Coastal architecture: looking back at the evolution of San Diego style and design

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Southern California coastal architecture was inspired by a push toward modernity and a connection with the outdoors.

By Paul Benton

As a San Diego architect, I am steeped in the study and production of California

coastal architecture

  1. However, my colleagues and I can also be creatures of habit, sometimes getting so focused on familiar techniques and traditions that we forget to look around at outside influences on our work. I believe it can be instructive to examine the evolution of coastal design across the nation to see where we came from – and to get a sense of where we might go in the future. By tracing our architectural lineage, we can get that much closer to achieving the next great project optimizing all the beauty that Southern California has to offer.

Southern California is a relative newcomer to architectural development, with the greatest advancements having occurred in the postwar period amidst a significant population boom. But to get a glimpse of pre-war coastal architecture, we can look to the history of another coastal area – in this case, southern Florida and especially Miami. San Diego and Miami are similar enough when it comes to location and weather conditions, such as strong sun, onshore breezes and moderate temperatures that allow us to spend extended periods outside and respond to the outdoor environment in terms of design. In fact, considering these parallels, it is somewhat surprising to see the differences in design concept and execution between the California and Florida coasts.

How is it that roughly the same environments resulted in such dissimilar architecture? One difference might be the time of development. Florida experienced significant growth in the period between 1900 and 1930, a time when Southern California was relatively quiet. During this time, South Florida was experiencing a sense of vast potential as a tropical paradise infused with American ingenuity and inspired by changes including the railroad, the automobile and the resulting influx of Americans from other parts of the country. The resultant Art Deco designs characteristic of Miami and other areas can be seen as exuberant expressions of these times. Influences ranged from the streamlined designs drawn from cars and railroads of that era to the flamboyant colors and sculptural aspects celebrating the local culture and tropical ambiance. At the time, Miami architecture was new and different, unlike anything else in any other part of the country – it was a proud expression of a new city.

In contrast, San Diego architecture is distinguished by more muted colors and wide-open, nature-inspired design; and once again, these forms follow dominant cultural developments during the city’s chief period of growth. In the postwar era, both Southern California and South Florida experienced a period of rapid growth. Frank Lloyd Wright, having just returned from his successes overseas, prepared a few significant designs in the Los Angeles area that were breathtaking in their expression of a new modern era. Other architects from the Bauhaus and other design schools brought their concepts to the West Coast as well, resulting in a period of radical and expressive design that we now refer to as Midcentury Modern. This style can be identified by greater expanses of glass in windows and long horizontal elements in the roof and eaves, and even in the structure of homes where cantilevers and reaching columns exemplify an attitude of infinite possibility. Although the Midcentury Modern aesthetic swept the country, it was most ideally suited to the Southern California environment. Broad windows reached out to the expansive coastal views, while reaching eaves and trellises provided deep and invaluable shade and protection for the home under siege from year-around sunlight.

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