James Britton II (1915 - 1983)

Left to Right: Lloyd Ruocco, James Britton, Dan Dickey, William Davis, Ethel Ihan

James Britton was San Diego’s most distinguished architectural commentator between 1950-1983.

By Richard W. Amero
Left to Right: Lloyd Ruocco, James Britton, Dan Dickey, William Davis, Ethel Ihan

James Britton, who was San Diego’s most distinguished and opinionated architectural and cultural commentator from 1950 to 1983, was born on January 22, 1915 in Waterbury, Connecticut where his artist-father, also named James, and his mother, Caroline [Korner], were living in between sojourns in Greenwich Village, New York City, Sag Harbor and Long Island as well as Waterbury and Hartford, Connecticut. Sister Teresa, born in 1916, and Sister Ruth, born in 1919, completed the family circle.

In 1925, the family moved to Connecticut where they lived in Waterbury and various other towns and cities. At the time father James had achieved considerable recognition as a painter and art critic for New York City publications, one of which, Art Review International, he founded and edited between 1919 and 1925.

A San Diego Union obituary claimed son Britton was not formally educated…he was, however, a student, beginning at the age of four, in the Bank Street [Progressive] School at Greenwich Village, New York City, and a graduate of South Manchester High School in Connecticut in 1933. As a versatile high school student, he played tennis, acted in school plays, and defended and rebutted issues on a debating team. The Depression prevented him, as it did so many others, from attending college. Obviously he was well informed in artistic, architectural, musical and cultural matters. A part of this came from his artistic parents and their wide circle of culturally attuned friends and another part from his voracious reading.

In 1935, at the age of 20, son Britton became a sketch artist for the Hartford Courant and a year later for the Hartford Times, the same papers for which his father had written columns of art appreciation and criticism. The sketches were mostly of visiting celebrities, such as Katherine Hepburn and Noel Coward. A series of 84 portrait drawings of “Notable Men in Connecticut’s History” he did for Courant, between January and October 1935, included a portrait of Samuel Colt, the inventor of the famous multiple-shot Colt revolver. After leaving Hartford Times in 1938 Britton continued to work as an artist, designer, illustrator and writer wherever and whenever he could. References in his later writings indicate that during this period, he spent some time in Florida, though the location of his residences and the nature of his vocations are not known.

In 1945, James Britton II and Julia Eleanor [Meagley] Britton were divorced. Prior to the end of this marriage James Stevens Britton was born. In 1948, James Britton II moved to San Diego, with his second wife, Elizabeth [Roberts] Britton, a pianist who had been trained in the New England Conservatory of Music, and two daughters, Barbara Roberts Britton and Ursula Roberts Britton. Though new to San Diego, Britton soon attracted a coterie of talented and influential friends from whom he acquired a grasp of local architectural, artistic and political conditions.

Having read, and possibly met, city-planner and philosopher Lewis Mumford in New York City, Britton applied Mumford’s theories of civic development to local conditions. In short order, he went from anonymous writer for the San Diego Journal and Point Magazine to feature writer for Point Magazine and Magazine San Diego that later became San Diego and Point Magazine and in 1955 became San Diego Magazine. He also contributed to Los Angeles Magazine (1962-63) and founded, edited and published the California Review for a two-year period (1963-65). Britton’s winning of second prize in an American Institute of Architect’s (AIA) journalistic competition and his receiving a grant from the Ford Foundation (both in 1959) took him away from San Diego between 1960-61. During this hiatus from his regular writing chores, he studied at Harvard University and scrutinized plans for civic improvement in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and other cities. His abilities as critic and writer got him an appointment as editor of the Journal of the American Society of Landscape Architecture from 1965-70 and in 1968 a position as Special Architectural Journalist for the AIA in Washington, D.C.

In December 1977, the last article by Britton to appear in San Diego Magazine, titled “The Stone Flower,” about the University of California at San Diego Library designed by Los Angeles architect William Pereira, was a repeat of an article he wrote for the August issue of the AIA journal. His generally appreciative attitude toward the library’s stunning spheroid exterior was tempered by a detailed physiological description of its indigestible interior. The following year Britton became the full-time architectural critic for The San Diego Union, writing twice a month for the Sunday Home Section. His provocative, sometimes mocking, sometimes scathing, columns continued to razzle and rankle in the Union until he died of a heart attack on January 4, 1983. His wife, Elizabeth had predeceased him in 1977.

