Is San Diego America’s finest city?

San Diego calls itself “America’s Finest City.” That’s quite a claim. Yet somehow it seems to fly juuust under the radar. San Diego’s sun, zoo, Navy, chicken, and iconic hotel are known by many, but what about the city?

San Diego’s streets can seem very Seattle-like except the tree species.

I visited recently for a closer look. The verdict: Go there. San Diego is impressive from a tourist and urbanist city-loving perspective.

The Gaslamp Quarter might be the best downtown restaurant district on the West Coast. Picture a mix of historic and new, with eight blocks of restaurants and bars along Fifth Avenue overflowing to other streets. It feels like the real core of Downtown. The all-ages crowd mixes locals and visitors. Nightclubs and restaurants boom bass out their open windows (consider this when choosing a hotel), interspersed with quieter places and takeout of many cuisines. The open windows lend a summer resort feel even in the winter. Try Sushi Lounge on Market and get the salmon poke.

San Diego’s corporate presence is relatively small, a standard local worry. It’s also not concentrated Downtown. The real office core is 10 miles north in La Jolla, with the country’s #3 biotech cluster (some say), techs like Qualcomm (unless it’s taken over!), and UC San Diego. This means Downtown can focus more on housing, tourism, and nightlife. This is an interesting contrast to Seattle’s huge office CBD which pushes other uses to its fringes. It’s nice from a tourist perspective, but probably not so nice if you want to walk or ride transit to the office. Downtown San Diego has been adding quite a bit of housing, probably for the lifestyle more than to serve the Downtown workforce.

This ravine has a semi-wooded trail at the bottom.

New residential towers on the Downtown fringe.

San Diego overall is denser than you might think, sort of like central LA or Seattle – lots of bungalows, plus a surprising amount of multifamily. There’s lots of infill, with that great West Coast trait of trying to use land as efficiently as possible (because it’s expensive). Vacant lots are rare, aside from parking lots around the Downtown fringes that have been going away quickly. Steep hillsides and ravines woven throughout the city provide a mix of built and natural areas.

Retail in centralized neighborhoods tends to be in familiar walkable corridors like University Avenue (sort of like our 45th, with stretches of activity) or small walkable nodes. The most visible difference might be the palm trees. It’s worth a long walk.

San Diego’s low transit usage is therefore surprising. Just 3.9% of in-city residents used transit for commutes per the Census Department 2012-2016 survey, and just 3.1% walked. That’s despite the weather and some rail transit. Seattle (albeit with a smaller city limit) was 20.8% and 10.1%. The gap has apparently been getting wider since then as San Diego’s mode splits have worsened and Seattle’s have gotten better. One reason: our jobs and big university are centralized.

Another reason is very high parking requirements for new buildings. With some exceptions, even studios require 1.25 parking spaces per unit, and a two-bedroom requires two spaces! That’s a huge cost to renters. It’s also encouragement for people to have cars and use them, versus Seattle where parking is often separate. As a result, San Diego’s infill seems to be about large sites that can fit parking and fewer but larger units. The Seattle resident who pays $1,000 for a micro would probably need a roommate in San Diego. San Diego’s home prices are similar to Seattle’s despite the lack of a corporate job base, and despite an apparently-mellower form of California empowered nimbyism.

Why is the job base lacking? Airline service is one obvious factor. San Diego International has a single, short runway hemmed in by North San Diego Bay. It’s very close in, with the glide path spectacularly (if noisily) a half-mile north of Downtown. Passenger counts are less than half of Sea-Tac’s. Tijuana Airport allows you to walk over the border to routes mostly within Mexico, but its numbers aren’t huge. A long-term solution isn’t imminent. Some hope it involves an existing military airport at Miramar or Camp Pendleton.

A ferry to Coronado Island is a nice trip. The terminal is Downtown next to the USS Midway aircraft carrier. It’s a slow boat but a quick ride. The view is fantastic. You end up near a business district with several restaurants (try Saiko Sushi). From there it’s a 25-minute walk to Hotel del Coronado on the ocean side with its beach and great architecture. When you get back to Downtown, tour the Midway.

