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An architect’s perspective

Get inside the mind of George Garcia, whose designs stand out in SLO County [20] BY STEVE E. MILLER

Proposed new taxes are making a comeback [13] FILM Corrie: controversial, clever Reader’s Theater [25] McConaughey does Lincoln [34] Cal Poly celebrates wine for the ninth time [44]


G

eorge Garcia is the owner and founder of Garcia Architecture + Design. He graduated from Cal Poly in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. He recently toured several of his more prominent buildings with New Times photographer Steve E. Miller. His work includes the Railroad Square District Building, Nanometer Technology, and Monterey Mix (currently under construction in San Luis Obispo), among others.

NEW TIMES If you were to describe your architecture in terms of a musical style, what would it be? GEORGE GARCIA Definitely it’d have to be jazz. I was trained as a classical pianist, took the lessons, and hated it. Grateful for it now, I appreciate the rigidness and, sort of as an analogy, equate classical music to more applied sciences, engineering, those types of things, which are great. But for me, architecture is more like jazz because, at its root core, it should be improvisational. What differentiates something that’s a building relative to whether

we had to leave it alone because it was worthy of restoring—and quite frankly not messing with. So using that as a basic palate, brick is what it is, it’s been around for centuries. To complement that, we came up with a material palate that was equally raw. That brick out there is raw, it’s not painted, there’s not a whole lot going on with it. Our approach on the additions was to look at a true material that would be natural, i.e. the corten steel, and that would change over time—just like the brick—but was also a nice complement. We don’t want to compete with that historic building, we wanted to complement it. The best way that we felt we could respect the existing building was to do something completely different, yet have an essentially harmonious palate of materials. NT In reference to the Beaux Arts style of architecture, one of the famous architects who built in this area, Julia Morgan, was a student at the Beaux Arts and went through the atelier environment. Would you consider the office you run now to be a modern equivalent to that? GARCIA That would probably be a good analogy. I absolutely respect Julia Morgan, and not only for her work, but obviously being a pioneer in terms of women architects.

Improvisational architecture A local architect— be careful about calling him preeminent—talks visceral and visual punches, interpreting his work, and being an agent of change PHOTOS AND TEXT BY STEVE E. MILLER

it’s architecture is that additional creativeness. A lot of it is visible, and a lot of it is visceral. … I’m sure you’ve done this, you walk in … an office building and it looks great. And they’ve got ceiling lighting and cubicles, and it’s a great functioning space, but it just doesn’t have that emotional pull that true architecture does. I’ve learned that in going and studying abroad. You walk into some buildings, and it’s like, ‘OK, this is nice. They did a good job.’ You walk into some other building, and you’re like, ‘Something is going on here. This is fantastic. This is like a painting, a three-dimensional painting.’ That’s what architecture should be. It should be really three-dimensional art, in my opinion. Otherwise it’s just a building. NT While studying at Cal Poly, looking at architecture from around the world and different time periods, what architects or styles did you draw the most inspiration from? GARCIA I loved learning about the process and how some of these folks [worked], but for me I think what clinched it, just like back in high school when I was playing this music and all of a sudden I heard Miles Davis … it was like an awakening. That was one of the things that sort of triggered me to this path down pursuing jazz music. Sort of the same in architecture, it was probably the exposure to the guys who created the Bauhaus, the pre-modern. That movement, which was sort of a push toward pure form and pure expressionism, it was a push back against the Beaux Arts, in which you had a building and the thought was you applied ornamentation to make it a beautiful building. Well these guys were like, ‘You know what? We should really start at the root form.’ It’s the whole form follows function. When I saw that approach, that it was really the root of just basic barebones design, that to me was like, yeah, these guys are onto something. That movement in the early ’20s and ’30s moved into the modern mid-century; it’s called a lot of different things. But that’s really going beyond that … looking at the pure essence of materials as well. Looking at what we did over at Railroad Square, we had the brick building, we knew

