In San Diego, Clean and Modern

General / People / Places / Products / April 4, 2011

San Diego architect Heather Johnston says she builds for a sophisticated audience that’s looking for clean and modern, rather than warm and fuzzy.

“I want them to be surprised, to have something they didn’t even know they wanted until they’ve seen it,” she said.  “I want to marry the everyday things, like where you put your keys or wash your hands, with natural light and views, to move you through a building, to make you look, and create magic.”

If those are lofty goals, they’re also part of the artistry she tries to bring to her work every day, through a systems approach, an appreciation for materials and an understanding of the artisans she works with every day.

A case in point is a new residence now under construction on a sloping, 60-foot by 100-foot lot three blocks from the Pacific Highway in San Diego.   She developed its design almost completely with a computer, working through a procession of indoor and outdoor spaces that reveal themselves as they move through a house that twists toward views of the ocean.

“I worked with light from all directions, so it’s glowing transcendentally,” she said.  “It seems like the house has its own interior light.”

She’s known locally as the “Materials Diva,” because she likes to look at what’s going on right now in technology and move it ahead.  For this particular project, that means SIPs for the roof – an 11-inch OSB sandwich made of 30 percent recycled materials – slipped into place by a crane in one day.  For walls she used Styrofoam blocks with plastic webbing and rebar in between, with poured concrete.  “The old way was to use plywood forms, but this way it goes up quickly,” she said.  “It’s a good way to use old Styrofoam cups – and get great sound and thermal qualities.”

She sees an architect’s job as orchestrating all facets in making a building, including those working on it.  “It’s important that it’s all vitally alive, whether it’s a new material or the tile layer who’s really excited,” she said.  “You have to have a lot of trust and confidence to create something as rewarding as this.”

She’s looking to create something for today – something of the moment.  

“It’s about the joy of making something for today,” she said.

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Michael Welton
I write about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. I am the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand" (Routledge, 2015), and the former architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.




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