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San Diego
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Best and Worst of San Diego Architecture Celebrated

It’s that time of the year again, when architects and members of the public get to praise the best of building projects that debuted in 2019 and pan the worst in the Orchids and Onions award presented by the San Diego Architectural Foundation.

Orchids go to projects deemed praiseworthy and onions to those deemed less so.

Some might see onions as discouraging innovation but Ben Dalton, co-chairman of the program, said that’s not the intent.

“I do think onions are delivered on occasions to risk takers who may have just missed the mark, but onions should never discourage bold risks,” Dalton said. “Our hope is the conversation started by this award can make the next risk more successful, not discourage design courage.”

Dalton’s firm, the Miller Hull Partnership, has been graced with several orchids, including a 2019 award for the remodeling of its own San Diego offices. It’s also up for a 2020 orchid for the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, Phase 3 developed by the U.S. General Services Administration.

Miller Hull has avoided the dreaded onion.

“An orchid has become a coveted award in the industry over the 40-plus years of this event, and with so much great architecture being built in our city, it is difficult to achieve,” Dalton said.


Among the nominees for orchids in 2020 were the Center for Novel Therapeutics in La Jolla developed by BioMed Realty and designed by Perkins & Will, Chula Vista Fire Station Number 10 at Millenia, developed by the city and SLF IV-Millenia LLC and designed by Jeff Katz Architecture, and two affordable housing projects Stella and Bluewater at 4304 Twain Ave., developed by Affirmed Housing and designed by Studio E Architects.

Less fortunate projects up for onions include BVLD North Park Apartments developed by HG Fenton, the Lofts on Laurel in Bankers Hill developed by JANCO Development and designed by H2 Architects and the South Mission Beach Lifeguard Tower.

The Celebrated

The Center for Novel Therapeutics at 9310 Athena Circle was praised in nomination papers as “a beautiful research laboratory with a redefining open/shared-space concept.”

“The project was designed by inverting the traditional laboratory design – pushing the laboratories to the outside of the building, creating views to the campus and introducing generous amounts of daylight into the space,” according to the nomination.

The Chula Vista Fire Station was nominated for having “bold characteristics.”

“An iconic tower at the entry to the building services as a design feature that not only references the historic context of hose towers in fire stations of the past but also provides a visible feature to help identify the station as a prominent neighborhood structure,” according to the nomination. “LED strip lighting runs around the building and backlights the building signage creating a beacon for this public safety facility.”

The twin affordable housing projects of Stella and Bluewater in Grantville won praise for their “bright, modern, and efficient design.”

The projects provide homes for low income families and formerly homeless veterans.

And then there are those nominated for onions.

The Panned

The Lifeguard Tower was panned as “a missed opportunity.”

“This incredible site deserved an icon, but instead, we are left with a brutish guard tower suited for a maximum security prison,” reads its nomination form.

The Lofts at 2466 1st Ave. got a thumbs down nomination as a “total miss for such a busy corner.”

“The view from the intersection to this building is terrible, just a view up a roof with a bunch of plumbing and mechanical vents,” according to the nomination.

BLVD North Park Apartments at 2020 E Cajon Blvd. was described in its nomination as a “behemoth building” that “combines three styles, maybe more, that are difficult to explain.”


Orchids & Onions awards have been handed out since 1976.

The program is especially significant in 2020 as San Diegans became more aware of the built environment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, said John Martinez, co-chairman of Orchids & Onions.

Required to spend more time indoors during the pandemic, Martinez said in a statement announcing program nominations that “many of us have never been more aware of the effect that the built environment can have on our wellbeing.”

This year’s winners and losers will be revealed in October in a virtual event.


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