She was the first licensed woman architect in the nation, as far as I know. Pretty progressive lady back then, but I think in terms of approach, we probably have a modern equivalent in the way that we run our studio. NT With the Railroad Square building, initially you didn’t want to save the original building. What changed your mind? GARCIA When I started my business, my office was in Railroad Square on the ground floor, suite 120. So we were there when the fire occurred. We lost everything. When you’re in a building that is supposed to protect and house you, and it ends up being the catalyst for destroying your entire business, it tends to put a little bad taste in your mouth. We were able, well not able, but forced to start fresh. A few years later, the building owner approached me and said, ‘Hey, we’re getting ready to have a settlement with the insurance. Things are working out. We’d like to bring you on board to help with the project.’ I said, ‘Well, OK. What is the project?’ I had heard rumors before I even got involved that there was talk of tearing down; there was talk about saving, restoring the building. Two different camps, and two different reasons behind those. At the time, the owner was like, ‘I’m not sure what’s happening. We have a plan now with the insurance company, but we have to go down to the city to figure out what’s going on.’ My initial reaction, I think because of my negative experience with the building, was that it’s not a safe building—it’s a brick building, and it obviously didn’t do well in the fire, and whether or not it’s condemnable or not, I’m an architect. We build, so my initial and probably selfish reaction was that we could level everything, start over: safe building, new codes, everything made safe for the next hundred years and for the next hundred years of inhabitants, whoever they may be. That was my initial reaction, and it was interesting when we started meeting with the city. There was the practical folks at the city who said this building probably should be torn down. It’s served its purpose. No matter what we do, it will no longer be 100 percent as safe as a brand-new code-compliant building, so it probably should be torn down. And then there’s the other camp in the city, the more conservative folks—this building is part of the fabric of San Luis Obispo, and yes it may cost more, but we need to figure out a way to restore it. So even within the city, there was this dichotomy of the approach to restore it or rebuild. NT Did the city offer any funding to keep the building in place because the cost would have been higher to restore the building than to raze it? GARCIA When we were talking to the city, it became apparent that this old building still has legs, it’s got a lot of damage, it’s going to take a ton of work, it’s gonna cost a lot more, and in the end it won’t be as safe as a brandnew code-compliant building. But the building has intrinsic value to the community at large. That led us down the path of restoration and exploring what was really historical and what was important. There were some wooden additions that were tacked on the building, and our approach to that was we knew those were done later out of necessity … . We had a chance to free the building from these tack-ons,


these architectural leeches that were done out of necessity. It was a unique approach, because we were going to lose some square footage, but with the help of the city and the developer and the owner trusting us to go down this path, we were able to realize a much superior project than just restore the building, restore the wooden additions, and call it a day. So it’s that constant ‘What else can we do? What can we pursue?’ ‘How can we make this even better than we initially thought?’ is one of the tenets of my studio. We’re never done, we’re never done exploring. I tell people we’re perfectionists, and it’s a curse, but it’s a pursuit. The day that we produce a perfect building or perfect set of plans is the day I will retire. That will never happen. The pursuit of that is what keeps us going. It keeps that passion moving. NT You put a tremendous amount of thought into the modern additions to the Railroad Square Building, and hundreds of people are going to see it every day, but they might not immediately grasp the significance of all these details. How do you feel about the, I hate to say hidden message, but components that people might not understand? GARCIA Good architecture is a lot of things. One of the

delicate balancing act, because on one hand you don’t want to be perceived as the snooty architect, which, unfortunately—you mentioned about public perception, and I think many folks have that. NT Have that perception about you? GARCIA The profession, I think. What we’re trying to do, and we’re setting out on this path here in the next couple years, is to hopefully engage folks. What I’ve learned, in going to these public outreach meetings and talking to the cities, is that a lot of what we do is education, but with a soft stick. ‘Why are you doing this?’ they’re asking. ‘Why does your building not look like the other building?’ How boring would that be if we all looked like each other? To me, it’s almost physical discrimination. If you want all the buildings to look alike, well OK, what if we, the people, all looked alike? Well, that’s terrible. We don’t want to do that. Well, OK, fine, then I think that buildings should have the same diversity that we enjoy ourselves. NT Why do you think people have such—and you spoke about a fear factor at a conference back in 2007 at Cal Poly—why do you think people have that fear of buildings next to each other that don’t look the same?