San Diego city planners and architects expressed sorrow at Britton’s passing and acknowledged him as the person who set the high standards to which they aspired. As Britton said of himself his mission was to keep the cause of city-planning alive and to make the city he loved, and in which he lived the longest, become a leader in all the cultural, philosophical and spiritual matters that made his life and—he thought—a city’s life worth living. To its credit the City of San Diego has tried with some degree of success and with some degree of failure to accept the challenge of civic improvement first postulated professionally by city planner John Nolen in 1908 and nobly continued by critic James Britton between 1948 and 1983.

As a San Diego commentator Britton was both a guide and an irritant. His full-fledged guidebook, “You See San Diego,” was published in 1977 in conjunction with an AIA national conference in San Diego. While his prose has the appearance of spontaneity, Britton wrote many drafts before he sent his writings off to be published. His puns were both maddening and dazzling and his coinage of new words was the despair of orthographers and grammarians. His writing style may have been idiosyncratic, but he was conscious of what he was doing and was offended when well-meaning editors tried to correct what they—not Britton—perceived as grammatical or stylistic errors. His pronouncements sometimes reached impractical levels: a double-decker highway along Highway 101 as it skirts Mission Bay Park and another double-decker, paralleled by skyscrapers, on Mission Boulevard; skyscrapers and condos in Balboa Park; an Atlas rocket atop the entrance rotunda to the Ford Building; a railroad terminal in Del Mar, instead of San Diego; an earth causeway that would link San Diego and Coronado, a co-operative of blacks in Logan Heights, that would cure blight and social inequities; a Champs Elysees in University Towne Center that would be better than the original; and an international airport in Tijuana, owned by the United States, to be acquired by giving Mexico the Tijuana River Delta that has been part of the U.S. since the signing in 1848 of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Whatever he wrote, Britton evoked a vehement response in his readers that was either hot or cold. Reading him caused his readers to chuckle, chortle or choke. His writing was alternately exhilarating and exasperating, but, unless his readers were inert, it never put them to sleep. He believed in esthetic greatness in all the arts and he urged San Diego to strive for architectural, artistic, musical and urban planning heights. His heroes were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lewis Munford, Frank Lloyd Wright, and—locally— architect and designer Lloyd Ruocco. How much he understood about the waverings of these men may be questioned but he clung to their self-confident and ebullient spirits. Britton’s praise of pots and pans in Fine Arts Gallery Director Thomas Robertson’s controversially mounted exhibit, “Art, Utility and You,” (Magazine San Diego, December, 1950) was more elitist than democratic. He appreciated the glories of Nature—the capitalization was his—but, as a confirmed urbanite, he sought to provide a place for expanding populations to live with little or no disturbance to natural beauties.

Britton’s support of the Save the Canyon movement was after the fact. According to him the movement began when Mission Hills residents agreed to an “open-space assessment to keep some canyons in their area from development to “protect” views. They were successful in this effort whereas residents in Kensington failed to prevent developer Harold La Fleur from scraping and filling a conspicuous canyon. (Sometime later, Kensington residents contributed funds to turn the ravaged canyon into a “cultivated” park.) The most decisive step in keeping canyons native came when the San Diego City Council voted in 1974 to acquire Tecolote Canyon as a natural park. Britton had the strange idea that canyons could be used as places to dispose of sewage. He thought the ensuing piles of stinky glutinous stuff could be “converted” to landscaping and/or made into recreational ponds. (San Diego Magazine, September 1974). While more than 130 miles of sewer lines now flow through the canyons of San Diego, one shudders to think of the damage exposed and untreated human feces could do to nature and to human beings.

There was natural beauty in San Diego that tested the attitudes of newcomers. The extensive, many-shaded canyons and meandering, if infrequent, rivers and streams were there until men started reshaping them, but the arid native landscape was transitory and the land itself—despite admonitions by landscape architects like Samuel Parsons, Jr. and John Nolen—seemed to be pleading for the benefits of the cultivator. Britton wanted offsetting “trees and stuff”—his words---to be green, but not the glass, steel and reinforced concrete sky-piercing cities he praised—especially if the concrete was “raw”—a deference to the views of the French Architect Le Corbusier—and the towers opened up views (but not of one another). Something about red Spanish tiles, as in community after community along the Southern California coast, sent him into frenzies.

