San Diego's Most Impressive Architecture

Arresting Architecture at the Salk Institute
Arresting Architecture at the Salk Institute. Justin Brown/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca said that architecture is one of the first elements a traveler captures in the big city—if they look for it. In a city like San Diego, with its unique blend of Spanish, modern, and even brutalist influences, you can find buildings that are so good-looking that they'll take your breath away. Here, a round-up of nine architectural landmarks in San Diego and nearby.

01 of 09

Salk Institute

Salk Institute

TripSavvy / Makito Umekita

10010 N Torrey Pines Rd, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA
Phone +1 858-453-4100

It was an ambitious goal. Dr. Jonas Salk (who developed the first polio vaccine) wanted to build a research facility “worthy of a visit by Picasso." But it didn't need to just look good; it should also provide a welcoming, inspiring environment for scientific research. To do that, he turned to American architect Louis Kahn in 1960.

In response, Kahn used space imaginatively and with high regard for natural light. His design takes advantage of the oceanside location and uses materials that have held up well in the harsh environment. Some people compare it to a monastery.

In 1992, the Salk received a 25-Year Award from the American Institute of Architects and was featured in the AIA exhibit, "Structures of Our Time: 31 Buildings That Changed Modern Life." The San Diego Union-Tribune called it the single most significant architectural site in San Diego.

The only way to get in to see its most impressive features is during its regular business hours from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. And you must make an online reservation for a self-guided tour or a docent-led tour.

02 of 09

Geisel Library at UC San Diego

Geisel Library at UCSD

 Sherry Smith/iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus

Geisel Library, San Diego, CA 92161, USA

When you first see the Giesel Library, you might think it's standing on its head. Or maybe it's a spaceship landing. No matter what you see, the unique design seems appropriate for a building named for Theodor Geisel, the children's author that many of us know as Dr. Suess.

William L. Pereira (who also created San Francisco's Transamerica Building) designed the library, which was built in 1970. If you're into the architectural details, the design straddles the intersection between two architectural styles: brutalism and futurism. The building is fascinating in the day, but even more so at night, when the interior is lit.

03 of 09

San Diego California Temple

California Mormon Temple at night in California

gnagel/iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus

7474 Charmant Dr, San Diego, CA 92122, USA
Phone +1 858-622-0991

You will never see a building that looks more like a giant wedding cake than William S. Lewis, Jr.'s San Diego temple, designed in 1993. Or maybe you will think it looks like it's made of giant icicles. The white marble and plaster finish creates an ultra-white glow in the San Diego sunshine and turns golden when it reflects late afternoon light. At night, it glows from within and is lighted from the exterior. (Non-Mormons as not allowed inside, but you can also see and photograph it from the street.)

In case you're curious, the statue atop the spire depicts Moroni, a prophet from about 400 years after the birth of Jesus Christ, who delivered the Book of Mormon to Prophet Joseph Smith in 1827.

04 of 09

Superior Court of California

Superior Court of California, San Diego

 Betsy Malloy Photography

At 22 stories high, the Superior Court isn't San Diego's tallest building. Still, it stands out in the city skyline anyway, mostly because of the unique canopy structure shading its eastern facade.

Shaped aluminum panels reflect light onto the underside of the canopy to “celebrate the unique light of San Diego,” according to its designers. The courthouse was completed in 2017 and designed by architect Javier Arizmendi of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP.

Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09

San Diego Convention Center

San Diego Convention Center

 Mark Cunninghan/Getty Images Sport

Most convention centers aren't nearly as exciting architecturally as the one in San Diego. Depending on where you look, you'll see features that remind you of a ship at full mast or angles that echo an oar entering the water. The front overhangs look like a wave moving across the ocean. Indoors, translucent, barrel-vaulted ceilings bring sunlight inside.

The center was created in 1989 to celebrate San Diego’s maritime history and was a joint venture. Project participants included Arthur Erickson Architects, Loschky Marquardt & Nesholm, and Ward Wyatt Deems of Deems Lewis McKinley. Fentress Architects designed an addition in 2015 that added exhibition space and several acres of rooftop parkland overlooking the San Diego Bay.

06 of 09

San Diego Central Library

Exterior of the San Diego Central Library

 TripSavvy / Sharyn Umaña-Angers

330 Park Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
Phone +1 619-236-5800

Is that an umbrella? A hat? Maybe it resembles a dome-topped government building. No matter what it brings to mind, the library is an eye-catching piece of architecture.

San Diego architect Rob Quigley fought for 18 years to put the joy back in the library experience, ending his campaign when the library opened in 2013. (Quigley's office and residence complex, Torr Kaelan, is about three blocks away.)

To see the entire structure, start on the south side of the intersection of Park Boulevard and 11th Avenue and walk around it. But to decide whether Quigley succeeded, you have to go inside. Enjoy the views from the Helen Price Reading Room and the open terraces that surround it. If the auditorium is open, don't miss the wall made entirely of discarded books and the book-shaped sinks in the restrooms.

07 of 09

Torr Kaelan

Torr Kaelan, San Diego

 Betsy Malloy Photography

416 13th St, San Diego, CA 92101-7505, USA

Torr Kaelan (Gaelic for a rock outcropping or boulder) is the smallest structure on this list, but it's also one of the most innovative.

San Diego architect Rob Quigley designed the five-story, zero energy, mixed-use building. It was built in 2015 and houses Quigley's offices along with two residences on the top floor.

Quigley used open balconies and bay windows to encourage an interactive "conversation" with the street below. On the exterior, you may notice that the mortar seems to be spilling out between the concrete blocks. Quigley calls it 'juicy joint' block, a texture designed to reflect San Diego's bright sun.

The building is intriguing in the daytime, but truly spectacular at night when the interior lighting highlights its stepped facade.

08 of 09

Point Loma Nazarene University Science Complex

Sator Hall, Point Loma Nazarane College

 Betsy Malloy Photography

3900 Lomaland Dr, San Diego, CA 92106, USA
Phone +1 619-849-2200

If all university science buildings were as attractive as the Science Complex at Point Loma Nazarene College, STEM programs might have less trouble attracting students.

Outside, perforated panels line a curved facade, with the Greek letters alpha and omega laser-cut into them. Sunlight streams through the openings, dappling the walkways. Upstairs, the views from the terrace stretch to La Jolla.

The building was designed by Carrier Johnson + CULTURE and completed in 2017. It immediately won an award for Building of the Year in the Western U.S. from The Architect's Newspaper.

From the street, you won't see the facade, so it's best to look for the one labeled Sator Hall. After you park, walk around to the side that faces away from Lomaland Drive.

Continue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09

Spanish Colonial Style Confections in Balboa Park

Casa del Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, California
PNC / Getty Images
San Diego, CA 92101, USA

The 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park introduced Spanish Colonial Revival architecture to Southern California. The eclectic style incorporates so many elements and ornaments that you could get dizzy looking at them all.

When you take a walk along El Prado, expect to stop every few steps. Don't miss the exuberant mix of decorative architectural styles on the California Building, the caryatids (weight-bearing features carved as human figures), on the Casa de Balboa, and the soaring tower at Casa Del Prado. The park also hosts monthly architectural heritage tours, which showcase more of its unique architecture.

Bertram Goodhue and his assistant, Carleton Winslow, designed the original buildings. JCJ Architecture supervised restoration projects between 1968 and 2002.

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San Diego's Most Impressive Architecture