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Innovative Architects Tell Their Stories at MCASD

Abacus:  Multiple Unit Types, 2009 by Lloyd Russell.
Pablo Mason
Abacus: Multiple Unit Types, 2009 by Lloyd Russell.

Innovative Architects Tell Their Stories at MCASD
MCASD mounts an exhibit featuring the work of nine innovative architects and desingers living and working in San Diego. We'll talk about architecture in the museum setting, what it means to have an alternative practice, and architecture in San Diego.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): Good morning. I'm Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, These Days in San Diego. Well, in this hour, we're going to talk about an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla that features the work of seven innovative architects living and working in San Diego. We'll talk about architecture in the museum setting, what it means to have an alternative practice, and architecture in general in San Diego, and we're also going to invite you to join the conversation a little bit later in the show at 1-888-895-5727. You can call in now but you'll have to sit on hold for a while because we're going to talk for a few minutes before we start taking calls. Joining us for the discussion, first of all, is Lucia Sanroman who curated the exhibit. Lucia, welcome.

LUCIA SANROMAN (Exhibit Curator): Thank you for having us.

MYRLAND: We're also welcoming three architects whose work is featured in the exhibit. Joining us by phone from New York is Jennifer Luce, the lead architect and founder of Luce et Studio Architects. Good morning, Jennfier.

JENNIFER LUCE (Founder, Luce et Studio Architects): Good morning.

MYRLAND: In our studio is Lloyd Russell, who runs his own firm and teaches at Woodbury University. Lloyd, glad to have you with us.

LLOYD RUSSELL (Architect): Good to be here.

MYRLAND: And also in the studio is Teddy Cruz, the founder of research-based architectural studio Estudio Teddy Cruz. He's a professor of Public Culture and Urbanism at UCSD. Good morning, Teddy.

TEDDY CRUZ (Founder, Estudio Teddy Cruz): Good morning.

MYRLAND: First of all, we want to make sure people understand what the show is. It's called "Mix" and it features the work of nine San Diego architects and designers. It's on view through September 6th at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego at their La Jolla location. And, in fact, if you're interested in the subject, there's a roundtable discussion, the first of which is going to take place tonight at 7:00 p.m. so, thus, the timing of today's show. And, Lucia, I want to start with you as the curator. Why did the museum want to do a show about architecture in San Diego?

SANROMAN: Well, let me first clarify that I am actually the co-curator of the show with Hugh Davis, who is our director. And the museum was…

MYRLAND: But Hugh gets a lot of credit for a lot of things so let's go ahead and just talk.

SANROMAN: Thank you. Thank you very much, yes. Well, I think it – the origins of the seed of the idea why to do an exhibition of architecture really did come from both of us. I have an independent interest that has stemmed from the first – from when I first got here, five, six years ago. Actually, one of the first people I met when I got here was Teddy Cruz, and started really going to a lot of architecture events and spending a lot of time at Woodbury, a new school, and really starting to learn a lot of the people and to meet a lot of the people that have been working here consistently for many years, and became very curious about the kind of architecture that seems to be growing here as alternative to the large scale developments that we see populating and inhabiting the downtown core. So on my side, that is what's kind of driven the notion of working on an architecture show of San Diego architects. I think Hugh, on his own, as well had been starting to kind of warm up to this idea and became very curious over the last couple of years of seeing these certain names appear, of seeing certain buildings appear in the city, and this interest came together in a desire to do a very pointed and specific exhibition of the practices of – of seven practices of people that we were kind of familiar with already but we wanted to see what would happen if we rubbed them together. In a sense, the show was an excuse to do research for ourselves and to present it to the public because, really, the last – I mean, the museum has done several smaller architectural shows throughout the years but the last major architecture exhibition we had was 26 years ago. It was a very iconic exhibition entitled "The California Condition" and included people like Frank Geary and Morphosis who have since become very famous. It was an exhibition that included architects from San Francisco to San Diego. This, in a sense, is the opposite in trying to look very closely at certain practices and to continue that, to take up that desire to include architecture in our cultural discourse as part of the museum's mandate in a sense.

MYRLAND: And there's a lot to look at in the show.

SANROMAN: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: There are a lot of objects, a lot of things. It seems like the museum's quite full.