Like Sir Thomas Browne in “Religio Medici,” Britton enjoyed pursuing his reason to an “O altitudo.” where everything was possible. In many ways, his hopes and enthusiasms persist. His precipitous heights still beckon nascent Sir Edmund Hillaries or incorrigible Baron Haussmanns. His praise of reflective glass—because they made buildings disappear—derived from architects Philip Johnson and Lloyd Ruocco—became a fetish. This fetish was at its ripest when he declared that the Copley-owned Union-Tribune complex in Mission Valley was a better “architectural expression” than Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church and Charles Follen McKim’s Public Library, both on or facing the similarly named Copley Square in Boston. Why? . . . because the Union-Tribune building reflected the “American experience” even as its “mystifying” mirror-glass raised the design “to the realm of magic.” (San Diego Magazine, February 1974) (This bit of chauvinism peaks through whenever Britton is trying to be clever, which is most of the time.) His account of Architect Ruocco’s glass-enclosed (or better, glass-exposed) residence near San Diego State College, hidden from view on the sides of a canyon, comes across as a maze of fool-the-eye deceptions, part Alice In Wonderland and part Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (San Diego Magazine, March 1958) One of Britton’s best pieces was a descriptive article—rare for him—about the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, some of whose awe-inspiring panes have in the year 2007 been defaced by graffiti scratched into the glass by vandals. (San Diego Union, January 11, 1981) Britton found similar engaging aspects in the black-glass-enveloped 24-story Imperial Bank Tower at 7th Avenue and B Street in downtown San Diego that less impressed viewers have nicknamed “the Darth Vader Building.”

Edwin Self, publisher of Magazine San Diego and Point that later became San Diego Magazine, said that when Britton became associate editor (1950-60) he wrote many columns of art and music criticism, to the annoyance of other writers at the magazine who regarded these subject as their own. Britton’s art criticism made good reading as he had a capacity for putting himself within the work and feeling its stresses, tensions, balances and imbalances. He also saw a lot of it as merely “fun.” Consequently, he favored “advance guard”—his words—works that amateur or less astute viewers excoriated as “modern.” His close friendships with local artists—Clark Allen, Dan Dickey, Fred Hocks, Sheldon Kirby, Linda Lewis, William Munson and others spurred them on to create original and vital works that hold up well today.

In music, Britton’s attention was divided between the performers and the works they played. The impression of this writer—which may be disputed by people who knew Britton closely—is that, as in painting and sculpture, he favored more abstruse heavy music rather than light frothy stuff. There were not that many local composers—except in jazz, a field he depreciated—so he liked the challenge, range, emotional expressiveness and provocative nature of old and new composers, like Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith. A good orchestra could deliver this music with consummate skill, but only if had the support that indifferent San Diegans were not able to give. As a result, the local symphony—but not smaller string ensembles—often made chaotic messes of what, in better hands, would have been sublime moments or tumultuous climaxes. This last brings to mind that “momentous moments” was an alliterative if redundant phrase he used at least once (once was enough!). As with many of his neologisms, it sometimes seemed words were more important than the substance they portrayed.

As his health deteriorated and his hopes diminished, Britton saw in Mayor Pete Wilson, developer Ernest Hahn and designer Jon Jerde the definitive answer to his dream of a synthesis of beauty and business under the enlightened patronage of American capitalists. The caparisoned and colorful faux Italian hill town they helped to re-create in the Horton Plaza Shopping Center—that opened for business in August 1985—would be entertaining even though its subliminal purpose was to get shoppers to buy, buy, buy. The Center’s comical topiary, waving banners and slightly scary views from upper levels contributed to a discreet, carefully refined mix that could easily turn garish unless future managers and tenants keep it under tight control. Much the same foreboding was behind Britton’s recommendation s for a Czar in Balboa Park who would keep the institutions in the park from spoiling overall architectonic effects with kitschy and superfluous additions.

Local universities, colleges and private schools sometimes laud the emphasis Britton placed on city and regional planning and on good design as a tantalizing lure for San Diego residents and tourists alike. Many local and national environmental organizations—Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, Trust for Public Land, Project for Public Spaces, San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), successor to the Comprehensive Planning Organization—continue to embrace Britton’s pursuits.

