimes and joyous other times,” said Luce, who added that she’s long been fascinated by the questions at the heart of the architect’s work: “How do you get to the core of what you do?”

And it is the elemental inquiries into process and identity that make the show’s concept so riveting as it captures the raw creative energy and scale that’s often so lacking in architecture exhibitions. It gives architects the rare opportunity to present their skills to the public in a museum, and it gives creative practices the chance, as Sanroman put it, “to say what they’re about.” And while it’s too early to tell if Mix will launch their careers to the extent that the 1982 show did for the architects of an earlier generation, there’s no doubt that something special is taking shape. “This is it,” said Segal. “I don’t think there’s going to be another show like this in our lifetime.”