Situated on California‘s Pacific coast, San Diego has a history dating back millennia. Today, the port city is the 5th most populous city in the United States. The city’s natural beauty and pristine beaches attract visitors from around the world –up to 30 million tourists each year–courtesy of the idyllic climate of warm summers and mild winters with just a few rainy days.
San Diego has culturally distinct neighbourhoods, each with its rich history, lending character to the multi-faceted city. Given the high economic prosperity that the city has seen in the past centuries, walking through the cityscape is no less than an endless immersive lecture on art, design, history, and architecture. The city houses buildings from different eras in design. From Spanish-influenced designs and brutalist structures to modern buildings for the 21st century built in futurist and minimal styles, San Diego is a haven for students and design stalwarts. Whether you are a student looking for some inspiration or just someone who appreciates excellent architecture, here are 15 of the most iconic buildings that display the city’s devotion to good design.
Geisel Library at the University of California | Architecture In San Diego
Located right at the centre of the grounds at the University of California, the Geisel Library is a fascinating and a somewhat misunderstood structure. Resembling a standing tree or an alien spaceship, the building seems like something that would fit right in in a science fiction movie.
Designed by the renowned architect William Periera in 1965, Geisel Library, caught between masslessness and massiveness, is a paradox of brutalist and futuristic design. The structure was initially designed as a sphere to maximise the use of natural light, efficient access to the library’s book aisles, and various other factors. The spherical design was scrapped, but the idea of the shape was retained and thus came to be the tapering design of the structure’s floors. The resulting structure is a massive 8-floor building, with two floors constructed underground. The 6th floor from the button ‘main’ floor is the widest, about 200 feet wide. The cantilevered floors are supported by a unique system of diagonal 45-degree piers. The piers are kept from buckling outward using a system of over 300 steel tie-rods.
While the structure is often teased for its brutalist design, even featuring in Reuter’s list of Top 10 Ugly Buildings to Visit, the building is shown nothing but love by its student residents and alma mater.
Speaking of Rob Wellington Quigley, the Quigley Architectural’s office is a stone’s throw from the San Diego Central Library. It is housed within a 5-storey mixed-use residential and commercial building called Torr Kaelan. The building has a unique protruding facade and main glass windows that encourage interaction between the residents and the downtown city.
Each floor is uniquely brought to life with the changing colours of daylight. Torr Kaelan also generates sufficient solar energy to power the office, residences, and even two electric cars. With its iconic design and construction, Torr Kaelan ensures that Quigley does not need an elevator pitch to prove its out-of-the-box thinking ability.
The Salk Institute of Biological Studies | Architecture In San Diego
The American Institute of Architects has called the Salk Institute for Biological Studies one of the 31 buildings that changed modern life for the right reasons. The Salk Institute in San Deigo was by the renowned architect Louis I. Kahn as a timeless, spacious research centre that would keep pace and adapt to modern science’s ever-changing needs. It has a simplistic and durable design that requires minimal maintenance.
The institute consists of two main structures: mirror images of one another. The structures are six stories tall and flank a shared courtyard. Despite the unfinished concrete and teak wood shutters used throughout the construction, the premises have an open and welcoming feel. The institute is particularly notable for its ingenious use of natural light. Even two of its underground floors are lit with daylight using light wells.
San Diego Convention Centre
Designed by the Canadian architect Arthur Erikson and constructed in the late 1980s, the San Diego Convention Centre is North America’s 24th largest convention facility. The facility is spread over 600,000 square feet. Its special event area, the Sails Pavilion, has a distinct roof made of Teflon-coated sails, which are symbolic of San Diego’s rich maritime history and hint at the centre’s proximity to the sea.
Depending on where you look at it, the structure resembles a ship sailing at full mast, with angles that echo an oar rowing in water or a wave rolling across the ocean. The centre is a well-known building in pop culture and hosts events all year round, including the San Diego Comic-Con, which draws visitors from all over the world.
San Diego California Temple | Architecture In San Diego
Built in 1988, the San Diego California Temple is a Mormon temple that looks like something straight out of a fantasy film. The structure is constructed using marble chips and plaster and has a radiant white appearance. It has a floor area of 72,000 square feet and consists of two 200-feet tall towers. The towers are flanked on four sides by smaller turrets. They are connected by an atrium shaped in the form of an 8-point star, a motif repeated throughout the temple. The whole structure is constructed on 7 acres of land.
Designed by the renowned architect William S Lewis Jr, the temple featured one of the most dramatic designs in modern Mormon temples. The interiors feature grand staircases and a multi-level celestial room, which is unique in Mormon temples.
Superior Court of California
A civic building which looks like a work of art in Downtown San Diego, the Superior Court of California is spread over a gross area of 700,000 square feet. The building houses the county’s criminal trial, family, and civil courts on its 25 floors, resulting in a 400-feet tall structure.