As a newcomer to San Diego, Britton’s criticisms of the City’s failures in solving a multitude of traffic and parking problems and its penchant for erecting cheap, inefficient and ugly buildings were tinged with a call for excellence, particularly so if his imaginative, direct-from-Olympus solutions were followed. ‘Presto” meaning “let it be done”— was one of his favorite words. Also, somewhere in the deep recesses of his brain, Lloyd Ruocco’s motto that “people should learn to live together handsomely” was plugged into a live socket. In an aside while discussing plans for hotels in Mission Bay (San Diego Magazine, July 1959) he said a good modern [hotel] building was good if it lasted 25 years; then it should be replaced. (The question: Did Britton mean it? My answer, maybe so, but not for all buildings and not for the best work of his heroes Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, FLW, and Lloyd Ruocco—though even in these cases architectural wonderworks have been devastated by time, by obsolescence, and by the wrecker’s ball.)

Britton’s call for perfection often floundered on slippery slopes because of his lack of personal on-site contact with achievements in the rest of the world. Except for what he had observed in Connecticut, in New York City, in Philadelphia and in Miami Beach, much of his knowledge of what was happening came from books or from conversations with others who shared their experiences and insights with him. (Reading Henry Adams’ comments about the Virgin and the mentality of the Middle Ages was—and is—immensely rewarding, but it is in no sense an adequate substitute for being at Chartres in and outside the magnificent—and imperishable—Cathedral.)

Britton’s prediction that San Diego is or could be the best in the world in buildings, traffic circulation, convention business, tourist attractions, and- cultural activities had a boisterous evangelical quality. This catering to local self-esteem may have energized followers because his fervor was contagious, but it also revealed a naive side of his nature that must have seemed callow to architects and social and cultural commentators elsewhere. Who but Britton would tell San Diegans (not New Yorkers!) that the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Building on Fifth Avenue would look better if it were moved across the street into Central Park! (San Diego Magazine, October 1960) On the other land, like the boy who saw that the Emperor’s new clothes were no clothes at all, Britton alone pointed out that San Diego’s revered architect, Irving Gill, was sometimes clumsy (San Diego Magazine, January 1959), and that celebrated San Diego architect Richard Requa’s praise of originality and functionalism did not conform to his own architectural practice (San Diego Magazine, June 1959). Here, too, Requa’s fondness for red tiles may have had something to do with Britton’s pique. A preacher with an impish sense of humor, Britton, on one occasion, assured his readers they could have “heavenly cities” with small “feeder airports” if they would put airport hubs for supersonic jets in “hell,” in this case, in the hot and uninhabitable land surrounding Death Valley (San Diego Magazine, June 1960). Supersonic jets and supersonic booms and supersonic costs were slow in coming, however, and when they did arrive they presented so many problems that the Utopian project was left for another day.

As Britton learned more and more about accomplishments and changes in architectural thinking outside San Diego, his outlook became more cosmopolitan. The two or so years he spent studying architectural and cultural conditions in other cities, financed by a Ford Foundation grant in 1960, and his brief stint working in the national headquarters of the AIA in Washington, D.C. in 1968 helped to broaden his perceptions. His stance as a contributor to Los Angeles Magazine (three articles about Los Angeles and one about San Diego) acted as an interlude from his adroitly focused studies and work on the San Diego scene. As he became aware of the aspirations and problems in urban development in other parts of the country, he began to modulate some of his earlier enthusiastic expostulations. It was just possible that other cities might also be the best in those many aspects of city life and culture for which he had previously praised San Diego so effusively.

Many of Britton's likes and dislikes were reactions to contemporary controversies and events, some of which continue---the lid over the freeways; the relocation of the downtown and Miramar [Naval} Air Station airports; the concealment and/or elimination of automobiles; the rational platting of subdivisions; the transfer of revenue generated by commercial ventures in parks to city-wide park improvement projects and not to the City of San Diego’s general fund; the need for a qualified art commission to select great works of public art; the bay to park linkage, first advocated by city planner John Nolen in 1908. Some of the regions nettlesome problems have been put to rest—the petrifaction of the Belmont roller coaster, the construction of a convention center, the use of canyons or Balboa Park as a place to hide or get rid of the convention, cultural and civic centers that concerned citizens wanted but no one wanted to pay for or of the automobiles that were bumping into one another and impeding progress. Primarily an esthetic rather than a social critic, Britton believed that if the economy improved most social problems would disappear—which is not to say they would change.

