A generation ago, architects didn't bother with the dirtier side of building-the dusty construction phase or the even muddier waters of finance. But as architects continued to see their designs butchered by contractors, more firms started piling hammers next to computers, defiantly labeling themselves 'design-build.'
For Ted Smith, Jonathan Segal, Sebastian Mariscal and Lloyd Russell, that wasn't enough. The maverick architects wanted even more control, so they took on the developer role and started financing, designing and building projects themselves.
And even though people like John Portman of Atlanta-an architect who found success developing hotels-have been playing the architect-developer game for a while, the foursome has pushed San Diego into the center of the movement. The Southern California building boom and downtown San Diego's revitalization have made it easier to find success, but now the architect-developers are hoping to make the formula work for architects in different cities and circumstances.
The foursome just wrapped up the second year of teaching a master's program in real-estate development at Woodbury University, and architects all over are already competing for a seat in next year's class, hoping to gain insight or, as Russell half-jokingly calls it, 'The Force.' And the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) has invited the men to share their real-estate knowledge with interested audiences across the country.
As Segal prepares to give the first of his own 'Architect as Developer' seminars in Los Angeles this October, it's worth looking at what these architect-developers are doing with their newfound power-is 'The Force' being used for good or bad?
Downtown San Diego is the perfect Petri dish. As high-rises multiply, Smith, Mariscal and Russell have built infill projects on a smaller scale and at a slower rate. Larry Herzog, professor in the School of Public Administration and Urban Studies at SDSU, acknowledges a few well-designed towers downtown, but he prefers the infill projects.
'If downtown San Diego was being built by the Jonathan Segals and Ted Smiths of the world,' Herzog says, 'downtown would be terrific.'
Ted Smith spanks suburgan sprawl
The phone rings. Ted Smith, a thin man with white hair and eyebrows that furrow in all directions, jumps from his chair.
'Hello, this is Ted Smith.' There's silence while he listens to the caller, an out-of-work architect looking for a chance.
'Do you have construction experience?' Smith asks. 'Do you have tools? You know, we do as much construction as we do architecture here, and we don't really have any current projects in the architecture stage, so thanks for your interest, but we're looking for builders.' There's more silence as the caller prods Smith for more information.
'I don't have a website because we don't want clients, alright?'
After a polite goodbye, Smith settles back into his chair, ready to chat about suburban sprawl, new urbanism and American consumerism and how it all relates to American foreign policy.
Thirty years ago, Smith was designing expensive spec homes for a North County Realtor. Before long, he realized he wasn't cut out for the job.
'I'm just going, What do you do with a bidet? I don't even know,' he recalls. 'And after awhile, I'm [thinking], I don't even know the people who want these stupid houses I'm designing. I don't know who they are, and I think I don't like them. In fact, I think they're the cause of all the problems in the world.'
So Smith started designing homes for people he liked. In 1980, he took out a loan against his house in the suburbs and bought a lot on Carmel Valley Road in Del Mar, where he built a small, box-shaped house. That same year, interest rates jumped 20 percent-Smith lost his house, declared bankruptcy and moved into the new house himself. Soon after, friends started wanting tiny houses of their own. Smith built more on the same lot-clever little things that share one kitchen while maintaining the look and feel of individual units-and the development became what's now known as GoHomes.
In 1990, Smith and his partner and girlfriend, Kathy McCormick, financed and built more GoHomes on Ninth Avenue and Beech Street in Cortez Hill. From there, they began buying infill lots in Little Italy. They abandoned the suburbs and moved downtown.
Decades later, Smith's still at it-developing, designing and building projects for a niche market of bohemian-minded folks who appreciate big windows and raw concrete.
Aside from being beautiful and innovative, Smith's buildings promote an urban lifestyle that reconnects inhabitants with the city. The units are modest and relatively affordable.
'Our attitude is, you need a less better house than your parents,' Smith explains. 'You need to be downtown, you need to get out of your car, you need to have a little unit, you need to not be upset that your kitchen is not a giant kitchen with 3,000 miles of counter space.'
'I don't want to get too far with this,' Smith continues, 'but we're in the war in Iraq because our houses are too big. Think about that, it's a long hop for most people, but it's true.'
In theory: 'When I'm talking about a good building, I'm talking about a socially responsible building. I'm not talking about a building that has the latest, trendy look. Style is only skin-deep.'
In practice: The GoHomes, Del Mar and Cortez Hill; the Essex Lofts, 1910 State St.; Merrimac Building, 640 W. Beech St.
Lloyd Russell builds to learn
At the start of architecture school at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Lloyd Russell saw the world through rose-colored glasses.
'I believed everything the teacher told me,' Russell says. 'You know, like there's truth in architecture, that architecture's going to solve the world's problems.'
Russell leans back on a white couch in the living room of R3, the house and gallery space he designed and built. PeeWee, an old, white dog, hobbles up near Russell's feet-the pooch is completely blind but easily locates Russell's glass of water and helps himself to a few licks.
Russell explains how his road trips through Los Angeles on his way home to San Diego shattered his rosy lenses: 'I thought, if all the things my teachers are telling me are true, why are there all these ugly buildings?'
It was then that he realized buildings are commodities.
Disheartened, Russell returned to school and took courses in real estate. They eventually came in handy. He graduated in 1991 amid California's severe recession, but his real-estate knowledge coupled with his construction experience landed him a job with Ted Smith. He quickly worked his way up and partnered with Smith in constructing the Merrimac and the Essex Lofts in Little Italy.
Now on his own, Russell, who just weeks ago was given the Young Architect of the Year Award by AIA San Diego, sometimes takes clients because he has 'a hard time saying no' but prefers projects that give him complete control.
