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
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
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
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.
Location: 700 W. E Street
Architect: Bosa Development
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
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
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
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.
Location: 1388 Kettner Boulevard
Architect: Hossein Amanat
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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.