MYRLAND: As somebody experiencing the show, I want to throw this out right in the beginning and sort of use it as a little theme as we discuss. I found the experience very different than a normal experience I have in an art museum. Normally, I'm able to look at an object in a museum and not personalize it too much, not say, oh, well, I wouldn't like that hanging over my couch or I wouldn't like that in my house. I'm able to sort of appreciate it in and of itself. But with the architecture, I couldn't help putting myself in those spaces and being a little more judgmental, a little – saying, oh, I like that, or I don't like that, or I wouldn't want to live there. And I kept trying to force myself to say, no, that's not what this is all about. This isn't all about whether you want to buy that house. This is about whether this is an esthetically interesting thing in and of itself. So as somebody creating this experience in a museum, did some of that come into your thinking about the way you laid it out and the way you tried to challenge the viewer?

SANROMAN: Well, once we had selected the seven firms, seven studios, what became most interesting is how to then invite these practices that are not normally meant to be viewed in the context of a museum to be part of the experience of the museum. In other words, the methodological challenge to us was how do we make it interesting for them as well as for us? So what we did was to divide the museum into – or, rather take the museum's layout, which has basically seven gallery spaces, and give one to each studio. But give to each studio a gallery that in some ways fit their esthetic practices or their sort of stylistic concerns. So there is a kind of intuitive assignment. People who work in a kind of orthogonic, geometric way would get certain spaces, people who are more interested in interstitial spaces or who seem to be better able to deal with certain problematics of space, I mean, Jennifer Luce is a great example, she gets a space that has a kind of sense of constant threshold. There are three or four thresholds in a sense. It's broken up by these transitional movements. And yet we kind of knew that they would do very well at addressing the specifics of their spaces. And the challenge then was – we presented the architects with a simple set of rules in a sense: Take your space, present us your work as architects but don't do art installations, we don't want art installations. But also challenge the representation of architecture, the customary representation of architecture in terms of only maquettes and only photographs of works. And I actually think that in every case there is – there was a really thoughtful answer to this four-part challenge.

MYRLAND: Since you mentioned her, I want to bring Jennifer into the conversation. I think her part of the exhibition is a nice place to start. Jennifer, you have a lot of objects in…

LUCE: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: …in your space. Can you talk about why you made the choices you did about how to represent yourself there?

LUCE: Certainly. You know, I think that in just quickly describing the space, the center of it is a series of tables that are a total of 80 feet long and they really contain our imagination. I think that architecture sits on a border between the very rational and creating a dream-like environment and so we wanted to really talk about both of those ways of thinking and the process involved in making an architecture, which is really quite magical and not necessarily understood very easily. So the objects that sit on the table are sort of a look inside of our brains, inside of the way that we think, things that we've collected over the past 20 years of practice and things that inspire us and, really, it's a recreation of our studio because we have these things around us all the time. So – But I think the objects also describe a certain dialectic or series of opposites that are always things that challenge us in the act of building. The idea of modernity and simplicity, you know, contrasted against the idea of the decorative and the very sensual, so things that you want to touch but things that are challenging. And so each of the displays of the objects are meant to really make some questions come to mind and really show the contrasts between eras, between times, between materials, and it's really just a look at the way we think every day.

MYRLAND: One thing that struck me about a couple of the spaces but particularly about yours because there were so many things to look at, so many individual objects, is that, typically, when you look at architecture, you're on an architectural tour and you're in a bus and you get off the bus and you walk through a house and you're sort of on a schedule and you're also in somebody else's space so you're not really encouraged to linger. Whereas with your interstitial space there at the museum, I could take as much time as I want and not feel sort of rushed or like I was invading some other space. And I felt like I had a real chance to see, to experience that dialectic. Was that a conscious effort on your part to sort of cause people to slow down?

LUCE: Yeah, I think it's just fascinating. Lucia's comments about our space being traditionally seen as a pathway or a threshold in the museum, it's a space between two spaces, it's a way to get from one side of the museum to the other. A lot of our work talks about stopping and lingering and the space was just perfect for us to be able to describe that, that presence in architecture which is maybe in our fast moving world we need to slow down a little, we need to have spaces that are in between, that really allow us to think, ponder, dream and do all those wonderful things that are very intimate experiences and so our exhibit really welcomes that. In fact, there's a part of the table where you can actually sit on a stool and type on a vintage typewriter. I'm sure that's something that, you know, maybe the teenagers of our community have never done, but what a fun idea to just stop and think.

