Old and new architecture can coexist. San Luis Obispo should try it

Frank Lloyd Wright's Kundert Medical Clinic at 1106 Pacific St. in San Luis Obispo.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Kundert Medical Clinic at 1106 Pacific St. in San Luis Obispo.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kundert Medical Clinic, built in 1956 at Pacific and Santa Rosa, looks nothing like San Luis Obispo.

A humble, low-slung, single-story building made from wood, red brick and glass, it is neither significantly old nor remotely classic California adobe.

It isn’t kitschy folk like the Madonna Inn, Streamline Moderne like the Fremont Theater, endearingly strange and inherently functional like the Octagon Barn, or definitively '90s contemporary like Cal Poly's PAC. But like those buildings, it is a vital player in an orchestrated architectural symphony of unlike pieces coming together to form San Luis Obispo's singular architectural character, one at the risk of dilution and termination at the hands of not only developers, but residents themselves.

One of California's oldest cities, San Luis Obispo has a fragile architectural timelessness, in great part due to a population that truly cares how their city looks. Aggressive preservation efforts and a willingness to accept (or tolerate) something new has built both a historic and contemporary city, rich with quality architecture from many eras, contributing to the unmistakable life that continues to excite residents and captivate visitors.

The look or character of new development is the result of many factors, including direct community input, which is granted unusual power in San Luis Obispo. However, in a moment when SLO can capitalize on rising demand for new development by elevating a rich, unique and lucrative architectural character built up over centuries, the city and its residents continue to blindly push back against what superficially looks "new," forcing a literally compromised city character fit for H&M, but not for SLO.

In one high-profile project on Marsh Street are hints of San Franciscan Queen Anne, Italianate, Victorian, Edwardian and Mission Style — deemed in marketing materials as “timeless character,” but really a collection of diluted, vaguely Californian styles. With the only expression of these styles pasted on as decoration (stock railings, budget materials, interrupted columns, half architraves) rather than employed through intelligent spatial planning, form, facade layout, environmental response, or true-to-style or local materials, the building confusingly detracts from the city’s truly historic character. This curated hodgepodge indicates a threatening trend. These projects are easily buildable, profitable, and digestible to the building department and public, but if this becomes the norm, in 20-50 years the city will become a cheap imitation of what it once was.

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The Marsh Street Brownstones feature "vaguely Californian styles," including Queen Anne, Victorian and Mission. Courtesy Photo

The turbulent confluence of new and old is a familiar and ultimately unsolvable problem. But at this intersection is the most fertile ground for meaningful, definitive, timeless local architecture. While some authentically beautiful cities like Santa Barbara and Santa Fe are now suffocated by rambunctious historical stylization, others embrace this rare diversity and find a pragmatic, head-on approach to creating new, forward-thinking architecture among historic, character-defining buildings.

Chur, Switzerland (pop. 33,000) is filled with National Heritage Sites, a medieval town core, and ancient Roman settlements. But within this untouchable architectural context are contemporary modern buildings, designed by famous local architects Peter Zumthor and Valerio Olgiati, and Spanish architecture studio Barozzi Veiga, intimately and directly responding to the historic fabric through materiality, program and scale, but set completely apart in form, posture, and personality resulting in a satisfying, fitting contrast.

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The modern building on the right is the Fine Arts Museum by architecture studio Barozzi Veiga in Chur, Switzerland. Mircea Eni

Boston’s decades-long approach of careful yet daring modern redevelopment within a city layout largely delineated by Revolution-era paths, encouraged masterworks like the Hancock Tower (Harry Cobb, 1976) and ICA Museum (Diller Scofidio & Renfro, 2006), now integral pieces within a burgeoning city.

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Hancock Tower in Boston, Massachusetts by Harry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Marshall Ford

Recently featured in the eponymous architecture-centric film, Columbus, Indiana (pop. 44,000) is most well-known for its wealth of mid-century modern (and post-modern) projects from all-stars like Eero Saarinen, IM Pei, Robert Venturi and SOM, situated amongst boisterous historical buildings like the Bartholomew County Courthouse (1874), 19th century mansions, deco fire stations, and a prized, covered wooden bridge. This composition leads to an unexpectedly clear and undeniably captivating definition of the city’s architectural character, made possible by a community of owners, builders and residents vociferously and confidently supporting this aesthetic bravery — the result of an understanding that the town’s character is a beautiful sum of parts rather than an inevitable result of a single, familiar variable.

SLO is poised to continue a similar architectural legacy. Good architecture, regardless of style or era, inherently responds to place in a nuanced and pragmatic way, acknowledging historical context, views, scale, materiality, and environment while also recognizing the responsibility to contribute to the culture, sustainability, beauty and natural forward progression of the community.

While developers and architects like those encroaching on SLO’s perpetually endangered Chinatown and doomed Foster’s Freeze literally build these structures, the community is ultimately responsible for the intangible design culture of a city. Frustratingly, San Luis Obispo, home to the often top-ranked architecture school in the country, is getting more and more confused as the fear of losing the historical character of the city evolves into an impractical obstacle course resulting in commercially driven, uncomfortably referential, out-of-scale, beige static in an otherwise vibrant symphony.

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The much anticipated Hotel Serra promises a collection of familiar styles at an alarming scale. Courtesy Photo

The Kundert Medical Clinic is not vital to the history of SLO because it looks like what we expect, but rather because it doesn't. Subtly referential mountain window profiles, sycamore-filtered light flooding the waiting room, and the background hum of SLO creek, familiar to anyone who walks through downtown, brings San Luis Obispo in rather than reflecting it outward. Not an imitation, copy, or convoluted attempt to find something lost — it became an inherent and indelible part of SLO by doing something completely new. Not every building can, or should do this, but the communal realization that this is possible - that architecture can, and should, give to a city and define a place rather than simply look like it, is the liberating key to nurturing an image of the city that is both confidently new and completely SLO.

Marshall Ford is an architectural designer and writer raised in Cayucos. He is currently a designer at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in New York and runs the studio Small Office Architecture with partner Mircea Eni. He is a graduate of Cal Poly Pomona and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.