Despite being America’s sixth largest city, San Diego has politely removed itself from the unspoken, but very tangible, race to dominate the skies. In an era where “taller is better”, the comparatively demure city has declined the skyscraper, a 21st century symbol of wealth and power, to define its skyline. Through strict FFA regulations, the city has resisted the temptation to build audacious megaliths, which for many San Diegans- who live where the sun is pretty much always shining- this spacious planning has proven to be a positive. So, although there may be nothing inspirationally innovative or monumentally ambitious about San Diego’s edifices, the city has produced a number of striking and luxurious buildings- merely with a subtlety overlooked by others.

1. One America Plaza

Location: 600 W. Broadway
Architect: Helmut Jahn with KMA Architecture
Year: 1991

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One America Plaza building facade © Wikimedia Commons
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One America Plaza during construction © Archinect
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One America Plaza Street View © Wikimedia Commons

It is perhaps no surprise that the tallest building in San Diego should be a steel-and-glass obelisk. At 500 feet tall, the slight tapering of the One America Plaza culminates in an effortlessly distinctive apex of sharp, angular geometries; reminiscent of the faceted bell towers of Speyer Cathedral. Additionally, it has also won San Diego “Building of the Year” eight times.

2. Symphony Towers

Location: 750 B Street
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merill
Year: 1989

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Symphony Towers city view ©LoopNet
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Symphony Towers ©Wikipedia
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Symphony Towers ©Wikipedia

Reaching 499 feet high, Symphony Towers was quite literally inched out by One America Plaza for its claim to the tallest building in San Diego. However, in spite of this small discrepancy, one of almost comical ill-fate and misfortune, Symphony Towers signalled a refinement in 20th century materials and forms. Here, the building’s verticality reads through the composed geometries of the exterior façade, a contrast between the polished, pink granite and the dark glass bay windows, maximising office views across the city.

3. Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel

Location: 1 Market Place
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Year: 1992

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Manchester Grand Hotel Lobby Entrance ©Jetsetter
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Manchester Grand Hyatt at night ©Hotels Combined
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Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego ©Hyatt

Rising in two towers, connected by a rooftop pool, the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel is the largest waterfront hotel on the West Coast. From ground-level buttresses through to the unique roof tapering, the hotel’s structural system is beautifully integrated into the architectural expression itself. Although the rich, ornate 18th century interior has not been externally translated through the cream-panelled sheathing, there is still a grandiloquence which undeniably speaks to its function as a luxury hotel.

4. Electra

Location: 700 W. E Street
Architect: Bosa Development
Year: 2008

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Electra city view ©92101 Condo Guru
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Electra condos with original SDG&E facade ©92101 Condo Guru
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Electra exterior view ©92101 Condo Guru

Constructed in place of a San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) power plant facility, this residential high-rise – the tallest in San Diego – makes reference to its predecessor through the name ‘Electra’. This homage is furthered through the preservation of the original façade of the SDG&E facility, now a part of the lower ground town-homes; Electra rising within the compound like a modern bell tower. However, although the steel-and-glass construction is undeniably modern, the materiality and monotonous repetition of the apartment balconies, engages with the architectural language below.

5. Pacific Gate

Location: 888 W. E Street
Architect: Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates
Year: 2017

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Pacific Gate external fins © JGCH
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Pacific Gate under construction © Thomas Hart
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Pacific Gate, San Diego © JGCH

It is certainly no understatement to say that Pacific Gate is synonymous with anyone’s vision of a high-tech, futuristic city. This sleek, glass tower is accentuated with vertical metal fins to block eastern and western solar heat gain, and thereby improve the building’s energy performance. Ultimately, it is the unique curvature and angled roofline which distinguish this unprecedented residential design in the San Diego skyline.

6. Emerald Plaza

Location: 402 W. Broadway
Architect: C.W Kim Architects & Planners
Year: 1990

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Emerald Plaza lighting ©LoopNet
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Emerald Plaza street view ©LoopNet
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Emerald Plaza ©LoopNet

Although Emerald Plaza is certainly architecturally interesting as it is, the building’s basis in nature is perhaps just as curious – its conceptualisation as metaphorical crystals, strangely jarring against its commercial intentions. For some, this cluster of eight, graduated hexagonal towers was more experimental than poetically creative. In saying that, these various angles produce unique interior spaces that are able to receive an abundance of natural light.

7. The Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel

Location: 1 Park Boulevard
Architect: John Portman & Associates
Year: 2008

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Hilton San Diego Bayfront night view © Hotel Business
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Hilton San Diego Bayfront views © San Diego Convention Centre
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Hilton San Diego view from the ocean © Wikipedia

The smooth, clean design of the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel immediately reflects the marine environment. Crisp, white lines outline the impressive glass expanse, just as the paved boardwalk defines new ocean edges. Stretching away from, instead of alongside, the water, the hotel does not dominate its waterfront location. Rather, visitors are consistently orientated towards the beautiful ocean views.