MYRLAND: I want to remind everybody that we're talking about architecture in San Diego and the latest exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. And the person you just heard is Jennifer Luce, the head – lead architect and founder of Luce et Studio. We're also speaking with Lucia Sanroman who co-curated the exhibit. And we have in the studio Lloyd Russell who teaches at Woodbury University and runs his own firm. And we also have Teddy Cruz, founder of Estudio Teddy Cruz, with us. And we want to invite you to join the conversation as well. The number is 1-888-895-5727. We're going to have a little bit of conversation and then go to a break but now's a great time for you to call if you've seen the exhibit or you have a question for one of the architects, we'd love to hear from you. 1-888-895-5727. And, Teddy, I want to jump to you for a second before the break just to set this up. You, in a way, I think, had maybe the most challenging space in the museum because you're right out front. Yours is the first thing to see and, in a way, I felt almost like it was too easy to sort of just kind of pass through but there's an awful lot to look at in your exhibit and I want to start the conversation by talking about the house that you have and then on the side of the display is a flat screen monitor that shows the various uses of the house, and that seemed to me to be very representational of a lot of your ideas about, I don't know, maybe adaptive reuse isn't quite the right – the right term.

CRUZ: Yes, well, it's difficult to jump right into one piece without explaining the context from which this piece has really emerged from. And I think that's one issue that I think without speaking about the other architects or designers or the curatorial approach, but I think that what was important here was to speak about the process that inspires each of us and while some architects might be inspired by the economic conditions of property in terms of development, maybe Jennifer Luce has already spoken about the importance of materiality and esthetics and so in my case, and I think maybe that's the reason they put me in – at the entrance, was because probably I've been one person that has been interested in understanding how architecture can emerge or an approach to architecture, a process toward architecture can emerge from the understanding of this region in terms of the larger conditions that shape the physicality of the development on both sides of the border. So, in a sense, the region itself has become a laboratory for me of – for researching. I mean, I maybe at times talk about this to be one of the most intensive thresholds in the world. No other place you would find in a very comprised, very, very, very reduced area everything that is of interest right now in terms of the crisis we are living in, in other words, the politics of surveillance, of immigration, of labor, of sprawl and density, of formal and informal urbanisms coming very close together. In a sense, one image that is always very helpful to convey to the public is that no other place in the world you find some of the wealthiest real estate as the ones found in the edges of San Diego barely a few minutes away from some of the poorest settlements in Latin America as the ones find – found on the edges of Tijuana. So this radical proximity of wealth and poverty is a very compelling thing to witness. So going back now to that house, it for me has been a way of amplifying the need to really define our idea of property primarily at a time when we have seen that the whole crisis, economic crisis, has emerged from people giving loans that couldn't pay back. So the American dream, in conditions of marginality and poverty, has collapsed in a certain way, so that piece speaks first about the need to redefine our idea of property, on one hand, and the size of development that is defining the edges of San Diego in terms of this sprawl. So it's about a McMansion, as they are called…

MYRLAND: Umm-hmm.

CRUZ: …a big house that in 60 years it will be transformed into maybe three units…

MYRLAND: Okay, but I don't – I want to talk about that some more but I want to do the break first. I don't want to hurry you up.

CRUZ: Okay, okay, okay.

MYRLAND: I want to take time to talk about that. So…

CRUZ: Thank you.

MYRLAND: …we'll be back in about 90 seconds and we'll continue this conversation, hopefully with you as part of it at 1-888-895-5727. You're listening to These Days in San Diego.

[ break ]

MYRLAND: These Days in San Diego. I'm Doug Myrland. We're talking about architecture in San Diego. The reason we're talking about architecture is there's a great exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla location, called "Mix." And we have a great number of guests with us. On the phone, Jennifer Luce, founder of Luce et Studio. We have Lucia Sanroman, who was co-curator of the exhibit. We have Lloyd Russell, and, Lloyd, I promise we're going to get to you here in a couple of minutes. He runs his own firm and teaches at Woodbury University. And just before the break, we were talking with Teddy Cruz. And, Teddy, the thing that I really thought was important to me about your house display was that I've experienced – What you show happening in that house is not just theoretical. I've seen that happen in neighborhoods that I'm familiar with where there's new construction. It's – Somebody intended it to be a big house but the real need of the people in the neighborhood is for different kinds of spaces and over a very short period of time, you begin to see it become a multiple family dwelling, you begin to see perhaps a business running out of it, you see people forming alternative families to share the space. And I was excited to see your display because it showed in a very graphical way this phenomenon that I've observed happening in neighborhoods that I'm familiar with. And…