things that it absolutely should be is inquisitive. [Architects are] not going to be around, we’re not around the buildings that we’ve done in town to explain to people our approach. And the thing is that we shouldn’t have to be. Fifty, 100 years from now, we’re definitely not going to be around. So the architecture itself and the body of work that our studio is trying to do should have a lasting intrinsic and inquisitive value. Looking at Railroad Square, there are a lot of details that we looked at, tons of details that most people will just walk by every day, and that’s OK. That’s cool. We have no problem with that. If people start asking questions and maybe grab someone and say, ‘Hey, look at this—what do you think they were thinking?’ or ‘That’s cool, the way that intersection connects or the way those materials come together—that’s interesting, I would have never thought of that, but it looks, it works, it’s harmonious.’ The materials work, the colors work. Again, we’re not going to be around to explain that, and the building itself, the architecture itself, should be a tool for education. If we’ve done that, we’ve done our job correctly. NT How many people, percentage-wise, do you think consider an architect an artist? Or architecture as an art form, for that matter? GARCIA Umm, not enough. I don’t have any statistics on that, but it’s one of the learned professions—I think we get lumped into the doctors, the attorneys, and I’m not sure why. Everyone thinks we all wear ties and we’re proper, and to some extent there is a level of professionalism that goes along with what we do. We’re a little quirky in that we must access both sides of the brain; to get back to that classical and jazz—classical is very much the left side of the brain, very methodical, very necessary as a basis, but then you have the right side of the brain, which is the creative part, and I think that most people generally lean toward one or the other: either more of a technical person and you like that order and structure and that’s great, or you’re creative and what’s most important is the expression. We’re in a unique situation where we have to combine both on a daily basis, so you can imagine that creates a little schizophrenia amongst us, but that’s healthy as long as it’s in check. And we keep each other in check. I would hope that more people would think of us as artists than lawyers or doctors or whoever else we get lumped in with—not to discount those professions, because they’re important, but I think Frank Lloyd Wright said at least a doctor can bury his mistakes. All we can do is plant vines on ours. So obviously we take it seriously, we have fun here, but what we do is very important, because our ultimate work is out there for display for decades. NT So you’ve had situations where people were pushing against what you were creating; I seem to remember that there was a pretty big fuss about the Jack in the Box and the gas station building down in Pismo. There was a major push against it, and it went through anyway. Was there a process of you teaching the planning commission—not teaching in a sense of being derogatory, but teaching them what you were trying to achieve and they finally agreed … or how did that work out? GARCIA That one was interesting, that project. It is a

GARCIA The base root of it, it’s the fear of change. It can be a small change or a big change, but it’s just that intrinsic fear of change that folks would rather stay the course because they’re comfortable. They know what to expect. I think it’s just human nature in general, so I’m not singling anybody out. When people know what to expect, there is a certain level of calmness. OK, we understand that. But when they’re challenged with something that’s different, whether it’s a building or an aggressive piece of art, the first reaction is negative. Even if they don’t know why, they can’t even express it verbally. This person is doing something that doesn’t look like this, so therefore I don’t know what’s going on, and it’s not that I don’t trust it, but something is different, something is changing, and I’m going to protect myself. I think it’s just a natural human reaction. NT And as we talked about, as we were walking through the Railroad Square Building, you made a very purposeful effort where brickwork was redone so that it’s identifiable what is modern and what’s historic. GARCIA We recycled a lot of the brick, but the mortar was over 100 years old, and there was no way to get the exact color, so we decided that’s OK because we’re doing restoration in 2010 and should tell the history of time. In 50 years, when you and I are not here, someone else can walk up to the building and go, ‘Well, this section of brick looks different from that. Why is that?’ Again, it’s the whole idea of architecture being inquisitive. It should tell a story without words, similar to inside of the building when we had to restore a lot of the fire-damaged timbers. We knew that we couldn’t get the original 100-year-old red timbers, they just don’t exist. So we made an effort to get current timbers of the same size. When they were all up, you had these burnt timbers next to these new Douglas Fir timbers

This seemingly random zigzag walkway was inspired by how a train wreck looks from above.

