June 23 2009 09:08 PM

Two local exhibitions showing off the best in local designers and architecture are further proof that if you build it, they will come



Every arts scenester in the city descended on La Jolla last month when the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego debuted Mix: Nine San Diego Architects and Designers, a select sampling of bold-face local talent. A few weeks later, North Park's shuttered Spacecraft Gallery opened shop for a one-night show called Shaken Not Stirred, which featured the fresh perspectives of 15 next-generation designheads from here and across the border. The dialogue? Oh, it's on.

MCASD's Mix (which runs through Sept. 6 at the La Jolla location) is the museum's first architecture show in 25 years. The previous one, a statewide survey called California: A Pregnant Architecture, included San Diegans Ted Smith, Rob Wellington-Quigley and Tom Grondona. The long overdue follow-up is a who's who of local mid-career talent: estudio teddy cruz, Public, LUCE et Studio, Lloyd Russell, Sebastian Mariscal, Rinehart Herbst and Jonathan Segal.

According to Mix co-curator Lucia Sanroman (museum director Hugh Davies also helmed the exhibition's shaping), that short list wasn't meant to be all-inclusive, nor was it a best-of showdown. “It's a group whose work we really admire,” she explains. And, with any luck, a strong starting point for MCASD. “We'd definitely like to do more shows like this in the future,” she adds. Presumably not two decades from now.

“It's been way too long since anything like this happened,” says Miki Iwasaki, a Harvard-trained architect who helped organize Shaken Not Stirred. “And Mix is an exclusive group. So we wanted to ask: Who's in there? Who's not? It's a great selection, but there are people who were inevitably left out.”

Well—yes. But the nine that MCASD did choose certainly have something to say. The museum took a hands-off approach to the show's creation, giving each architect or firm creative control of an entire gallery space. The result is an examination of architecture and design that's both intellectual and intimately personal. The thought process behind buildings is far more fascinating than a bunch of blueprints and models—though those, too, are included in the exhibition.

Mariscal, whose La Jolla home was recently featured on the cover of Dwell magazine, lures visitors into his space with a tunnel of raw wood planks. Inside, Mariscal's room feels like a construction site, walls covered with Dixieline receipts, snapshots of workers, and textures of every conceivable variety, from twigs to concrete.

“Architecture must connect to our emotions,” Mariscal implores. In his case, emotions seem to spring from earthy ephemera.

Lloyd Russell, who designed the eye-catching new Station Burger in South Park, compares architecture with making music: “Architecture is a fluid process akin to musicians jamming together, constantly responding to one another within the given structure of an evolving piece and structure.” Fittingly, tunes by local bands like The Black Heart Procession and Three Mile Pilot loop in the background. Russell presents a few of his models on tall displays made of packed dirt, offering a clever sense of scale between dwelling and the earth below.


Some of the exhibition spaces are more straightforward. Jonathan Segal, who this summer will launch Little Italy's work / live building called The Q, screens a documentary about a new breed of empowered architect, who also plays developer, builder and owner. “Traditionally, architects have been in an adversarial position,” he explains. “The contractor only wants to make money.” By eliminating the middleman, argues Segal, architects have room to experiment and make aesthetic decisions, not just financial ones.

Luce et Studios offers a study in inspirational details, from cufflinks and an old typewriter to other found objects. Teddy Cruz goes super-theoretical with overblown graphics questioning the conflicting dualities that exist along the border region (interesting stuff, but a little tough to take in at that size). And Public shows both a 3-D timeline of the firm's cutting-edge work and tiny abstract models that hint at huge ideas.

All in all, an excellent showing. Iwasaki, from Shaken Not Stirred, doesn't disagree. “We're not trying to be super-negative or critical with what Mix 9 is doing. It's great. We just thought we could engage the public about the amount of activity that's really out there.”

And that, it appears, is a lot. Nearly all the designers featured in Shaken Not Stirred teach at the Woodbury School of Architecture, which recently debuted its new digs in Barrio Logan. (Most of the architects featured in Mix are senior faculty members at Woodbury, as well.) The teaching staff there covers a wide array of subject matter, from landscape design to urban studies. This diversity, Iwasaki says, is what he and his cohort hoped to convey. The Shaken show was tiny, but its intent admirable. Like Mix, public spaces and urban revitalization are its beating heart.

Rene Peralta, another organizer of the Shaken show, sent out a 10-point “Anti-Mix” manifesto (as a press release) in advance of the one-nighter. Countering Iwasaki's diplomacy, Peralta sounded a tad self-righteous. Some examples: “1. Shaken (with the news of not being invited) but not Stirred (in anger or jealousy) ... 7. Shaken (as a mismatch of philosophies) but not Stirred (to be diluted critically).”

Chris Puzio, one of the owners of Spacecraft, smiles when he hears this, adding that Peralta also came up with the show's name (“that was the most neutral choice”). Puzio says he doesn't begrudge those who made the short list. “They're doing interesting work. They're not sell-outs. They're the real deal. And they've got 20 years on us.”

Puzio, like his colleagues, just wanted to push the subject into the public's purview. “There are a lot of talented designers and architects in San Diego,” he says. “Maybe in such tough economic times, art shows and installations are the thing to fall back on. We just wanted to end the year on a positive note.”

Iwasaki, whose skateboard-inspired custom wood furniture played a prominent role in the Shaken show, points out that inspiring dialogue was the end goal.

“Since the opening, there have been a lot of e-mails within our group,” Iwasaki says. “The question is: How do we keep this momentum going? How do we keep the discussion open?”


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