CRUZ: I'm glad you are mentioning that and I – we need to get to the point, you know, in trying to convey because this is, of course, the general public is hearing this or listening so it's important to really get to the main issues that have inspired us. And in this context, it's primarily the impact of immigration – of immigrants in reshaping the American neighborhood. One aspect that has been important to me is to notice, for example, that Tijuana, San Diego in their relationship, if you look at an image from above, like a Google Earth image, and you see that while these two cities have practically the same amount of people, San Diego is two or three times larger in terms of its development, in terms of the sprawl, where Tijuana's a little more compact. So I think at this moment when we are experiencing this, again, moment of unprecedented crisis environmentally and economically, it's time to rethink the size of these developments so when we notice—and this has been part of our research—some of the older neighborhoods in San Diego located in the first ring of super-urbanization, such as City Heights, San Ysidro, and so on, we begin to notice how immigrants have been able to, even if illegally, let's say, have been able to add to their houses maybe to support an extended family or maybe a small business in the garage, how alleys are used sometimes for markets, vacant property. So I think this issue of how some of these nonconforming densities and economies that are emerging in these neighborhoods could really, if we go beyond the fact that they are illegal, could really lead us to rethink land use in a more responsible way. So I think that reason for me has been the issue for my work, for our work, has been less focused on style and esthetics for esthetics sake. But to suggest that in some of the neighborhoods, what is really driving the urbanization is these more functional relationships of people in their own environments. And this is – needs to be rethought at a policy level, etcetera.

MYRLAND: I couldn't help but think when I was looking at it that maybe some forward-thinking developer could actually design a neighborhood that would be adaptable over a twenty or a thirty or forty year period. Why couldn't you build big houses that you assume, in ten or fifteen years, will become divided up and the neighborhood will become more dense? What if you really planned for 50 years of change? Anyway, that's probably another program.

CRUZ: Fundamental question. That's a very key question.

SANROMAN: But I think what was interesting as well about Teddy pointed out at the beginning of his answer that the exhibition actually, in the end, what it turned out into is this kind of revelation of each of the architects' process. And what was interesting to me is that I knew Teddy's practice quite well but I started to see the links between his alternative – his theoretical and fundamental critique of kind of the development in San Diego and the links to – between that practice and, for example, Lloyd's…

MYRLAND: Umm-hmm.

SANROMAN: …and several other people's in the – in the exhibition that also take a position in relation to development in San Diego. Different but related.

MYRLAND: And, Lloyd, you have, at least in my mind, one iconic building that you've built that a lot of people are familiar with in Little Italy.

RUSSELL: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: But I want to jump in first to your exhibit with the abacus.

RUSSELL: Oh, okay.

MYRLAND: Can you talk a little bit about why you created that. It's quite a striking piece. And talk about how those objects relate to your practice.

RUSSELL: Well, one of the challenges I faced with the exhibition was that I guess I didn't have any stuff to put in the exhibition. My practice is – puts me in a position where I am the architect/developer/contractor for most of my notorious projects. And as thus, I've kind of eliminated the client because I get to put myself in a position of choosing how and when to build. So what I wanted to show was not so much the end result of the buildings—because I always felt that if you wanted to see the real thing, you could walk outside the museum and see the real building—but what I wanted to show was some of the relationships or the forces behind what makes the buildings. So what I was hoping to show was what the architect is drawing on when they're making a project, and it would be their past experiences of rooms or, in my case, of actual units of buildings. So I broke down all the buildings, the multi-family buildings that I had done by unit and after having designed them and built them and owned them, I have – feel like I have literally lived in each one of those units, so when a new project comes along, I'm describing it in terms of something, a known entity or a known quantity, and there's a spatial experience that I'm using but it's also – I also know pretty directly what that unit costs and also the revenue that it generates. So as a developer, I'm also kind of put in that balancing act of, you know, what's the building going to – how much does it cost to build it and how much is it going to make and how does that affect the financing, how does that affect the architecture, how does that affect the occupants and stuff like that. So at the end of the exhibit, there's kind of a movie that kind of puts them all together and shows how they make buildings.

MYRLAND: And then the fact that it's an abacus, is that related to the economics? Or the calculations that you have to make as a builder? Or…?

RUSSELL: It's a crude calculator, yeah. And I didn't realize it at the time but I'm kind of – I guess I'm kind of the low tech guy, you know, the anti-computer, hand-drawing, abacus instead of calculator kind of, you know…

MYRLAND: Well, speaking of low tech, I'm lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the Palm Desert area and I was happy to see that you'd done some work out in Pioneertown. And you had a solution for a client there that I think really kind of wrapped up a lot of the things you just said. It's a place that has the ability to have multiple people living in it, if they so desire, but it also has this lid on top to shade it from the sun.