Museums at Balboa Park

Balboa Park is an easy walk from Downtown. This is theoretically 1,000 acres with a mix of park and amenities. It’s sliced apart by a freeway chasm and much of it is a golf course and the Naval Medical Center. Some parts aren’t well-connected to the city. But it has beautiful areas and many of San Diego’s top museums as well as its famous zoo. It’s easy to spend a day there. If you get your fill of arts, culture, science, and aircraft, try the Model Railroad Museum, because cities and towns are cool in miniature.

Is this America’s finest city? A lot of cities have valid claims, and San Diego is one of them.

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Kitchens that make your mouth water

Did you see that story on invisible kitchens? Here are just a few more photos to drool over.

Photo by
John Madden – dwell  

Recently in the DJC: What’s cool in kitchens? Invisibility

“There’s a different story being played out by some kitchen designers today: kitchens that merge seamlessly into the rest of the main living space.

“Sometimes that’s because there are space limitations — a smallish apartment, for example, where the kitchen is cheek-to-jowl with every other room. Or there may be plenty of space, but no walls, so each living zone looks into the next.”


Photo by R.Z.Owens ConstructionsHouzz

Photo by Urban KitchensHouzz 

Photo by HenrybuiltEast Hampton Residence

Photo by Henrybuilt – Prospect Height Brownstone

Henrybuilt, a Seattle designer and maker of kitchen furniture and storage systems, offers solid-surface counters with drainage for the sink. Storage cubbies for tools, napkins and bread are built into milled wood counters, which are then extended to create eating tables. Knife blocks, utensils, spices, pantry items, and recycle and trash receptacles all fit neatly out of sight in drawers and sliding cupboards.”

Photo by Henrybuilt – Seattle Showroom

Photo by Henrybuilt – Seattle Showroom 

“Pay attention to how you illuminate the kitchen, says Sheva Knopfler, creative director of Brooklyn, New York-based

“’A statement light allows you to add a bold dash of your personality. It becomes the ‘artwork’ of the space,’ Knopfler says. Consider a large chandelier or a grouping of pendant fixtures.”

Follow Henrybuilt on Instagram

Check out Houzz for more invisible kitchen inspiration. 

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Olympics features the ‘Darkest Building on Earth’

Architect Asif Khan has unveiled a pavilion at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, described as the “darkest building on earth.”



Located inside Olympic Park, the temporary structure measures 10-meter-high (32.8 feet). Asif Khan spray-painted the structure with Vantablack VBx2, a substance that absorbs over 99 percent of light.  Vantablack VBx2 is a sprayable version of Vantablack pigment, which British artist Anish Kapoor controversially acquired exclusive rights for in 2016. 

Because of the super-black spray-paint coating the pavilion, it is nearly impossible for the human eye to make out the contours of the building.  Rods tipped with tiny white lights protrude from the “super-black” parabolic curves of all four sides of the pavilion, giving the impression of stars suspended against the darkness of space.

In a statement, Khan described his vision, “From a distance, the structure has the appearance of a window looking into the depths of outer space. As you approach it, this impression grows to fill your entire field of view. So on entering the building, it feels as though you are being absorbed into a cloud of blackness.”

Inside the pavilion is a new dimension. A large white room clad in Corian creates an immersive water installation, in which 25,000 water droplets are released every minute and travel along carved channels until reaching a central pool.

The 35-meter by 35-meter building was commissioned by Hyundai Motor as part of its global art initiative, with the pavilion’s space theme aligning with the car manufacturer’s latest technology: a Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicle.

The “stars” on the outside represent the chemical element on a cosmic level – gaseous balls shining due to the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium at their core.

Inside the pavilion, the liquid embodies hydrogen at a more human scale, as two atoms of a hydrogen bond with one oxygen atom to form water.

Project credits:

Client: Hyundai Motor Company
Design: Asif Khan
Main contractor: Hyundai Engineering
Interactive engineer: iart
Facade coating: Surrey NanoSystems
Structural engineer: AKTII
Environmental engineer: Atelier Ten
Environmental sound: Why Do Birds?
Interior contractor: GL
Local architect: USD
Agency: Innocean Worldwide

See also: 
Asif Khan reveals super-dark Vantablack pavilion for Winter Olympics 2018 via dezeen

Looking at this ultra-black Winter Olympics pavilion is like staring into space via Curbed

The Darkest Color in the World Is Now Owned Exclusively by Artist Anish Kapoor via Curbed


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A fresh look at $2B plan to update Smithsonian

Architecture firm BIG – presented a revised proposal for the Smithsonian Campus Master Plan in Washington, DC. The vision was first unveiled in 2014 and has since been redeveloped following years of public comment and close collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution.

