Originally appeared in the La Jolla Light, January 15, 2019

Much of “architecture” is learned by using and living in our environment.

When we find our way to the entrance of a building, or we take a moment to enjoy the view through the door to the terrace and into the distance, we are practicing our skills that we have known all of our lives.

When we see something familiar, the reason that it is familiar is there are cues to the purpose – or the feelings – that are to be evoked by the architectural design.

Consider this: Alcorn & Benton Architects recently completed the renovation of the Burns Drugs building on Girard and incorporated some of the simplest and elemental lines and spaces. See if you can find the spiral stair that is the whimsical and unexpected element in the façade. This stair also provides a wonderful experience for the people who use it, of course, but it is also a wonderful thing to notice every time we walk past. This is all so new and different, I think we should call this the “Brooks Brothers building” from now on.

Now consider the three townhomes in the Green Dragon Colony above the La Jolla Cove, which are nearing completion. These townhomes are using a radically different set of elements in their architectural design.

With this design, we cannot get enough of small pieces of windows and doors and every kind of trim, small and large balconies, and trellises and more trim. When we look at it, the eye jumps from one piece to the next, like looking for the favorite chocolate in a candy box, or the familiar figure on a shelf. All of this may first appear jumbled and haphazard, but with reflection and being able to view the townhomes during different seasons and under different light, the reasoning in the design becomes more apparent, and the building becomes more familiar. The collection of pieces becomes a unified whole because we see that they have their own familiar logic, their own composition that makes a unique house. Then the house is a delight and a wonder at the same time.

These two projects by Alcorn & Benton could not be more different, and yet they are the result of the same approach to the design. It is impossible to say that there is any unifying style in these projects – it is better to say that they enjoyed the same approach to design: a deliberate yet cautious approach about how these could be used, and an architecture that supports the many different ways that they will be seen and used.

This is what I might call a design philosophy for Alcorn & Benton Architects: the desire to seek the style that reflects the personalities of their owners and those who will occupy them, for their place in the world.

When we consider the great masters of architecture, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Irving Gill or Robert Venturi, we immediately think of a series of projects that appear related. They have that appearance, because they use the same design elements in the same way and they have many projects that offer the opportunity for variations with these elements.

I think that is the reason that we frequently react to a new building with a bit of wonder and a sense of adventure. That is what we enjoy bringing to life in our projects, and why we always look for that challenge and opportunity in every project.

So, yes, study as many styles of architecture that interest you. There are some magnificent examples that all served their purpose well. And as you study them, you will find your own style. Borrow from this and that. Take something that is really dramatic and completely out-of-place until you find a way to make it your own, and at that point it becomes your style.