RUSSELL: Oh, right, yeah. How much – I mean, how much do you want me to talk about that?

MYRLAND: Well, I guess – now, see, here's where I can't separate the practical from the theoretical because I kept thinking, you know, he could build that out in Pioneertown but how many zoning departments would really let you put an awning over a house like that?

RUSSELL: I didn't think it was a problem. Most zoning is related to the bulk mass and the height of a structure, so if it fit within that then it would be…

MYRLAND: Because it sure is a practical solution for that desert climate to shade the house.

RUSSELL: It was huge, yeah. Actually, when I was – There's a huge story about how it got designed. But when we drove out there with, you know, my friend who was hiring me to do this, there were a lot of farmers that were doing the same thing to protect their livestock or their whatever else they had out on the farm. And to me, it was – it was – I'm going to say – it was a strategy for the sun that was very low tech as opposed to solar panels that would wear out. You'd have a – you'd have solar panels and an expensive air-conditioning system or you could just have this shade structure and the shade structure's not going to break. But the architectural thing that I was trying to balance was there's this giant scale to the desert and you could build the biggest house you want and it's still going to feel tiny in the desert. But at the same time, I wanted – the house wanted to have a presence on the site so it was kind of balancing the sense of feeling big because it made big outdoor spaces next to the house but then in the overall landscape, it wasn't – it didn't look silly, you know.

MYRLAND: Now you characterized yourself as sort of a low tech guy but it seems to me that all of the architects in this exhibit, one way or another, had quite personal relationships with their clients. And, really, nobody seems to be building, you know, cookie cutter kinds of buildings.

SANROMAN: Yeah, I also think that the notion of client – the notion of client in the – in several of the cases has shifted. I mean, you have had clients but most of the time work by yourself as architect/constructor/developer. Teddy is not so much a client as a kind of collaborator in a more sort of sense of becoming co-creators of things through shifting and changing the regulations and laws that govern what gets built here and how. And Rinehart Herbst, for example, in two cases, one of the examples, I mean, they have built many other things and worked at many other things but the examples they choose to present for themselves is a very – it's a project called "Your House" which is a family project, is for Catherine's sister, and the other one is Woodbury and Catherine Herbst is the director of Woodbury. So there is a kind of intimacy and a kind of really deep understanding of the needs of those clients, in quotations.

MYRLAND: And, Jennifer, you, with your clients, you actually have them kind of do a self-assessment, right?

LUCE: Yes, one of my clients said he actually felt like he was being interviewed at the beginning of the project but we do consider our clients our catalyst and our inspiration. And at the beginning of each project our client is given an assignment to express themselves in a creative way to us so that we can understand who they are. And that really sets up a very personal collaboration that is – it is so much about what we do and why our work never quite looks the same because it really comes from that relationship with the client. In fact, the show was an interesting challenge for us because Lucia was incredible in saying, do whatever it is that it takes to express yourself and we realized for the first time we had no client, that, in fact, maybe we were the client. And I think it – it gave us a little bit of confidence in the sense that we wouldn't be a bad client in the end because it was a good process.

MYRLAND: We should disclose that Jennifer has a connection to KPBS. She's currently working on a redesign project for KPBS and we want to get that out there. Teddy, I want to – I want to turn back to you because one thing that happened to me when I went to the show is I went about three or four days after it had opened and the people at the front desk were still talking about how many people had shown up for the opening. They said, we've never seen so many people here. And you sort of think about the general awareness in the community of architecture, do you think that here in 2009, we've seen a larger awareness on the part of the public about the built environment and more interest in making sure that that goes in the right direction?

CRUZ: I really hope that's the case. At times during that opening that was incredibly crowded and fun, and it was amazing. I – For a moment, it really made me think of that, does that mean that architecture is really at the center of the public imagination? Or could it be that we have a bunch of really good friends and family…

SANROMAN: Yeah, that's right.

CRUZ: …that come to this show? I had – I saw for the first time many people that I hadn't really seen in San Diego in terms of the architecture community which, in fact, is very close knit of, you know, people. But – So, on one hand, I cannot give a straight answer about that but all I know is that something has sort of driven an interest in my case, is to understand that as we speak continuously about global warming and the environmental crisis, we continue to just, in fact, think of that just as an environmental issue, an environmental crisis. I've been thinking that it must be seen primarily as a cultural crisis and the need for our profession of architecture to really engage the public in very different ways, to rethink much of these issues that are discussed in bits and pieces throughout the exhibition, whether an architect becomes a developer to really produce an alternative idea about the economy – economics of a project or they're able to afford better materials because things are reconfigured or etcetera. So the issue, again, of this relationship of architecture to the public imagination needs to really be opened up.

