Design Loose

Design Loose

Courtesy Respective Architects

One of the principal joys of surfing is making a pilgrimage to legendary secret spots that hodads (read: non-surfers) don’t know about. For a long time that was the case with Trestles, a mile-long San Diego County beach known for its gnarly swells. But secret spots, at least worthwhile ones, have a habit of not staying secret for very long. Surfers have made Trestles a destination since the 1930s, and in recent decades the number of visitors to the beach has swelled so much that local preservationists and public officials began to voice concerns about the potential impact on the delicate wetland ecology of the area.

"The Natural Scheme," proposed by Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects, seeks to blend into its surroundings. (Click to zoom)

But that was not the only problem that necessitated the Safe Trestles competition sponsored by Architecture for Humnity and Nike 6.0. The surfing spot gets its name in part from the railroad tracks surfers must cross to get there, with safe passage made all the more important by the near-collisions between trains and surfers so eager to reach the beach that too often don’t notice the massive, thundering locomotive barreling down on them. Announced earlier this spring, the competition drew 104 entries from designers around the world, despite the fact that it does not involve an actual construction contract.

Earlier this month, Architecture for Humanity announced that the field has been narrowed to five finalists, selected by an enormous and diverse jury comprising architects, environmentalists and (naturally) a host of prominent surfers who frequent the beach. Perhaps as a testament to surfing’s free spirit, the five finalists vary widely in their formal and conceptual approach to the design problem at hand. Some adopt a light touch, making a minimal impact on the landscape, while others more aggressively introduce capital-A architecture into the site.

"The Long Trail," created by Ken Smith’s irvine studio, works to accentuate the site without dominating it.

“Easy*Safe*Dry,” a scheme by Berlin-based kola+kle, takes a no-nonsense, Platonic approach, introducing a single, linear, wooden element that leads all the way down to the waves. LA’s Co-Lab Design Office’s sinuous “The Wave” calls for an elevated footpath that both slopes and curves atop minimally invasive, sunken footings and built-in seating to watch the action on the beach.

Several of the finalists seek to downplay the presence of any architecture at all, out of respect for the site. “Unveiling the Natural,” by Germany’s ERG04, relies on ramped wooden planks, a pedestrian underpass beneath the train tracks and subtle landscape architecture to draw attention to the delicacy of the area’s ecology, while still providing safe passage for pedestrians.

"The Wave," from the only West Coast finalists, Co-Lab, looks pretty much how its name would suggest. (Click to zoom)

A team from Ken Smith Landscape Architect: Workshop West, the architect’s Irvine-based studio tasked with the Great Park there, calls for a design that “traces desire paths,” essentially just leveling and defining the existing trail to the beach with an elevated footpath, outlook points and a safe, ADA-compliant railroad crossing point.

Murphy Burnham & Buttrick Architects’ quiet entry, “The Natural Scheme,” seeks to minimize the visual and environmental impact of the intervention through a sustainably-constructed, elevated path that is mostly concealed from the sight of visitors who are not using it while heightening the experience of the site for surfers and spectators alike.

"Unveiling the Natural," proposed ERG04, uses fences for safety but also the slow reveal of the stunning landscape surrounding the path.

The desire to keep design in the background makes this the most poetic of the entries, particularly when hearing Jeff Murphy, a partner at Murphy Burnham & Buttrick, describe his firm’s entry in full surfer-zen mode. “Trestles is a surfer’s paradise," Murphy said. "Knowing how invasive this project could be to surfers who covet this natural environment, our design attempts to create a minimal path that over time, becomes hidden by the natural landscape. Our approach does everything possible to maintain the existing Trestles experience in a naturally integrated way.”

Each of the finalists will each receive a $5000 stipend to further develop their schemes, which are due to a final jury in September.