Modern building codes don’t allow for open spaces between stairs, so to keep the original look of the staircase in the RRS building, plexiglass was used for the risers. GARCIA continued on page 22

Members of the George Garcia Architecture and Design Team were photographed at their future office space in the Monterey Mix building. Pictured are (left to right) Isaac Greenetz, Bianca Clayton, Bryan Ridley, Chris Caccese, Kara Moore, George Garcia, and Ryan Jenkins (Cole Allshouse and April Garcia weren’t present).


GARCIA from page 21

A rendering of the Monterey Mix building’s corner reveals the prominent solar panels at Monterey and Johnson

Joists used in the Monterey Mix building were manufactured at Hayward Lumber’s solar powered plant in Santa Maria.

that were felled in Oregon six months ago, and one of them has a 100-year-old patina on it, and the other is still oozing sap because it’s still green. Walking through with the owners, they wanted to stain all of this the same so it all looks homogenous. And I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ Again, the building should tell the history. Someone is going to look up and go, ‘I can see that old beam is charred, and that’s part of that fire I heard about, but then there’s the new one, and that’s probably what they did to repair it.’ So whoever is in that building is going to look up, and they’re going to start thinking about our work and what the thought process was going into it. How cool is that, versus having a homogenous ceiling and everybody who works in that building walking by and not even thinking about it? You have this sense of this building that has character because it’s got scars, and that’s OK. Life gives us scars, and to me it’s the scars that come with good stories. NT Were you surprised by how well the timbers held up? GARCIA A couple days after the fire, walking through and seeing those charred timbers, you thought they’re gone, they’ve got to come down, we’ve got to replace them, they’re toast. Literally, they were just gnarly, twisted, fire-ravaged timbers. Going back in and looking at it a few years later and investigating what the fire had really done and scraping away basically 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch of that charred stuff basically revealed brand new timber. One hundred years old, but it was in fantastic shape. I immediately called the structural engineer, and I was like, ‘Hey, you know all these timbers that we were going to replace? I think we need to get a specialist out here to look at this, because it looks like the damage is only superficial.’ We were able to plane off some of the fire damage and keep the timbers intact, even the ones that looked like they were gone. NT So the Nanometer building in Paso Robles, I think the roof of the building that houses the Nanometer Technologies business is supposed to be reminiscent of a wing from an airplane, considering the proximity to the airport—or am I wrong? GARCIA Could be. NT Could be? You’ve got the masonry work, you’ve got the sheet metal, you’ve got the wood all combined. So what were the thoughts about that, and what are the secrets to those elements? GARCIA I forget who the artist was a few years ago, a kind of rock pop artist, and they wouldn’t put the lyrics of their music in the album and there was an interview and the interviewer asked why they didn’t put the lyrics in the album. The explanation was, ‘Well, I want people to listen to the music and the lyric as a whole as an artistic expression. I don’t want the fact that I’m singing about my relationship or my current situation or my family or world politics, I don’t want that to get in the way of the pure expression of the music.’ I thought that was very interesting. So in the same way as we approach our design, we may have our own reasons for coming up with a materiality or arching roof line, and at the time it’s an expressive gesture, so it doesn’t really matter who interprets it. Like you may interpret it as a wing, but we interpreted it as an old Quonset hut. You could talk to 10 different people, and they probably would tell you 10 different things. Doesn’t really matter to us—what matters is that they’re talking about it. What matters is that they’re having the dialogue, and they’re looking at it, and they’re asking themselves questions. That is true architecture. NT But there are those times when the most difficult question to deal with is why. As a preeminent architect in this area that is building buildings in very visible spots, are you satisfied with people walking away with that question, or would it be more satisfying to know that people understand the reason why and then appreciate it more after the fact? GARCIA I think it really depends on the circumstance. By the way, “preeminent,” that’s a pretty big word, so let’s not get carried away. Mark Rothko started off with objective art, and then later in his life moved toward non-objective art, and then toward the end of his life he was doing these huge sheets of color exploration—completely abstract, non-objective art—and they’re beautiful, and his stuff was large scale. It’s one of those things where you can walk up to one of his paintings and you’re actually walking into it, you’re just experiencing it. You have no idea what’s going on in his head, why he chose orange and green and black—you have no idea. If you want, you can read and figure it out, but even then I’m sure you’re going to get some esoteric artist answer. So it really isn’t about, for me, ultimately the reason, but rather the experience. Just like when you walk up to a Rothko painting you’re immersed in it, you don’t know