'You finance the building, you build the building, you live in the building, you operate the building,' he says. 'There's a whole world and whole existence that helps educate you toward the next building-that's where the details come from, from being that immersed in the previous project.'
Russell builds for people like him-young, socially conscious, artsy and interested in being close to a city's core-and injects himself into his creations.
'When you see a building that's designed by a corporation or a committee,' Russell says, 'people are detached and you feel it. With us, you're physically on the site, touching, rubbing the building.... That's one of the things that make these projects unique.'
In theory: 'There's this joke we have: What does it take to be a developer? Third-grade math and the gall to do it. My other definition of development is everybody telling you no but you keep doing it anyway.'
In practice: Essex Lofts, 1910 State St.; R3 Triangle Building, 2421 India St.; Merrimac Building, 640 W. Beech St.
Jonathan Segal makes no excuses
Jonathan Segal looks like he couldn't be anything but an architect-expensive-looking glasses, symmetrical haircut, nice clothes, nice tan. He seems aware of every miniscule detail of himself and his immediate surroundings.
Segal sits in one of his latest creations, The Union, a project that took the skeleton of an old, blocky Golden Hill warehouse and transformed it into a contemporary, sustainable structure that houses live/work lofts and his own firm.
The space has an organic feel. Browns, whites and greens seamlessly wrap around from exterior to interior, and a cool breeze blows through. The only disconnect in the perfectly designed mise en scéne is the collection of about a dozen colorful vinyl toys sitting by Segal's computer.
Segal, 45, has won numerous architecture awards, and his work is admired internationally. Locally, though, his nonstandard designs have been known to ruffle feathers.
A few years ago, when Segal constructed the K Lofts on 26th and B streets in Golden Hill, the community planning group there saw the plans, got nervous and complained, but Segal's confidence eventually pushed the project through, and, once it was complete, no one seemed to mind.
'We're just trying to do the best we can to be sensitive to the environment,' Segal says. 'Our buildings are always sensitive to the buildings around them-our buildings don't scream, ‘Look at me!' Those aren't the intentions. Our intentions are to harmonize with the community and be a beautiful building.'
Site-specific is the name of Segal's game. He lets the land and neighborhood determine what a building will be. During the construction phase, he lets the design evolve and completely change-something he could never do under the hand of a developer or client.
Segal's had only three clients in his career. The rest of his projects have been under his firm's control-everything, from contracting to subcontracting to managing and maintaining the building, is overseen by Segal, with help from his wife Wendy. He says eliminating the developer speeds things up.
'The contractor can't understand the drawing,' he says, recounting his architect-only days. 'The subcontractor can't even understand the drawing, so subcontractor asks the contractor a question, the contractor asks the architect, the architect says, ‘Contractor, you're an idiot-go look at he drawing.' Contractor says, ‘Can't see it.' Bing bing bing... before you know it, a week's gone by, and it's a disaster.
'When you're out on the site,' Segal continues, 'the efficiency just becomes amazing.'
He says that getting rid of the developer will get you more bang for your buck, too. 'When the day's done,' he says, 'if you've done a great job, your building's actually going to be worth a lot more than the typical building, so you can win on all these fronts, and then you can set an example as well.'
In theory: 'I only do my projects. I can't save the world.... I don't even want to save the world; I just want to build one building at a time.'
In practice: The Union, 1165 19th St.; Kettner Row, 1529-1529 Kettner Blvd. and 7 on Kettner, 702 Kettner Blvd.; The Titan, 1934-1956 State St.; The State, 1568 State St.
Sebastian Mariscal designs for real
Sebastian Mariscal started his first architecture firm when he was 18. Following his architect father's lead, he set up a little office in Mexico City in 1988 and has been designing and building ever since.
Mariscal has the hands of a builder but the artistic air and ideological outlook of an architect.
His buildings are sleek and sophisticated, with as much attention to negative space as the actual structure itself. In his newest project, a string of six row homes in La Jolla, the kitchen and living room connect to the front and back porch via two sets of folding glass doors that disappear when opened, allowing air to flow through naturally.
Mariscal's buildings are so artistic, in fact, that it seems like they were designed in a theoretical bubble, far away from the realities of material limitations, building codes and cost restraints. But the opposite is true-Mariscal says his designs are a direct response to people, places and situations.
'We are the builders,' he explains. 'Whatever we design, we are building, so we have to be conscious of how we design. It makes it more real-life and practical.'
Mariscal learned the art of the architect-developer-builder by working alongside Jonathan Segal. In 2000, he started his own firm and financed his first projects, in part to build his portfolio. Mariscal is different than the other architect-developers in that he still accepts and actually likes working with clients.
'It's not that I want to be a developer or I want to be a builder,' Mariscal says, 'but I have to make my architecture, so, how can I make my architecture the best way possible? It's by being the developer and contractor so I don't have to wait around for clients.'
Now, with plenty of beautiful buildings under his belt, Mariscal says the clients come to him, and most seem willing to relinquish control because they trust in his work.
And if they don't give him control, he says he won't do the job. Mariscal sticks to sustainability, appropriately scaled buildings and other design standards he's developed throughout the years.
'I'm very thirsty to do architecture,' he says, 'but only the architecture we believe in.'
In theory: 'Architecture goes beyond function, so in addition to responding to the site, context, program, budget, etc., architecture needs to improve your way of living and feeling.'
In practice: On Grape, 545 and 549 West Grape St.; Billboard Lofts, 320 W. Ash St.; State & Date, 343 West Date St.