Whether one agreed or disagreed with him—sometimes both in the same and in different articles—Britton got people involved. His sensibilities were formed by his artist-father and musician-mother. His principles “that good art was “soul” (Plato) and that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” (Keats) were long-held. He seldom modified them; however, he knew how to adapt them in response to anfractuous realities wrought by politicians, realtors, developers and merchandisers—witness his parrying as the urbanization of Mission Valley juggernauted forward, which may have been the same as making the best of a bad situation as store after store, condo after condo and developer after developer moved in. There was something ironic about Britton’s advocacy of master planning or of hiring artists and architects from outside the City through competitions, for when the City did this, Britton found faults in the process and dismissed the results as being too short-term, political, expedient and visually or acoustically insensitive (see his demolishing remarks on the Stanford Study of Public Assembly Facilities in 1955 and his blistering ridicule of the Bartholomew Master Plan for Balboa Park in 1960.) In 2007 when so many city and neighborhood planning groups have been taken over by representatives or clients of developers, Britton’s confidence in their impartial far-seeing judgment seems the quintessence of innocence and gullibility.

Adopting an attitude of total acquiescence to the opinions of landscape architect Garrett Eckbo and his Community Facilities Planners firm (San Diego Magazine, April 22, 1955), who were hired to establish design principles for the Mission Bay Park that was to be, Britton found himself at the end of his tether regarding his favorite obsession; the design and construction of skyscrapers. He suggested that the about-to-be hotels (“botels,” he called them) could be higher but he did not say how high is high. In contrast to environmental architects who favor merging buildings into the landscape (and this includes Lloyd Ruocco), Britton preferred high rises because they offset the “monotony” of the flat topography of Mission Bay, accented special spots along the Bay, and offered tourists views they could not obtain at ground levels. (Ironically the views of the tourists are the very views non-tourists cannot have.) It was such forever upward reasoning (or simply opportunism) that led to the huge buildings that now disfigure sections of the Pacific Beach and La Jolla coasts. In fairness to Britton, he—and Eckbo—did not want a lot of tall hotel buildings, just a few juttings and gushings in conspicuous places. Left open was the question of what would happen to the “botels’ when the owners disregarded the standards proposed by the Eckbo planners.

When writing of “the sins of the city council” (San Diego and Point Magazine, March 1958), Britton refrained from making the charge of collusion with outside profiteers or power brokers. (“Lobbyists” is the generic term in use today.) Rather he accused council people of “political nonsense,” a neat antithesis to people with “design sense,” supposedly planners and architects. What exactly these two terms meant is not clear, though “political nonsense” seems to imply stupidity rather than cupidity, and “design sense” seems to imply the appearance of things with the further—unfortunately unstated—idea that “machinery” is an indispensable part of “appearance.”

Even when San Diego erred toward mediocrity, imitativeness and false—or necessary— economy, as in Mission Bay Park, Mission Valley and Balboa Park, Britton held out hopes for improvement. The shared private-public use of Mission Bay fascinated him. It seemed to offer something for everybody, and the tropical flourishes and exotic touches in landscaping and architectural details, particularly at Vacation Village (now Paradise Point) stimulated dreams of a good happy life for beautiful people who could spend their leisurely and luxurious days (and money) surrounded by an exotic staff of copper-toned beach girls and beach boys. Having seen Mission Bay in its fledgling condition, Britton did not foresee the conglomeration of crude, tumbledown, undistinguished buildings in the southwest corner of Mission Bay Park. His first views of the Islandia (now Hyatt Regency) in this area were ecstatic; despite the commonplace, ice-box styling of the principal building—he liked its lattice-work rooftop projections . . . “a new kind of sculpture, as it were, especially suited to the ever-moving populace”—Los Angeles Magazine, May, 1963). Logically, if the moving motorist could see the “sculpture” as more than a blur, the moving pedestrian who got closer could not even glimpse this hidden treasure. From this “passing motorist” apex, it was—and is today—downhill to ramshackle, seedy commercialism along the “strip” at Quivira Basin where the intrusive 17-floor, Hyatt-Regency mocks its sprawling neighbors.