MYRLAND: Let me turn to Lloyd Russell and I know that it's kind of unfair to say, well, you're – you develop projects so you have to represent all developers here but is there a point where a project becomes of such scale that you really can't do the kinds of environmentally and culturally and neighborhood sensitive kinds of things that you've been able to do in your smaller scale projects? You know, really original. Is there a point where developers are just not able to respond because the projects are of such scale?

RUSSELL: You know, the bent I have is that I don't think – I'm kind of an anti-corporation guy and it would be more like the developers that are big businesses can't respond well to the nuances of in-field development. And one of the reasons I wanted to take on the role of being an architect/contractor/developer was it kind of eliminated a lot of those roles because there was a lot of overlap and so you wouldn't have to – I guess I kind of lean away from something that's like design-by-committee kind of stuff.

MYRLAND: I'm trying to remember, it seems like one of your apartment complexes that we saw a model of was quite a few units, am I remembering right?

RUSSELL: I hope so.

MYRLAND: Yeah, how many – what's the biggest number of units that you built?

RUSSELL: There's a project in Little Italy that's about 40 units, another one that's about ten. I'm doing one in Hillcrest that's 25.

MYRLAND: So 40 units is really, you know, not just personal architecture. That's a real sizable commercial project.

RUSSELL: It's a real community. And, actually, the thing that's – that I like to think in my practice is that as having an ownership stake in those buildings, and actually having lived in those buildings, for me it's more of a, I would guess, like an ongoing housing laboratory because I've learned what works and what doesn't work and, for me, there's a lot of things about buildings that don't really show up in the appraisal, like how does a building make community for somebody.


RUSSELL: And if you have a strong community, how does that affect how it rents? How do the outdoor spaces, which don't show up on a – some sort of square footage calculation, how does that make people happier and make the building more valuable.

MYRLAND: Before we go to the break, I want to include Rebecca, who's called in from South Bay who has a question about architecture. Rebecca, thanks for joining us. You're on the radio.

REBECCA (Caller, South Bay): Hi. Thank you. I'm enjoying the show. I have a question and comment regarding the conversation about the larger homes versus the smaller, more compact denser homes with more people or whatever. I think the gentleman's name is Teddy and he was talking about the difference between Tijuana and San Diego.

MYRLAND: Umm-hmm.

REBECCA: One of the components that's being completely left out of that conversation is about handicapped and wheelchairs. I have a thirty year old daughter who was born with the cord around her neck and has been handicapped since birth and we live in a house that was built in 1962. It is not wheelchair friendly. To have a home or a building that's wheelchair friendly, you have to have it larger. You have to have larger doorways, you have to have the toilets and the bathtubs positioned differently, you have to have larger hallways to accommodate wheelchairs.

MYRLAND: Well, thanks for that comment and I want to throw that out for discussion, and I know that there's been a lot of thinking in the last ten years about life – I'm trying to remember the exact term but it's designing for people's entire lives, not just people who are handicapped for their entire lives but to think about how, as we age, we’re able to still use the same place. And I want to talk about that with everybody here but we do need to take a quick break. We're discussing architecture on These Days in San Diego, and we'll be back in about 90 seconds.

[ break ]

MYRLAND: You're listening to These Days in San Diego. I'm Doug Myrland. I'm joined in the studio by Teddy Cruz, Professor of Public Culture and Urbanism at UCSD, Lucia Sanroman, who co-curated the "Mix" exhibit on architecture at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla. Also in the studio, Lloyd Russell, who is – runs his own architecture firm and teaches at Woodbury University, and joining us by phone, Jennifer Luce, architect and founder at Luce et Studio. And we were talking with Rebecca from South Bay, a caller who made the point that for wheelchair or handicapped accessible buildings, it takes a little bit more space. The term I was trying to come up with is 'universal design.' Thanks, Lloyd Russell, for helping with that. I want to throw that out for discussion. Is it really a lot more space that's needed to design for universal design? Or have we figured out how to be both a little more dense and also accommodating for various people?

LUCE: Well, I…


LUCE: Go ahead.

MYRLAND: No, I want to…

CRUZ: Oh, sorry.

MYRLAND: Go ahead, Jennifer.

