Towards A Definition of Post-Modern San Diego

Photograph Courtesy of Esoteric Survey

By Keith York
Photograph Courtesy of Esoteric Survey

In recent decades, historians and laypeople alike have passionately documented our region’s architecture. In so doing San Diegans have unveiled unique, even pioneering, efforts by local architects over the last 100+ years. Local examples of post-modernism, however, have been largely overlooked likely because of their theatrical nature and relative youth.

Notable, local landmarks by post-modern architects include Robert A. M. Stern’s Prospect Point Office Building (ca. 1984), Horton Plaza (ca. 1985) by Jon Jerde, Michael Graves’ University Town Center Hyatt Regency Aventine (ca. 1990) and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) renovation by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (ca. 1995-1996). These buildings are under constant threat of unsympathetic remodeling and demolition.

There is a growing interest in post-modernism, internationally, which is drawing renewed attention to the works by highly acclaimed post-modernists – including Stern, Jerde, Graves and Venturi. Locally, this may also lead the post-modern curious to investigate works by San Diegans Randy Dalrymple, Tom Grondona, Rob Wellington Quigley, Ted Smith and others. While the former group is comprised of, according to one architect, “…the guy from out of town coming to town to bless the City with East Coast regionalism,” the latter cluster was creating highly unique work here in the 1970s-1990s. Dalrymple, Grondona, Quigley, Smith and their contemporaries were referred to by one publisher as a “…second generation of innovative and provocative architects…creating a unique architectural identity… without the anger of the L.A. school or the stiff intellectual polemics of the east coast.”

Often post-modernism is misunderstood. Architects often create context for both clients and the public – including MCASD’s rejuvenation by Venturi & Scott-Brown. Dealing with the museum’s multiple renovations of Irving Gill’s house for Ellen Browning Scripps (ca. 1914), Venturi said “the building works to harmonize with that of the old buildings… by means of analogy and contrast. Its symbolic and formal vocabulary is analogous to that of Gill’s buildings via the abstract-cubist forms…”

The 1982 exhibition, The California Condition: A Pregnant Architecture, produced by the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art (now MCASD) placed San Diegans Grondona, Quigley and Smith alongside those from Los Angeles - Frank Gehry, Frank Israel, Charles Moore, Thom Mayne and Eric Owen Moss among others. While many that attended the show enjoyed the dramatic nature of the work displayed, praise for this new inventive California architecture was often hard to come by.

Both the San Diego Union and San Diego Magazine published on the backlash against ‘no-rules architecture’ by these locals. In one such article, La Jolla architect Frederick Liebhardt shared his disgust that this new work was “…based not on merit but shock value” and that “real buildings offer an essence, a life, not just visual stimulation. They are not as some from the art world would have us think, ‘just big sculptures.”

As we consider ‘post-modern’ San Diego, let us not invest too much in the label but instead investing careful consideration of the uniqueness of the work by bold designers in a recent era.

Partial List of Projects to Consider

Balistreri House Remodel (1980s)
3304 Canon Street
Designed by Tom Grondona

The Castle (1984)
3307 Valemont
Designed by Tom Grondona

Dalrymple Residence (1988)
4061 Randolph Street
Designed by Randy Dalrymple

Del Sur Village (2005)
Del Sur Court
Designed by Robert A.M. Stern

Church of the Nativity (1989)
6309 El Apajo, Rancho Santa Fe
Designed by Charles Moore

Grondona Residence (1977)
3420 Talbot Street
Designed by Tom Grondona

Horton Plaza (1985)
800 Block of Fourth Avenue
Designed by Jon Jerde

Hyatt Hotel (1990)
3777 LA Jolla Village Drive
Designed by Michael Graves

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Remodel (1995-96)
700 Prospect Street
Designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

Oceanside Civic Center
300 N. Coast Highway
Designed by Charles Moore

Private Residence
La Jolla
Designed by Robert A.M. Stern

Private Residence (1987)
1225 Torrey Pines Road
Designed by Paul Thoryk

Private Residence (1980)
3738 Curlew
Designer not known

Private Residence
3031 Kalmia
Designer not known

Private Residence (1985)
955 Cornish Drive
Designer not known

Private Residence (1984)
2998 Sandy Lane
Designed by Rob Quigley

Soldiers in Argyle (Remodel of 1960 home, circa 1975)
2282 Juan Street
Designed by Randy Dalrymple

Tower to the Stars (1988)
3525 Talbot
Designed by Tom Grondona

Have an idea or tip?
We want to hear from you!

Contact Us