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Balboa Park: Modeltown

(Streamline) Modern San Diego

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The Pan-Pacific House

Profile: The Timken Museum of Art

Architecture Critic James Britton's Biography

Towards a Definition of San Diego Modernism

Modernism: How The Principles Developed

Sim Bruce Richards: A Legacy in Wood

San Diego's Contemporary Modernists

AIA Design Awards Remarks

Photo Essay: Lloyd Ruocco Design Demolished

Preserving Modernism

Horizon Home

Much like their buildings, there are fewer of San Diego’s post-War Architects with us Today

UCSD Muir College Modernism

Definition of San Diego Modernism

Frank Lloyd Wright's Legacy in San Diego

Gregory Ain House Discovered in Vista

Modern San Diego Prologue

2004 Julius Shulman Wall Calendar

Keith York Interview 1

Keith York Interview 2


Straight and Simple: Three New Modernist Designers Deserving of a Nod
By Keith York

(Originally published in 2007 by City Beat)

Given the chance, young, scrappy, entrepreneurial architects would bring their wild ideas-on-paper to a city block near you. Too few, though, are purse-strings daring enough to help make it happen.

San Diegans seem to favor the safe formulae of Tuscan McMansions and Olde Spanish fantasies over the modernist principles of straight, clean lines bridging indoor and outdoor spaces. It's a shame-from what a few local architects have shown, putting modernist principles to practice can make for some beautiful buildings.

In North Park, Christopher Puzio and wife Emily Fierer recently completed their first San Diego project, combining their home, design studio and art gallery. In their space, which they call Spacecraft, architect Puzio sought to reference fellow Cranbrook graduate Charles Eames' own home and studio in Pacific Palisades.

Knowing that work and home would be merely a few yards apart, Puzio turned the two buildings in the compound away from each other. The front doors to each are located on opposing sides, creating a safe distance between the demands of the workspace and the comforts of home.

Spacecraft, as the name implies, is aesthetically alien to its North Park neighbors. The flat-roof and horizontal lines of its craftsman-like, oiled wood exterior are sparely punctuated with glass. But Puzio and Fierer (also an architect) have created a comfortably small home with handcrafted detailing; a backyard replete with built-in concrete spa and barbecue; and a dynamic gallery space all connected by a carefully landscaped path.

A few years ago, the couple left their Mies Van Der Rohe-designed apartment in Detroit for a cheap, commercially zoned and frightfully frail structure in North Park. Planned as a remodel, Puzio and Fierer learned quickly that the house's four walls were barely holding up the roof. A remodel opportunity became a tear-down necessity. Puzio and Fierer didn't know what the non-residential space would become as their hammers hit the first nails.

Puzio's influences are steeped in an appreciation for the West Coast's brand of modernist architecture. Spacecraft is the end-result of “keeping things simple and on budget... and keeping the space straightforward,” he says. One can also read the twin structures as a nod to the logic of the couple's box-like Mies Van Der Rohe apartment. Puzio says this wasn't purposeful, but rather “we needed a place to live, not a place to put a calling card.”
On a triangular lot just north of Little Italy, a concrete-and-glass structure points northward like a compass needle; the northernmost blade of the three-sided building is sharp enough to cut lumber. Lloyd and Ame Russell call this structure home, and they also call it “R3.”

R3 was crafted as a three-dimensional work of art. As sculptors, both Lloyd and Ame examined how the building would look from a variety of vantage points (including the breakdown lane of the highway above) and admit they had no plan for how they would use the space inside.

“A building takes on a life of its own,” says Lloyd. “We stepped back and knew it would become something other than what we thought at the beginning.”

On the first floor is the R3 Gallery, a street-level concrete-block exhibit space, showcasing contemporary art by those who catch Ame's eye. Above the gallery space is an intoxicating, high-ceilinged space defined as much by light as materials. The east-facing glass wall pivots horizontally to become an outdoor patio space. High above the kitchen and living area is a loft-like room and catwalk-like standing-room-only patio where one can reach up and nearly touch the landing gear of planes in the landing path.

Upon completion of his first home for himself, Lloyd commemorated the building-his third-by naming it R3, a reference to R3 Zoning, or Residential Mixed Density Zone, as well as the three-sided lot it occupies.
At the root of the design is an appreciation for 20th-century modernist Rudolf Schindler's work in concrete, as well as the iconic Case Study Houses of the 1950s and '60s. You can see the former influence in the concrete façade and the latter as the ceilings leave the interior and become the exterior overhang in one smooth stroke. The tightly horizontal band of windows draws in the curiosity of passersby as the oiled-wood screen-wall fenestration dances across the India Street façade.
From their University Heights warehouse, Jim Brown and Jim Gates run their firm, Public, like a laboratory. As in any lab, the workspace is part structured library and part tornado-tossed paths of half-finished projects. The scientists are hard at work on a number of experiments-applying what worked in the past, tossing what didn't.

Their most recent project, the UCSD Original Student Center Expansion (OSCE), boldly stands as a view into their current aesthetic directions, and also the soul of the firm.

An honest steel, wood and glass structure embracing the surrounding eucalyptus grove, the first sketches of OSCE show the horizontal slats in contrast to the vertical nature of the surrounding trees. The project opens itself to the grove through intimate patios where minimalist benches allow faculty, students and visitors a place to eat lunch, sip a latté or contemplate their next move. OCSE almost weaves itself, like twisted branches, through the grove, to become one with the site. And for those who like to stay indoors, there's plenty of glass to savor the landscape.

“If you look at every one of our buildings as a painting, each will share some issue and critics will see it as a style, but it's really a slow evolution of our explorations rather than a style,” explains Gates. While one could see a similarity between the South Building of their UCSD Original Student Center Expansion and the Lee Residence, also in La Jolla (recently featured in Dwell magazine), it only encompasses their “Slat Phase.” The horizontal, slightly spaced-apart boards are as much a fence as the exterior skin of these two buildings. Gates and Brown admit this phase is complete, yet one more stop in the firm's design evolution.
“Rather than designing sublime aesthetics, we are trying to design the ugliest, cheapest, good, functional building we can,” joked Brown.

What more would the public expect from a modernist aesthete?