Southern California has become a melting pot of world cultures and immigrants make an exceptionally large part, but in the San Diego region their influence on architecture is restricted to a few surviving examples of Spanish colonialism and the revival movements inspired by the building style of those Catholic missionaries.
San Diego has long since evolved past being a Spanish colony. It represents much more now, but it might be hard to tell by looking.
Future architects might consider drawing inspiration from the wide variety of cultures that exist here, lest the region become dominated by modern and postmodern designs. Of the 32 tallest buildings that define the San Diego skyline, only the 31st tallest building, the El Cortez hotel, evokes the spirit of immigrant culture with its Spanish Colonial Revival style.
San Diego County is the second largest county in California and the fifth largest in the United States. It has a population of 3.1 million people and 21.5 percent are immigrants who collectively speak 68 different languages, according to the Health and Human Services Agency of San Diego. About 37 percent of San Diego residents under the age of 18 are Hispanic and that population is expected to continue to grow.
The architectural obsession of the early 20th century with the old and exotic which fueled the Mission Revival, Spanish Revival, Pueblo Revival and Mayan Revival styles that exploded across California has since faded away.
While there are examples of Spanish-inspired architecture scattered throughout San Diego, which consists of primarily churches and museums, it is disappointing that immigrant cultures are not also represented through architecture.
Inspiration can come from anywhere in the world, whether it be the Great Mosque of Djenné in the Sudano-Sahelian style of West Africa, known for its use of mud bricks, adobe plaster and cross beams that just out like spikes on a cactus, or influenced by Indian stupas, Japanese pagodas or Southeast Asian wats. It should not be that the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park is the only public place to future Asian architecture in San Diego. The different cultures of San Diego should be valued and must be represented more fully.
Non-white, non-Christian immigrants and their families should be able to worship in places that are comfortable and have all the amenities they might expect from their homelands. The Islamic Center of San Diego, for example, would not be recognizable as a mosque if not for its humble dome and spire.
People can learn to accept what they cannot control and adapt to changes, but their culture should not be hidden from the eyes of the public.
Balboa Park is home to some of the finest architecture in the region thanks to the Panama–California Exposition in 1915, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and helped put San Diego on the map. At the time, San Diego was the least populated city to host an international expo and many opposed it so planners had to get by without federal funding.
Bertram Goodhue was the architect that masterminded the construction of many of the iconic buildings found in Balboa Park. His genius can be seen in the California Building and adjoining California Tower, which successfully combine elements from Gothic, Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque and Rococo, all of which were know for their lavish ornamentation, to emulate a Spanish Colonial church.
Although Goodhue drew inspiration primarily from Western European cultures, this type of design process that draws elements from across a wide array of sources from around the world is an excellent way to promote diversity through architecture. As the non-white population continues to grow in size and influence, they will want to live in homes and work in buildings that reflect their homeland and will not accept
There are also many variations of thatched, wooden huts found across the Pacific islands, such as the Fijian bure, Samoan fale or the triangular men’s huts of Palau. Just because a place does not feature buildings made of stone or clay does not mean that it cannot be translated into modern architecture.
Although upper-class neighborhoods like Mission Hills and Point Loma have the luxury to copy architectural movements that thrived in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, the cultural influence on this region has largely been watered-down to allow for the mass production of acceptable knock offs.
Many homes and businesses in Southern California imitate the pale adobe walls of the Spanish Missions, with their curved arches, white stucco and ruddy-colored tile roofs, but other cultures have almost nonexistent influence on architecture.
These types of homes metaphorically dip their feet in the waters of immigrant culture without diving in.
Catholic missionaries cast the first seeds of western civilization across the West Coast in the 17th century, but over the centuries the architectural mingling of Spanish and Native American culture has been reduced to a few examples surrounded by modern architecture.
The St. Francis Cathedral in Balboa Park, the Junípero Serra Museum in Presidio Park and the Santa Fe Depot downtown were built to celebrate the Spanish influence on the region. Now is the time to go beyond Spanish and recognize other cultures that have become a part of San Diego.
How refreshing it would be to see modern architectural styles that blend influences from Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American and African peoples instead of rehashing European designs over and over.
People from all over the world call Southern California their home and it is time for buildings to look as multicultural as the people that live in them.