why—there’s something about it. Maybe it makes you angry, maybe it calms you. It doesn’t matter; it’s evoking an emotion, and that’s what’s most important. Whether you understand it consciously or subconsciously or you don’t, if it leaves you thinking, then we’ve succeeded. If you can walk away from one of our buildings and understand it, great, that’s awesome. If you walk away and you’re scratching your head, and two days later you’re thinking about it— even better. Because it’s got a hold of you, just like good art and good music will get a hold of you and get under your skin, and it’s memorable. NT The solar panels on the Monterey Mix project are quite dominant. Was that somehow an artistic element, or environmental statement? GARCIA We’re, at a very basic level, agents of change. Part of the approach on this particular project is in response to the dialogue about sustainable architecture and design. I feel that when we’re having a serious discussion about sustainability it should be systemic, from the inside out. So yeah, you’re seeing the solar panels, and they’re right out on the corner, and part of that really is to evangelize the fact that this is a highly sustainable building. Imagine if they weren’t there and we went by and it was just kind of a unique building—it had some unique elements and unique angles, but for the most part the general public didn’t know that it was a highly sustainable project. … I view this project as sort of a demonstration of what can be done with sustainable design. Instead of hiding the solar panels on the roof or in the backyard or whatever, let’s put ’em out there. Let’s claim environmental responsibility. We’re not hiding the panels on the roof, but we could go on forever about how many other sustainable features there are, like the low-flow dual flush toilets. Nobody driving down the street is going to know the building has that, so how else can we evangelize the fact that this building is systemically designed to be sustainable on as many fronts as possible? NT Do you put emphasis on using local resources for the building materials? GARCIA Absolutely. Whenever possible when we’re specifying materials, with this [Monterey Mix] building for example, we knew we wanted to use concrete blocks for thermal mass and other sustainable reasons, so we went down to AirVol, a local supplier. We told them we wanted to use concrete block, we want to see what you have that’s unique, because it’s going to be a unique building, so they had this burnished block product that, with this particular color configuration, I don’t know if it’s ever been used here in SLO. So it was a unique product, and we had to figure out how to get it locally sourced. Not only are there energy costs in making the stuff, but if we were to buy in Bakersfield or wherever, you’ve got the transportation costs and all those other things that are somewhat indirect, but it adds to the non sustainability of some of these materials. We try to specify if we use pre-fab trusses or joists, they come from Hayward— they have a plant in Santa Maria. Certain components we just can’t get locally, but as the designer, you bet whenever possible we’re going to specify the materials that can be obtained locally whether they’re fabricated locally, manufactured, or what have you. It’s beyond the design being sustainable; it’s now even getting into the construction materials. NT Do your parents like your buildings? Do they have an opinion about your buildings, or are they like ‘Oh George, that’s a nice building?’ GARCIA Usually it’s, ‘That’s a nice building.’ NT So, exactly the response you don’t like to hear. GARCIA Exactly. But you know, they’re my folks, and my dad will come down once in awhile, and he’s very interested even though it’s not his field. He was in the military. He’s very interested and very encouraging. But I’d love to get a ‘That building is atrocious’ or ‘That building is very cool’ out of them. It’s not going to happen. ∆ Contact Photographer Steve E. Miller at semiller@ newtimesslo.com.

NT Cover Story - March 24, 2011  

Interview with SLO County architect George Garcia by Steve E. Miller