8. Savina

Location: 1388 Kettner Boulevard
Architect: Hossein Amanat
Year: 2018

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Savina Condos, bayfront living with spectacular views ©SavinabyBosa
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Savina Condos, pool terrace with space, pool, fireplace ©SavinabyBosa
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Savina exterior view ©SavinabyBosa

As a relatively new, high-rise condominium, Savina was designed as an extension off the vibrant Little Italy community. Through its shimmering glass façade and sandy- coloured accents, the architecture prevails as a 21st century image of the luxury coastal lifestyle.

9. San Diego Central Courthouse

Location: 1100 Union St.
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Year: 2017

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San Diego central courthouse evening view © AISC
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San Diego central courthouse glass facade © The San Diego Union
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San Diego central courthouse under construction © Hughes Marino

The San Diego Central Courthouse serves as a strong example of how typologies should constantly strive to redefine how we think about architecture. This contemporary replacement for a 1961 courthouse re-interprets the traditional courthouse typology. In particular, the straight, flat lines of the eastern canopy, can perhaps be read as a contemporary interpretation of a typical 19th century courthouse roof. Moreover, it is this differentiation between the eastern and western facades which clearly adhere to the sentiment, “form follows function”. Through a consideration of the varying interior activities, public corridors were planned on the east, whilst administration and judges’ chambers on the west.

10. Bayside at the Embarcadero

Location: 1325 Pacific Highway
Architect: Amanat Architects
Year: 2009

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Bayside at the Embarcadero city view ©Snaidero
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Bayside at the Embarcadero from the ocean ©The Mark Company
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Bayside at the Embarcadero street view © Wikipedia

Boasting an array of amenities, including an onsite wine tasting room and theatre, as well as incredible panoramic views, Bayside at Embarcadero undoubtedly embodies the luxury, retreat lifestyle. However, in comparison to the dazzling facades of Savina and Pacific Gate, Bayside’s midnight blue and sunny yellow exterior speaks more so to its relaxed, coastal location than high-end living – a picture-perfect postcard of palm trees and sunshine, just waiting to be stamped with a ‘Welcome to San Diego!’.

11. One Columbia Place

Location: 401 W. A Street
Architect: C.W Kim Architects & Planners
Year: 1982

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One Columbia Place reflective glass facade ©Wikipedia
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One Columbia Place roof © Mechanical Engineers
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One Columbia Place street view ©San Diego Business Journal

Originally named the Columbia Centre, this pyramid-shaped office building flies the largest United States Flag in the San Diego skyline.

12. San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina Hotel

Location: 333 W. Harbour Drive
Architect: Welton Becket and Associates
Year: 1984-1987

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Hotel Marriott Marquis and Marina city view © California Beaches
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Hotel Marriott Marquis and Marina glass facade © California Beaches
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Hotel MArriott Marquis and Marina harbour view © California Beaches

The architectural language of these two towers demonstrates a dynamism, a sense of movement that connects the two buildings that would otherwise appear disconnected and separate. This is further enhanced through the glass facades, which ultimately lighten these solid structures.

13. Imperial Bank Tower

Location: 701 B Street
Architect: Ware and Malcomb
Year: 1982

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Imperial Bank Tower corner view © Mike Smith
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Imperial Bank tower glass facade © Structurae
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Imperial Bank Tower © Wikipedia

Although the Imperial Bank Tower is undeniably a glass-box product of the modernist movement during the 20th century, this 24-storey black tower stands in stark contrast to the historically warm tonal palette of San Diego’s downtown (and perhaps why some alternated to refer to it as “The Darth Vader Building”).

14. AT&T Building

Location: 101 W. Broadway Street
Architect: Langdon Wilson
Year: 1982

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AT&T building exterior view ©Sentre
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Former Wells Fargo Headquarters under construction ©Craig Carlson

Formerly renowned as the headquarters for Wells Fargo Bank, the AT&T Building is another example of San Diego’s economic growth during the late 20th century. It was the first downtown building to incorporate a reflective glass exterior. This façade was further developed through its unique octagonal shape, which appears stretched and angled at 45 degrees on the street block, taking advantage of surrounding views.

15. El Cortez

Location: 702 Ash Street
Architect: Albert R. Walker and Percy Eisen
Year: 1927 (original)

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El Cortez Hotel with Glass Elevator © CardboardAmerica
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El Cortez Lobby Interior © San Diego Real Estate
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Exterior view of el Cortez © True Photography

Once the tallest building in San Diego, the El Cortez hotel now stands as a nostalgic remnant for an alluring period in San Diego’s history. In an era of capitalistic success, hotels of the 20th century became public symbols of an idealised lifestyle. This sense of excitement manifests itself in the El Cortez, where the Sea Bienvenida etched above the arched doorway is not just a welcome to visitors, but a promise for a romantic Spanish escape, realised through palm courts, rich rugs laid over glazed paving, and America’s first glass outside elevator. Even with today’s fixation on the steel-and-glass box, the juxtaposition between the Churrigueresque-style entrance with the simple, clean façade reaching for the red, neon sign is undeniably one of enduring aesthetic appeal.


Jessica Richardson is an architecture student from the University of Melbourne, with a passion for design histories. She believes that, now more than ever, critical thinking and meaningful discussion is crucial for architecture to be at the forefront of change.