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What the heck is that?

Take a tour of the Central Coast’s most extreme architecture


We love our pioneer history, which is why so many of our buildings–even the new ones like the Coast Union Bank building on Marsh Street in SLO–are designed to look like they’ve been here for 150 years. But look a little closer and you’ll start to see a budding movement toward modern and contemporary architecture growing in the area–especially 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.

"It’s a modern style," explained Pults. "We wanted to do something in keeping with the airport, so it’s inspired by that."

Why haven’t we seen more of this type of architecture?

"I don’t know why it’s happening now or why it didn’t happen more in the past," said Pults. "We just finished Coast Union Bank, and everyone loves it. We’ve had more positive response and press on that than anything we’ve 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 isn’t 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 King’s new building on Bridge Street In SLO.

"Change is always difficult for people, and anything built that’s 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 wouldn’t think of having it the other way. It’s 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 King’s building a decade ago, but it was only recently completed. Some have already dubbed it "The Terrarium," since it’s basically a clear glass structure. According to J.G. King, John’s 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. "It’s a very rational building because its structures are exposed–tresses, steel columns. From the outside it’s square except for some clean arches at entrances. Inside, though, we’ve 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 it’s 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 don’t find a lot of receptiveness to [modern designs]," said Hall. "I’m really hoping to get the opportunity to do something very contemporary, but as an architect, I work for clients, and I can’t 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 who’s 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 isn’t 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 Copeland’s 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 aren’t 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 they’ve 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 comfort–the mandala or pyramid for instance–and they’re found in many cultures and eras.

"There are a lot of a different ways to approach architecture, and if you’re trying to boldly get someone’s attention, something like these two buildings can do the job–they’re playful, fun. But they can also be disliked. There is no one style that answers everyone’s ideal." Æ

Glen Starkey is a square peg living in a round hole.

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