LUCE: I really don't think that addressing disability will have a negative effect on the notions of urban density at all. I mean, the scales are completely different. But I do think that our profession, in the past let's say 15 years, has begun to address disability as a very serious and real issue. You know, code has changed and it's become more stringent. And in the beginning of that process it feels difficult, especially for designers, it feels restrictive but as time passes, I see it sort of more optimistically as making larger space, making bigger space, making more expansive space for the universal experience of others so that, yes, it addresses disability but also it – it also can improve our ability to design. You know, maybe the really simplest example is that we have to design ramps into buildings now for accessibility and all that at the beginning felt very difficult and now there are these wonderful buildings that are ramps, where the entire building is a ramp. And so, I mean, I think that in the end we always address constraints with, hopefully, a positive solution.

MYRLAND: Lloyd, you must have had to think about this as you designed your apartment buildings. How did you – how do you approach the process of making sure that the buildings are accessible, not just up to code but also really positive for the people who live there?

RUSSELL: Well, for me, it's not that much of an issue. They have – you have minimum standards that you comply with. I think the larger issue we're talking about is land use, you know, and within a building, of course, you can have clearances and bathrooms and the site accessibility, as Jennifer mentioned, actually ends up making better buildings. But when, you know, as San Diego takes on a space that's two or three times larger than Tijuana for the same size, you're talking about roads, you're talking about how many parking spaces do we need? You know, for every – I think someone said for every car on the road, every – for your car, there's ten parking spaces out there for you to park somewhere. And we've dedicated – ten parking spaces is 300 square feet, that's 3,000 square feet for your car somewhere. And there is, to me, a direct correlation between lack of affordable housing and this thing that we've planned for our car, it's a future parking space at the mall, it's a future parking space in Horton Plaza, somewhere, and that's really what's driving San Diego to spread out and puts a big drain on our economy and the environment.

MYRLAND: We certainly have designed our spaces over the last 50 years to accommodate cars and we also have created some suburban spaces that, at least in the post-war era, people really gravitated to, people really found something appealing about those rather wide open, not-so-dense suburban spaces. Do you think that that's because people genuinely really want that? Or is that basically the choice that they were given and there was a general cultural movement that sort of convinced people that less density was better? I mean, we still certainly hear people be unhappy when they see more dense projects started to be built in their neighborhood. I mean, the classic example I remember is somebody telling a story about taking a community meeting and the first thing they talked about was that they wanted more bus service and then the second thing they talked about was they didn't want the apartment to be built down the street. And the architect was pointing out to people, well, you know, if you want more bus service, the best thing you can do is build an apartment so that there's more density in the neighborhood and there's more excuse for the bus to stop there. So how do you talk to people about that? How do you get people to accept higher densities without all the negatives that they think about?

CRUZ: I wish I could go back to the listener's point because I think we didn't really answer, in a way, her question. But I think maybe…

MYRLAND: Well, go ahead.

CRUZ: …I can do it through answering this issue of density because I think that, again, in this relationship to the public's imagination, we have to somehow shift our idea of density as just being bulk size, but it's about social integration, okay, as density defines ninety percent of the most amazing cities in the world. So in that sense, we've continued to perpetuate an idea of density which is based on units, spread it in the landscape and the territory. You know, there was a definition of density, institutionally, is amount of units per acre. I've been interested in my association with Casa Familiar in San Ysidro, this nonprofit led by Andrea Skorepa to redefine – just begin by defining our idea of density at the scale of the neighborhood. Can we think of density, for example, as an amount of socioeconomic exchanges per acre? And that would involve other ideas of representation, and also how to articulate a relationship of housing to other things because we continue just to talk about housing that's just units and we need to think of public infrastructure, we need to think of pedagogical and cultural programming that is really surrounding these units and so on. So I think that within the context of the listener, I think she was referring primarily about the statement that I made about how, you know, my idea that the future of Southern California depends on making the large be pixilated with the small, in other words, these large size houses need to be rethought, I think, because in the end it has become a very selfish urbanization. I call it an urbanism on steroids. So the question is very simple: What is the appropriate size in the context of the crisis that we are really living at this moment? And that does not mean to exclude the issues that she was bringing up in terms of handicapped or accessibility because that in itself – she was saying, well, we need a space for that. But, yes, the space that we accommodated for that response to a logic, response to a functionality, that in many ways is not taken in consideration in our developments. So, yes, my critique has been of the size of the development because we – in fact, when we talk about green architecture or green practices, we have just been plastering these buildings with photovoltaic panels to seemingly see ourselves as responsible. But we are not questioning the size. We are not questioning the policies and the economics that have produced and supported these very large developments. So, yes, it's about redefining size but by that – that doesn't mean that it will exclude those issues, as the listener was bringing up. In fact, it – she drove it home, this idea that by including those issues, the size response to a logic, to a function, that is very important.