Britton’s dream of a collaboration between corporation investors and Comprehensive Planning Organization planners carried over into a quixotic plan to replace San Diego’s “outmoded” Miramar Naval Air Station with a new capital city that would replace the “mess” in Washington, D.C. while, at the same time, providing a center for all the blue-chip corporations that had left or were leaving squalid, crowded and antiquated New York City. The new capital would consist of mega-structure towers surrounded by open space, reminiscent of plans being advocated at the time by architect Paul Rudolph, and also—though Britton did not say so—by architects Le Corbusier and Moshe Safdie. (San Diego Magazine, May 1974)

In discussing the views of Hamilton Marston and of the Lynch and Appleyard, planners Marston and his aunt Mary had hired in 1975 to produce an “overview” of the San Diego region, Britton gave space for them to express their desires for greater cultural and business exchanges between the San Diego and Tijuana. Of course, Marston, as merchant, already knew how much San Diego merchants owed to the influx of wealthy customers from south of the border. Britton buried his account of Marston’s views in an imaginary exchange between Hamilton as Hamlet and Grandfather George W. Marston as a stand-in for the ghost of Hamlet’s father, going so far as to re-write Shakespeare’s tantalizing dialogue to suit his purposes. The whole parody or travesty, like an identification a month before (or was it just comparison?) of Lloyd Ruocco with “Saint” Francis of Assisi, makes a mockery of the points Britton is trying to make. In any case, Marston’s and Lynch’s and Appleyard’s tentative gestures toward friendship with businessmen and politicians from Tijuana appears to have anticipated the increased number of contacts between the two intertwined cites, that has produced, among other things, expansion of “maquiladoras” on the Mexican side of the border, acceleration of free trade, and collaboration in solving a sewage overflow problem that is damaging the environment and causing health problems on both sides the border. (San Diego Magazine, February 1975).

Defender of Erewhom, though he may have been, Britton could not, however, condone the opportunistic firing in 1950 (resignation?) of Reginald Poland as director of the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery (now San Diego Museum of Art) or his chagrin at the out-of-place building of the Timken Gallery (1965) and the west wing of the San Diego Museum of Art (1966). His knowledge of San Diego history must have come from glosses. As a result, his comments about architect Bertram Goodhue’s brilliant design success on El Prado in Balboa Park were drawn from a Goodhue who never existed. (Goodhue actually despised most of the Prado designs that were done by—to him—plodding competitors. How much more interesting would it have been to know what Britton thought of the Spanish-Renaissance Phelps-Dodge “Ghost” Mining Town In Tyrone, New Mexico, that Goodhue and Company designed in the same years he designed El Prado.) Britton’s rhapsodies about the fading temporary structures in Balboa Park or about the grandeur of the Old Globe Theater because of its setting—not because of its architecture—sometimes reached into dizzying heights. His praise of the uninspiring Cal Trans Building in Old Town that replaced the picturesque Spanish-Mission style Olive Oil Factory (later revised after the eyesore was built); his seconding of the proposal of consultants Pereira and Luckman to give Balboa Park to the University of California (in exchange for 1000 “commercial recreational” acres in Mission Valley); his advocacy of open-air walkways above the arcades in Balboa Park; his plans to put parking structures or offices under the seats of sports stadiums or in canyons; and his statement that the wing of an airplane sticking up in the air at Otay Mesa, San Diego County, designed by his alter ego Lloyd Ruocco, was “a modern equivalent of the [Christian] cross” were some of his greatest howlers. (Adverse critics will find others.)

More prescient, however, was Britton’s advocacy of a rapid (mass) transit system (San Diego Magazine, March 1959) that became the forerunner of the trolley system that now operates from San Diego to Tijuana and through Mission Valley. What Britton and San Diego engineer Mathew Brady hoped for was nothing less than the remaking of American cities and spaces in between into a “multiple toll” package that included superhighways with suspended cars carrying passengers and freight; channels for heavy freight trains and trucks; ducts for carrying liquid freight and cable lines; and “barrels” (pipes? . . . canals?) transporting Mississippi water in the earth beneath the stacks of passes and overpasses. What the rest of the country and San Diego got was more pragmatic though the 2007 bullet trains and massive, but not yet electronically controlled, highways, also (theoretically at least), relieve traffic congestion increase speed, decrease expense, reduce smog and promote national defense.

