What the heck is that?
Take a tour of the Central Coasts most extreme architecture
BY GLEN STARKEY
We love our pioneer history, which is why so many of our buildingseven the new ones like the Coast Union Bank building on Marsh Street in SLOare designed to look like theyve been here for 150 years. But look a little closer and youll start to see a budding movement toward modern and contemporary architecture growing in the areaespecially San Luis Obispo.
Steven Pults, the architect behind the Coast Union Bank building, is also responsible for the Aerovista Business Park off Broad Street near the airport. So far, two of a planned five buildings have been built, each one looking like a huge airplane soaring off the ground.
"Its a modern style," explained Pults. "We wanted to do something in keeping with the airport, so its inspired by that."
Why havent we seen more of this type of architecture?
"I dont know why its happening now or why it didnt happen more in the past," said Pults. "We just finished Coast Union Bank, and everyone loves it. Weve had more positive response and press on that than anything weve done. For Aerovista, that was a spec project for a developer, not a project with tenants already lined up. Developers sometimes are willing to take more design risks."
Modern and contemporary architecture isnt always easy for people to swallow. When the Performing Arts Center on the Cal Poly campus was built, it won "Worst Looking Building" in New Times Best of SLO County Readers Poll. The next year it took second in "Best Looking Building." Even the Eiffel Tower was hated when first erected, considered a blight on Paris.
Does this mean people can get used to anything? Not according to architect Keith Hall, who worked on developer John Kings new building on Bridge Street In SLO.
"Change is always difficult for people, and anything built thats new is a change, which is always a little tough for some people to accept," said Hall. "Over time, however, those things that may have been at first awkward suddenly become the norm, and then you wouldnt think of having it the other way. Its really a matter of educating the public."
In the case of the King building, the main architect was Jerry Spivey, a former SLO resident who moved to Las Vegas several years ago. He actually designed Kings building a decade ago, but it was only recently completed. Some have already dubbed it "The Terrarium," since its basically a clear glass structure. According to J.G. King, Johns son, a considerable amount of extra work went into finding ways to keep the building from getting too hot. As for Hall, he did a lot of design work on the interior.
"As far as a pure and simple term, the building defies categorization," explained Hall. "Its a very rational building because its structures are exposedtresses, steel columns. From the outside its square except for some clean arches at entrances. Inside, though, weve gone with a lot more freeform designs, more organic undulating walls that curve, which contrasts against the outside.
"Throughout the history of architecture, no matter what the style, you can always describe design in terms of being rational or romantic," continued Hall. "Depending on the period, those expressions take different forms, but the terms always hold true.
"In the case of the King building, the exterior would be considered very rational, but the interior is romantic; it has more of an easy feel to it. With its zigzagging shapes, it feels playful. Of course, because it contains workstations with square tables and computers, the interior has to have functionality, so as walls go up, they curve out and bend, but the work area is still efficient because its a rectangular space."
Both Hall and Pults do mostly traditional kinds of architecture, but they both enjoy the challenge and experimentation of contemporary and modern design.
"Unfortunately, I dont find a lot of receptiveness to [modern designs]," said Hall. "Im really hoping to get the opportunity to do something very contemporary, but as an architect, I work for clients, and I cant force it on them. I can suggest things, get people interested."
More often, said Hall, the type of client who likes experimental design is someone whos trying to convey a sense of technological engineering through architecture. High-tech firms, for instance, are more apt to want a contemporary design. The trick is to make a design look new while still fitting within a context.
"Being shocking isnt hard," said Hall. "The trick is to make it palatable."
The Highway Patrol building on California Boulevard in SLO and the Abel Maldonado Center in Santa Maria are other examples of contemporary architecture, according to Mark Rawson, the architect behind the Downtown Centre and Copelands new developments, the Court Street and Chinatown projects.
"[These buildings] are modern because their design is a deviation from more traditional forms and shapes," said Rawson. "You can see this in the sloping, circular-shaped roofs, the trellis elements, the cantilevered roof elements, the colors and shapes, walls that arent straight.
"Contemporary architecture is simply trying to break out of those traditional shapes. You can certainly debate the aesthetic merits of both buildings. From a practical standpoint, traditional shapes have withstood the test of time, which is why theyve endured. Modern architecture arose as materials and structural elements were developed that allowed us to break out of the physical limitations of past."
Rawson believes new design is hard to accept because certain design forms become "embedded in our psyche."
"Ask a kid to draw a house, and he or she will make a square with a triangle on top," explained Rawson. "There are certain shapes that comfortthe mandala or pyramid for instanceand theyre found in many cultures and eras.
"There are a lot of a different ways to approach architecture, and if youre trying to boldly get someones attention, something like these two buildings can do the jobtheyre playful, fun. But they can also be disliked. There is no one style that answers everyones ideal." Æ
Glen Starkey is a square peg living in a round hole.