By Dave Fidlin
Annual juried event is a San Diego mainstay
Other than starting with the letter “o,” orchids and onions, of course, are plants that are polar opposites. Adorned by their sweet fragrance, orchids boast widespread, flowering plants. Onions, by contrast, are plain in appearance and offer a pungent taste and smell.
This juxtaposition has been the focal point of the San Diego Architectural Foundation’s (SDAF) Orchids and Onions juried awards program since its inception in 1976.
Architecture, landscape architecture, historic preservation and interior design work considered as “orchids,” are praised for eye-catching considerations, while “onion” designees are oftentimes skewered as missed opportunities.
Fast-forward four decades and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
“It has evolved over time,” said Perriann Hodges, SDAF director, 2016 Orchids and Onions program co-chair, and a designer at Studio E Architects. “It’s been a great platform for public awareness and participation. This is a way for the public to have a say beyond community planning meetings.”
While the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects kicked off Orchids and Onions 40 years ago, they dropped oversight after the 2002 competition. After a period of dormancy from 2003 – 2005, the SDAF revived the program a decade ago.
Much like a hearty perennial that comes back year after year, the Orchids and Onions program has gotten better with age, said Lauren Kim,2016 Orchids and Onions program co-chair, and an architect at Studio E Architects.
In a typical year, SDAF receives around 100 nominees. This year, more than 130 submissions have funneled into the organization.
“[Orchids and Onions] has provided for some interesting conversations about planning and architecture over the years,” Kim said. “This is the kind of platform that gives people the complete freedom to say whatever they want.”
While free speech is welcome, organizers have long put parameters around what makes for acceptable commentary. Off-handed, one-liner statements on why a particular project is worthy of an orchid or onion award will be weeded out — no pun intended — while well-crafted responses with valid arguments tend to wind up in the hands of the jury.
Nominations for this year’s awards program closed recently, but the public can weigh in on submissions during the upcoming people’s choice awards, which will allow votes to be cast online from Sept. 1 – 15.
After public commentary is aired, nominees will go before the jurors for further deliberation and consideration in advance of the Oct. 13 awards ceremony that includes a reception at Horton Plaza Park and the ceremony at the Spreckels Theatre.
From the onset, the jurors designating orchids and onions have come from diverse backgrounds — from creative-minded persons in the art space to nuts-and-bolts engineers and architects. Kim said the cross-section of viewpoints have yielded some interesting and surprising awards over the years.
In a twist this year, SDAF is bringing onboard a student juror who will add a youth-filled perspective to the mix of decision-makers. Nolan Delgado joined the panel through SDAF’s participation in the Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) Mentors program.
“This is a new opportunity for us and Nolan’s opinion will matter just as much as anyone else’s,” Kim said. “He will be considered a peer.”
The other nine jurors this year include Darren Bradley of Darren Bradley Photography; Kristi Byers, AIA, of Kristi Byers Architect APC; Ben Dalton, AIA, of Miller Hull; Nathan Elliott, ASLA, of the Office of James Burnett; and Marvin Malecha, FAIA, of NewSchool of Architecture + Design.
Rounding out this year’s juror panel are participants David Marshall, AIA, of Heritage Architecture; Susanna Samaniego of 4 Corners International Design Concepts; Carmen Vann of Turner Construction Company; and Laura Warner, Architect, of City Works.
When asked about some of the notable orchid and onion awardees over the years, Hodges and Kim were flooded with some of the orchids, including the remaking of Gaslamp Quarter and Horton Plaza’s development.
In unison, Hodges and Kim pinpointed a standout onion. In 2010, the proposed Charger stadium Downtown received the people’s choice award for that category as criticisms emerged in a hot debate that continues to this day.
“There was a statement made at that time that people didn’t want tax money used for a new Charger stadium,” Hodges said.
The Charger nomination is no longer eligible as rules have been tweaked within the past few years. Nominations for unbuilt projects are no longer accepted.
Although Orchids and Onions awards have been handed out for architecture, landscapes and interior designs across San Diego County, projects in Downtown San Diego have been well represented over the years.
In years past, Downtown projects receiving an orchid have included:
- Gaslamp Quarter (1981) — general
- Horton Plaza (1985) — architecture and urban planning
- U.S. Grant Hotel (1986) — historic preservation
- City Front Terrace (1992) — graphics and signage
- Children’s Museum (1994) — interior design
- Petco Park (2006) — people’s choice
- Craft & Commerce (2011) — grand orchid
Onions also have made their way into the Downtown skyline, including an award in the program’s inaugural year:
- California 1st Bank’s Main Office Tower (1976)
- San Diego County Annex Building (1980)
- Vantage Point (2009)
- Cruise Terminal and Utilities at Broadway Pier (2010)
- Proposed Charger Stadium (2010)
Nominees for 2016 are all already available for review on the website. For more details on the Orchids and Onions program, visit orchidsandonions.org.
—Dave Fidlin is a freelance journalist with a special affinity for San Diego and its people. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.