Notable in the structure’s design is the characteristic soffit at the crown with shaped aluminium sections which shades the building during the morning hours. The soffit reflects the light uniquely throughout the day and is said to celebrate San Diego’s distinct skyline. A curtain of fritted glass lets natural light in throughout the structure’s corridors. Constructed in 2016 by the American architecture firm SOM, the Superior Court of California is a must-visit for design enthusiasts.
San Diego Central Library
Constructed in 2010, the San Diego Central Library has received multiple awards, including a National Award for Excellence in Structural Engineering. It is a 9-storey structure sprawling over 500,000 square feet and is the only library in the world that houses a full-fledged high school.
It was designed by the Californian architect Rob Wellington Quigley and is a distinguished building in Downtown San Diego because of its iconic steel-and-mesh lattice dome. A concrete roof suspended 60 feet above the 8th floor covers the 4000 square feet reading room. Another of its incredible features is a 64-foot long concrete arch which rises from the ground to the fourth floor. The arch removes the need for columns in the main lobby of the structure and gives it an open feel.
Science Complex at Point Loma Nazarene University | Architecture In San Diego
The Science Complex in Point Loma Nazarene University is a 36,000-square feet complex built in the heart of the university campus. The complex is laid over multiple terraces on the grass slopes. It creates many social gathering points throughout its expanse to encourage scientific collaboration among the students.
The most eye-catching feature of the complex has to be the wall of curved metallic panels with its laser-cut scientific and Christian symbols and designs. This unique wall shades the common area from sunlight and has a calming effect akin to a cathedral space.
Spanish Colonial Style Confections in Balboa Park
If Balboa Park is the crown of San Diego, then its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture would be the crown jewel. Its gardens, promenades, fountains, museums, cultural centres, galleries, and cafes will make you question if you’re in San Diego or Spain.
A walk along the El Prado promenade will take you through the larger-than-life structures of the California Building, Casa del Balboa, and Casa del Prado. These reconstructed buildings of their original counterparts have every inch covered with motifs and designs that are sure to enthrall historians and architects alike.
Machine in a Box | Architecture In San Diego
The Machine in a Box is exactly what it is named: a machine in a box. Designed by Luce Et Studio for Nissan Design America, the structure is a 5000-square feet building that houses Nissan’s advanced 5-axis milling machine; it was designed with and fulfilled the single mandate that the building should hint at the machine within. .
Hotel del Coronado
Hotel del Coronado is a historic beachfront hotel in San Diego. It was the largest resort in the world at the time of its opening and is, today, the second-largest wooden structure in the United States. It was designed by the Reid Brothers in 1888 and has since undergone multiple renovations, but the original design remains the same.
The resort is built in a Victorian style and remains one of the few surviving resorts made in the style. The whitewashed wood exterior and high-pitched red roof curving, almost magically, over its numerous turret and gables are sure to captivate architecture students. The Crown Room ceiling is the Reid Brothers’ masterpiece; made entirely out of wood, the entire ceiling is held together with pegs and glue, and not a single nail has been used.
One of the city’s most well-known structures, the California Tower is a 198 feet tall building in Balboa Park. It is part of the California Quadrangle and adjoins the California Building. The tower’s design and ornamentation mix Spanish and Mexican styles. It comprises three stacked tiers shaped as a quadrangle at the bottom, then an octagon, and finally, a circle. The California Tower is called the icon of San Diego and is said to be the city’s most photographed landmark.
Santa Fe Depot
The Santa Fe Depot was built in 1915. It is a magnificent complex designed by architects Bakewell and Brown of San Francisco. The structure was built to represent California’s Spanish history and heritage through its Mission Revival styling.
Among the most notable of its architectural features is the massive front-entrance arch. The arch is flanked on both sides by twin campaniles, and each campanile is topped with a colourful tiled dome and displays Santa Fe’s emblem on its four sides. The interior of the Santa Fe Depot features ceilings made out of redwood and walls covered in vibrant ceramic tile wainscot with elaborate Hispano-Moorish designs.
The Ford building is an art deco-style building in Balboa Park. The building was designed by the renowned architect and designer Walter Dorwin Teague. The structure consists of two different-sized circles, resembling the number ‘8’, after the V8 engine-the result of Henry Ford’s pioneering genius. In the grand courtyard lies a fountain shaped after the V8 logo. Even the lights in the courtyard are shaped like engine valves.
Along one of the structure’s interior walls, a mural depicts the progress of transportation from prehistoric times till 1935, when the mural was painted. The Ford Building is the last remaining structure of the original five commissioned by Ford Motor Company. Today, it serves as the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
San Diego – Coronado Bridge | Architecture In San Diego
The San Diego Coronado Bridge is not a building. Still, it is as much a part of San Diego’s identity as any of the buildings mentioned in this article. The principal architect for its construction was Robert Mosher. The 11,000-feet-long bridge opened for traffic in 1969 and, at the time, was the longest in the world. It has a vertical clearance of 200 feet which allows the tallest bridges to pass under it.