MYRLAND: Jennifer, I want to pull you into this because I know you've designed some commercial spaces and some relatively small commercial spaces. Are the dynamics of size different when you're working in a retail or commercial space versus a residential space?

LUCE: Well, we, in our practice, try to divide our time between both scales. And I truly believe that one scale informs the other, that working on a very small, intimate house, there are notions about living, social interaction that can be translated then to the larger commercial context and vice versa where work is life and life is work. All those things interact with each other. And I can't imagine really working at one or the other scale, so the interrelationships are really fascinating for us.

MYRLAND: I'm thinking about the restaurant you designed. It's – Desserts is in the title. I don't remember the exact…

SANROMAN: Extraordinary Desserts.

LUCE: Extraordinary…

MYRLAND: Extraordinary Desserts, thank you. That's a pretty small place. You know, you think of a re – building a retail establishment and having, you know, lots of space but that's really working in a pretty small – small pad.

LUCE: Well, what's really interesting about that project, working with Karen Krasne, was that her original space which is on Fifth Avenue was about a fifth of the size of the new one.

MYRLAND: Really?

LUCE: So she was – so she was…

MYRLAND: I wasn't ever in there so…

LUCE: She's really…

MYRLAND: …so it seems big, huh?

LUCE: She was bumping up the scale and yet the question is when you change scales, how do you maintain that level of sociability, that level of community and wanting people to be there and to stay there and to really enjoy each other? Our projects are really, in a sense, a social art and so the scale of that, for her, was large. The scale within the city is small. And the design has to react to both of those seemingly opposing scales.

MYRLAND: And, Lloyd, I suspect you had some of those same thoughts when you built your residence in Little Italy, right?

RUSSELL: That was a very challenging residence but, actually, I was going to go back to your – one of your earlier comments. When I did that residence in Little Italy, I wasn't totally sure of the outcome of either the budget or the noise and I actually drew three or four different floor plans on it as I expect the building to continue to live forward into the future beyond myself. And a lot of times – The house in the desert's another good example. There's actually three floor plans superimposed onto one scheme to get ready for changing living conditions of the client or the user. So it was kind of a strategy – I think a lot of architects, it's a little bit unspoken but I always go I'm going to design this but what's going to happen for the first addition and the second? And how can I anticipate that?

CRUZ: That's a wonderful point and I think that that, in the context of the questions, really has to do with the possibility that architecture can support transformation. And in this case, the flexibility offered by the intelligence, let's say, of the resolution of the architecture, both economically, programmatically, spatially, could really speak of a – of a city in very different terms. And that – you mentioned that time, how is time embedded? Or how is time injected into architecture and urbanism? In fact, when we – I mentioned that I've been observing the first ring of super-urbanization after the war it began as a typical subdivision of individual homes and individual parcels, a type of, you know, a typical levee town type of environment. If we see it now, it has fundamentally transformed. It has become a lot more complex and usually out of very illegal kind of nonconforming patterns but imagine if we had thought as urbanists, as planners, as architects, we could have thought how to support those transformations as opposed to as usually in the way we think in terms of very, very, you know, specialized kind of fields, that a building has to serve just one function for one particular timeframe, that's…

MYRLAND: It's very interesting to me to hear you, as architects, embrace this idea that you need to not only be responsible for the space that you create now but responsible for creating different space in the future, as being sensitive to multiple uses in the future. That's really a different kind of concept rather than saying I'm going to create something that's going to last forever.

LUCE: Yeah…

RUSSELL: Well, I'd like to dispel the notion that, I think Vece Vandro (sp) had it, that said form follows function, but whenever the function changes, your form dies. So you have to kind of plan for something even more basic, just a basic, beautiful space, not necessarily genetic – generic, I say, but if you make a beautiful space, it'll find a use within it and try to stick away from something that's functionally specific.

MYRLAND: Well, we could continue this conversation for a long time but, unfortunately, we have to leave it there. I've been speaking with Jennifer Luce, Teddy Cruz, Lloyd Russell, and Lucia Sanroman, all about architecture in San Diego. I want to remind everybody this display "Mix" is on view through September sixth at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla. And tonight, there's the first of three roundtable discussions there at 7:00 p.m. I'm Doug Myrland for These Days in San Diego, and thank you for listening.