Saturday, April 24, 2010

April AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

The Prospect (2006). This and other photos from the website of Jonathan Segal, FAIA

Life is about showing up. That is a key to success, according to Jonathan Segal, FAIA, presenter of our April AIA-SWO chapter meeting program.

Since the early 90s, Jonathan Segal has shown up in a big way: he is now widely known as an AIA Honor Award-winning architect, enterprising developer, and detail-focused builder who has invigorated downtown San Diego with his high-design residential and mixed-use projects. Speaking before a packed house of AIA-SWO members and guests at The Actors Cabaret, Jonathan left no doubt that his winning formula is as much dependent upon his personal charisma, willingness to take risks, and brazen chutzpah as it is talent and wherewithal.(1)

The talent is amply evident. AIA-SWO President Michael Fifield recognized Jonathan’s design aptitude early on at the University of Idaho in the 1980s, where Jonathan studied under Michael (then in his first position as a professor in architecture). Since that time, Jonathan has made his mark in San Diego and La Jolla with a series of successful projects executed in his signature SoCal Modernist idiom, each progressively sleeker and more confident in its execution.

The Union (2008)

Perception is reality. Early in his career, Jonathan shrewdly recognized that others’ perception of his success could facilitate its actual realization. This knowledge served him well by helping to secure financing for projects that bankers might otherwise have shied away from, especially those pitched by an audacious young architect. It’s why he has a penchant for stunningly beautiful German and Italian sports cars. It’s better to look good than (necessarily) be good. His talk to AIA-SWO this past Wednesday was an unabashed demonstration of the power of the medium as the message. Decorously attired in a conservative suit at its outset, by the evening’s conclusion he was calculatingly tousled with silk tie loosened and sleeves rolled up as if to say “we’ve got work to do.” Jonathan is a consummate performer.

Respect the Architect. In part, that was the point of his performance. We architects have abdicated far too much control over the shaping of our built environment. We are no longer the “master builders” of yore and legend. To the detriment of our cities, architects have been emasculated by a broad spectrum of parochial interests: developers, politicians, real estate brokers, bureaucrats, contractors, property managers, and close-minded neighborhood groups. In order to rebuild the respect that has eroded, Jonathan believes that architects must once again play a leadership role in determining how urban development takes place. It isn’t enough to carry out someone else’s pre-established vision for a development; we earn respect by being in control of what to build. We need to roll up our sleeves and seize the very real opportunities that are out there waiting for us to act.

Control is everything. Largely self-educated about the intricacies of property development and management, Jonathan has excised the client and general contractor from the project equation. He develops and builds his own projects, using each to leverage successive ventures. Along with his wife, he retains ownership and control of their properties. This means rental apartments and only the occasional fee-simple, for-sale development – no condominiums. He is free to experiment with concepts, materials and spaces unfettered by a client’s preconceptions, resulting in projects such as Kettner Row where he explored the notion of “convertible” housing (featuring units above separable ground floor spaces that can be changed as needs to dictate for use as shops, offices, or granny flats). Control also means the freedom to cut out the middlemen, and increase profits. In the process, he has created innovative, superior housing at lower costs than comparable projects in San Diego.

Kettner Row (1997)

Keep it small. Jonathan wants to be an architect, not a manager, so his practice has always been small, its structure as simple as possible. He has long-time collaborators but for the most part they are consultants, not employees. This arrangement keeps his overhead low and his office mutable. The same model is applied to his role as builder, serving as general contractor while working with a coterie of trusted subcontractors. Reducing the numbers of parties involved has the side benefit of minimizing contractual liabilities; regardless, Jonathan strongly recommends that architects carry professional errors & omissions insurance.

Sustainability is a business decision. Being in control of all aspects of his personal and professional life is important to Jonathan. This has included where he chooses to live and work, which have typically been one and the same place. He has designed, built, and consecutively occupied several of his projects, the latest being the Q in downtown San Diego, his largest project to date. The Q typifies Jonathan’s brand of sustainability. He is not a tree-hugger who wears patently green credentials on his sleeve. He is not a fan of LEED and the codification of sustainability. Rather, he and his wife walk the talk by living and working in the Q, saving the cost and hassles of commuting while minimizing their carbon footprint. For Jonathan, truly urban living is a conserver of valuable time that if squandered would forever be lost. In this regard, sustainability just happens to be congruent with the bottom line: time is money.

The Q (2009)

People are willing to pay for better architecture. That’s the real bottom line and Jonathan has been happy to oblige. It’s an affirmation of our highest aspirations as architects. His work is proof that intelligent, skillful design and profitability are not mutually exclusive. He’s developing his own architecture and making very, very good money while doing so.

Nothing makes Jonathan Segal more proud than to be an architect. Of the many hats he wears, it is the architect’s that he prefers most.

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I’m beginning to sound like a broken record: Michael Fifield’s 2010 lineup of monthly chapter meeting programs has been stellar. Next month, Michael has arranged a panel that will focus on the City of Eugene’s efforts to address issues related to land use and design implications. With the City’s launch of its “Envision Eugene” study of growth needs, it’s important that AIA-SWO’s voice is heard. Be sure to attend our May meeting, become informed, and help shape our city’s future.

(1) Jonathan Segal packs in hundreds of registrants at $795 per head to each of his enormously popular one-day Architect as Developer seminars (700 attended his Los Angeles presentation; do the math). Michael Fifield brought him to Eugene to speak for the price of as many beers as Jonathan could consume.

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