The new proposal reflects the team’s commitment to preserving the intimate character of the treasured Haupt Garden, while addressing existing and future needs, at one of the most historically significant areas and cultural institutions in the nation’s capital.

BIG’s $2 billion proposal – which involves lifting up two corners of the Enid A Haupt Garden and create entrances to an underground concourse connecting the campus’ museums – was revised following years of public consultation.

Members of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), local decision makers, residents and garden enthusiasts listened intently when Bjarke Ingels and representatives of the Smithsonian Institution gave a detailed account of the revised plans for the $2 billion restoration and revitalization of the South Mall Campus.

“Since our last proposal, we’ve been listening very closely to the public,” said BIG founder Bjarke Ingels.  “We wanted the general feeling and fondness for the Haupt Garden to remain the same while also increasing its enjoyment and use, offering educational elements and after hour programs.” 

The firm’s masterplan involves upgrading facilities, access and links across the Smithsonian’s South Mall campus, which includes a collection of museums that run along the southern side of the National Mall and front Independence Avenue.

These include the historic Smithsonian Castle, the Arthur M Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art – all arranged around the Haupt Garden and joined by a concourse buried beneath.

BIG’s plans include an expanded visitor centre and new education space, which will be accessible from the Mall via descending walkways, and the reconfiguration of the entrance pavilions to the African Art Museum and the Sackler Gallery.

Ingels continues about the garden, “we also want to make more accessible some of the hidden treasures underneath the Haupt Garden – the National Museum of African Art and the Sackler Gallery – which are so well hidden that they’re under-enjoyed compared to the value they represent. If we can make them more accessible, more people might be tempted to explore.”

New visuals demonstrate the team’s intention to preserve the peaceful nature of the Haupt Garden and its diverse landscape, while also serving the wider needs of DC and the growing Southwest Ecodistrict community.

The revised proposal received a number of reactions following the presentation, and while some of the previous concerns have been addressed, the general sentiment remains that there is more work to be done. Pascal D. Pittman, AIA, Director of Quality Assurance at the engineering firm Setty & Associates later commented: “I got the impression that BIG finds itself between conflicting interests which remain to be reconciled. I thought the presentation, based on the parameters that BIG described, provided for a very elegant solution.”

Another reaction came from Robert Young, AIA, Associate Principal at Grimshaw and long-time DC resident and architect, who submitted a public comment: “[the Smithsonian’s founding donor] James Smithson’s call for ‘an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men’ is noble and grand, yet, like our beloved Mall, has not been able to fulfill its goals as it – and the population it serves – continually grows and changes.

As the great facilities of the Smithsonian have fallen into disrepair or reach the end of their expected lives, and the great possibilities of the ‘Mall to Museum’ connection have frayed, it is the visionary response by the Smithsonian leadership and BIG that will allow a continued dialogue between our fundamental rights as citizens and our aspirations as humans. The work of BIG is bold, expressive, and often radically new: yet those characteristics are supported by thoughtful research, sympathetic engagement and conceptual synthesis.”

BIG’s new Master Plan seeks to improve existing facilities by proposing an expanded Visitor Center and new Education Space, accessible via descending entryways oriented towards the Mall; create clear connections, access points and visibility between the museums and gardens by reconfiguring the entrance pavilions to the African Art Museum and the Sackler Gallery; and to replace aging building mechanical systems that have reached the end of their lifespan, including structural reinforcements of the Castle to withstand potential seismic activity.

The first stage of the plan, the renovation of the Castle, is expected to begin in 2021.

About Smithsonian Institution
Since its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution has been committed to inspiring generations through knowledge and discovery. The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and nine research facilities. There are 6,500 Smithsonian employees and 6,300 volunteers. There were 30 million visits to the Smithsonian in 2013. The total number of objects, works of art and specimens at the Smithsonian is estimated at nearly 155 million, including more than 145 million specimens and artifacts at the National Museum of Natural History.

About BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group
BIG is a Copenhagen, New York and London based group of architects, designers, urbanists, landscape professionals, interior and product designers, researchers and inventors. The office is currently involved in a large number of projects throughout Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East. BIG’s architecture emerges out of a careful analysis of how contemporary life constantly evolves and changes. A pragmatic utopian architecture that steers clear of the petrifying pragmatism of boring boxes and the naïve utopian ideas of digital formalism. Like a form of programmatic alchemy, we create architecture by mixing conventional ingredients such as living, leisure, working, parking and shopping. By hitting the fertile overlap between pragmatic and utopia, we once again find the freedom to change the surface of our planet, to better fit contemporary life forms.

Smithsonian South Mall Campus Master Plan Facts 

SIZE: 123,000 m2
LOCATION: Washington, D.C.
CLIENT: Smithsonian Institution
COLLABORATORS: SurfaceDesign, Robert Silman Associates, GHT Limited, EHT Traceries, Stantec, Atelier Ten, VJ Associates, Wiles Mensch, GHD, FDS Design Studio, Kleinfelder

Partners in Charge: Bjarke Ingels, Thomas Christoffersen, Kai-Uwe Bergmann
Project Manager: Aran Coakley, Ziad Shehab
Project Leaders: Alvaro Velosa, Daniel Kidd, Sean Franklin
Team: Aaron Hales, Alana Goldweit, Alexandre Hamlyn, Andriani Atmadja, Annette Miller, Benjamin DiNapoli, Benjamin Novacinski, Cadence Bayley, Choonghyo Lee, Chris Falla, Daisy Zhong, Daniele Pronesti, Doug Stechschulte, Emily Chen, Gabriel Hernandez Solano, Janice Rim, Jennifer Shen, Jeremy Alain Siegel, Jihoon Hyun, Julian Andres Ocampo Salazar, Kalina Pilat, Katarzyna Starczewska, Lina Bondarenko, Mahsa Malek, Manon Otto, Martin Voelkle, Ola Hariri, Otilia Pupezeanu, Saecheol Oh, Sara Ibrahim, Stephen Kwok, Stephen Steckel, Suemin Jeon, Tammy Teng, Taylor Fulton, Tianqi Zhang, Vincent Fulia, Wells Barber, Wesley Chiang, Zhifei Xu


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Streetside Artscape explores winter darkness

This winter, a new art installation in the storefront windows of downtown Tacoma’s famed Woolworth building is lighting up the corner of 11th Street and Broadway.

Their piece, which debuted at First Night Tacoma-Pierce County on New Year’s Eve, is the latest installment of Spaceworks Tacoma’s Artscapes initiative. It’s called 2139:47 — signifying the duration of winter in hours and minutes.

Two Woolworth Building window bays house a suspended, stacked array of sheer fabric-wrapped wood frames and a colored nylon fabric-wrapped acrylic “lens” box. Each window bay is lit by a 35,000 lumen LED HXB High Bay light fixture provided by Cree lighting.

The window art is the brainchild of Scott Blakemore and Jeff McCord, colleagues at Seattle’s ZGF Architects by day and artists in their spare time. After meeting in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture, the two formed a Seattle-based partnership called Split Shot Collaborative.

“Winter weighs heavy on the collective consciousness of the Pacific Northwest,” their artist statement reads. “Its approach brings a leaden darkness — sudden, insistent, brutish. 2139:47 — or the duration of Winter in hours:minutes — represents an embrace of the artificial, an anemic attempt to replace what is lost for a season, via a communion of the mundane: frames, fabric, industrial lighting.”

Additional support for the installation was provided by ZGF Architects and Lighting Design Lab.

The exhibit runs through March 15, 2018.

An initiative of Spaceworks, Artscapes installations can be found in storefront windows, outdoor spaces and indoor video galleries in the city of Tacoma.

Spaceworks Tacoma, founded in 2010, is a joint initiative of the city of Tacoma and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber designed to activate empty storefront and vacant spaces. SpaceWorks makes Tacoma culturally vibrant and economically strong through training and support for artists and creative entrepreneurs.

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