Except for Rohr Industries in Chula Vista, that experimented with a prototype of a vehicle supported and moved by magnetic forces located either beneath the vehicle of overhead (ROMAG) from 1970 to 1975, San Diego entrepreneurs did not pick up on Britton’s idea of a new multiple- traffic and transport industry. The rapid-transit plants he recommended as extensions of local aircraft plants floundered (despite government subsidy) while, in 1994, General Dynamics, San Diego’s major aircraft and missile employer, closed its plant on Kearny Mesa and moved what was left of its San Diego operations to Denver, Colorado. It should be noted that Britton later revised his views about the building of superhighways as he, and the communities through which they plowed (i.e. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Hartford and Boston) were beginning to realize their negative impacts, including the escalation rather than the relief of congestion and the splitting apart of neighborhoods, to which list can now be added the acceleration of global warming and the on-again, off-again reliance on foreign governments and/or companies for oil—problems that seer, though he was, Britton did not see. (San Diego Magazine, May 1974)

Like Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, Britton’s hobby-horse romps took him to peculiar places. It was not for nothing that one of his best pieces for Point (January 19, 1951) was a description of a surrealistic exhibit at San Diego State. He was all for it! As an amateur bricklayer, his comments about bricklaying in San Diego buildings show the discerning eye of a creative craftsman; not so, however, his praise of ceramic murals on public buildings because they had achieved the success of publicity in the University of Mexico or his fleeting fascination with the skeletal, show-it-all structure of Centre Pompidou in Paris. (Most of the ducts inside serve no useful purpose.) Something of Britton’s tendency to glorify the impossible (and to turn logic on its head) was behind his prediction in 1974 that dirigibles would replace airplanes (and decrease the need for airports) because the latter were “inherently unsafe!” (San Diego Magazine, May 1974)

The Salk Institute in La Jolla, a much acclaimed masterpiece by architect Louis Kahn seemed to take Britton off-guard for here was San Diego’s most distinguished architectural building that effectively molded space and supplied ample and flexible work facilities and yet it was the product of a humble architect who was not afraid to ask for advice. This was not a building tourists and indeed most San Diego residents were expected to visit; yet it has received accolades from architectural critics, historians, and students. There was nothing entertaining or whimsical or sweet about. It was efficient, practical, classically-derivative and “austere,” a word Britton used to indicate his personal discomfort. As was his wont, Britton decided to illustrate his piece on the Salk Institute by an analogy to the Parthenon from which the Salk Institute supposedly took structural hints and spiritual imponderables. The most telling point in Britton’s analysis was his attribution of the stunning geometric and minimalist plaza—it most photographed feature—to Mexican architect Luis Barragan who saw in the simplified plaza a “façade to the sky” rather than the garden through which scientists were to wander. Since Barragan, Salk and Khan formed a trio it is idle to credit the striking plaza that opens up to the broad Pacific Ocean as well as to the skies above to any one person. As almost all the dazzling photographs of the plaza are without people, the implication seems to be that this is a work of art as marmoreal and untouchable as any work of art preserved forever in somber and intimidating museums. Fortunately, the scientists-in-residence can view the plaza from their angled offices and thus find release from their intense work without being enticed into the byways of a busy scene. (I dissent from Robert Venturi’s view that the open plaza, the fragmented appearance of the plan, and the incomplete buildings show an “American spirit” like that of the pioneers energetically pushing onwards and upwards, though Venturi agues his case more cogently than Britton’s glib resort to the “American experience” to explain the “magical qualities” in the Union-Tribune building in Mission Valley. (Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture: A View from the Drafting Room, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1996; San Diego Magazine. June, 1957).

One wishes, sometimes, that Britton had more compassion for the underdog but his eyes were on tourists—the tourists that were so deftly satirized by Nathanael West in “The Day of the Locusts”. (An Internet search of the attached articles shows that the word “homeless” does not appear anywhere.) Britton did rise to the defense of John Lloyd Wright, a talented architect and son of the famous FLW, who failed to get a license to practice architecture in California. (a misstep that was later rectified,) His friendship with the son won him an interview with the father, when Frank Lloyd Wright visited San Diego in 1955, seeking—pork-pie hat-in-hand—a commission to design a civic theatre. Like Britton, FLW was an ego-centrist, but, unlike FLW, who dismissed what he didn’t like with snorts of disapproval; Britton wrote elaborate and searching essays.

The appeals Britton extolled of beautiful views and open sky and melodious music and harmonious composition and dream palaces—in Balboa Park—and welcoming and safe streets in sanitized settings that their great-great grandfathers and great, great grandmothers never knew—as in Disneyland, Old Town, Gaslamp Quarter. Seaport Village and Mission Bay Park—were those that tourists could appreciate. And Britton was San Diego's number one tourist.

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