Friday, July 17, 2009 | Jennifer Luce, a Canadian-born architect, has based her firm, Luce et Studio, in San Diego for nearly two decades. She recently mounted highlights from that work for an exhibit featuring a handful of esteemed local architects and designers: Mix, showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla until Sept. 6.

Her studio designed Extraordinary Desserts in Little Italy and oversaw the renovation of George’s at the Cove, a La Jolla restaurant, to George’s California Modern. She designed new workspaces and studios for Nissan’s design teams here and in Michigan. The studio just finished a project for Disney in L.A., she says.

These are typical clients — artists, art institutions, creative people, she says. Even an investment firm contracted with Luce to design their new offices. Luce says artists are the voice of our culture, expressing issues, angst and aspirations — work that she says is often evident in current art in juxtapositions between old and new, historical and contemporary.

And in that juxtaposition she found inspiration in East Village.

Luce bought a loft to house her studio there in 2001, a space that had housed the machine shop for the Carnation milk factory in 1927. The building had been made into artist housing in the 1970s and 1980s. Luce moved her studio in to the urban space.

While her team grew to number more than a dozen in the loft, the neighborhood grew up around them. Petco Park came in, as did condo towers and parking garages. The construction brought with it noise, and so she moved her studio to Pacific Beach.

But Luce didn’t lose touch with East Village. In 2007, for the better part of a year, Luce lived in the loft, “to experience the new East Village,” she said. She’s living back in La Jolla now, and the loft holds weddings, arts events and movie nights for local architects.

She shared her thoughts on East Village’s rebirth, the relationship between old and new, and the value of space, place, perspective and the breathing room that a down economy gives.

Where do you see a conversation between old and new showing up here?

Particularly the downtown core of San Diego, and in my personal interest, East Village, really has been forced to think about — how do we take the historical San Diego and merge it or thread it to the new and make a place that is powerful, exciting, and where the dialogue is really strengthened because of those two seemingly opposite aesthetics or building practices?

When I was writing a story about East Village you’d said in an e-mail that you thought that the slowdown in the housing market and in development might give East Village a chance to kind of catch its breath, and say, OK, where do we want to move forward? What are your ideas for that?

I think you particularly have to start at the core of building, which is, what is its use? And really rethink the presence of the library. I mean, it seems essential. So many other things are built that aren’t necessarily essential, but these cultural institutions are critical to the building of neighborhood and community.

So you’re a proponent of the library being built there in East Village. Like you said, what is a building’s use? There’s an interesting old-versus-new conversation happening about the existence of the library. In a technological society, why are we building a building with lots of books in it? … Is it necessary for it to be a library then, in your mind?

How can that building, which is typically a place to be quiet and study, become a social center? I think that the paired function of social space and library is much more exciting. To overlap uses rather than identify them singularly. So Petco Park in some ways does that — the idea that it’s used for concerts or that it has the dog park during the day. Those are really important layers that I think make for better cities. …

I see East Village as the threshold between the traditional fabric of the downtown core and this future fabric of what’s east that has so much potential. And so, in some ways to me, East Village is the testing ground. And it needs to really explore not only building practices and building types but cultural and social weavings that are going to make this city grow in a stronger way.

Who are your friends? Who’s your community in San Diego? Do you find yourself more often hanging out with people in the development world, on the artist side — an architect kind of bridges those, right?

For me, architecture is the mediator. So developers need buildings to be built by architects for use and profit and value and artists infuse those projects with a sensibility that’s much more personal and caring. And so I think that the three together end up making an amazing complement to each other. If we can figure out a way to balance that, I think that’s the perfect solution.

What’s the place where, in a design that you’ve done, you’ve come the closest to that ideal balance?

In San Diego, I think it would be Extraordinary Desserts, in 2005. It’s a situation where art influenced [owner Karen Krasne’s] art as a baker. And our interest in visual art collaborated to, for instance, find the solution for the facade of the building. Which is not only architecture, and artistic interpretation, but it’s also brand for her. For me, that’s the most powerful, real-life infusion of art.

For someone who hasn’t seen that facade, what are the characteristics that do create that brand for the restaurant?

Well, the facade is a veil, set on the front of the building. You actually have to pass through the veil to get into the restaurant, a place where it’s a world apart. It’s a place where eating cake and infusing your body with calories is OK, and exciting. (Laughs) And so the veil is sort of a transition, it’s one of those thresholds. As you pass through it, you really have the sense that you’re going into a different kind of place. But the veil itself is actually a series of metal panels that are perforated and they’re backlit at night so they glow. And their graphic image is the molecular image of flour, and flour is obviously the primary ingredient in baking.

So there’s a reference back to her work, her business, yet it really becomes huge-scale architecturally.

Do you find that in any sort of explicit way that your designs carry something that is San Diego?

Yes. Maybe not in the way that other architects do, and particularly the people in the Mix show, but for me, coming to California, I was completely influenced by this notion of landscape and light. …

We recently had an article about one of our projects in the New York Times, and it was a project that was very full of light, and space, and openness. A number of clients from New York called to say, “We realize that’s something about the West Coast, but we want that here. How can you pair the buildings that we have with that sensibility?” So it’s starting to expand the horizons.

Is San Diego — and forgive my ignorance on this — known as a big architecture city?

Not at all. But the irony of it is that I think two of the best buildings in the country are here. The Salk Institute and the Neurosciences Institute. So we don’t have a huge tradition of education of architecture; we don’t have the glorious history of building architecture like Chicago has, but somehow because of the intensity of research of the particularly biotech and medical industries, we have these two phenomenally important buildings that just remain inspirational constantly to us.

It’s a really interesting question. I think that San Diego has not hit its stride yet architecturally. I think it’s going to have its absolute day, for sure.

You came to the States from Ottawa. What about being Canadian and living in the States? What are you doing here that if you’d stayed in Ottawa —

It’s exciting. Well, first of all on the East Coast, I think there’s a lot more tradition about what you can build and how you practice. This remains the Wild West, and I would hate to see that actually disappear. I think as a woman, and as someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, there’s much more leeway to experiment and explore. …

And I have to say there’s a fascination about being a foreigner in a new place. Not only for others looking at you, but for you looking at this strange, different world and trying to interpret it. And you end up interpreting it completely differently than someone local.

Do you consider yourself a local now?

No. I think only for that reason. I want to always be looking and never be content that I know where I am. I want to always wonder what San Diego is. …

How long does this economic pause last? Do you have any indication?

I was looking through some old articles written in 1990, which is when I started my practice, and things were really tough then as well. I mean, it was three to four years. I have no way of indicating that, but I just feel the mood of our clients. And the willingness to risk-take, and be radical and experimental, and it’s very subdued right now. So if you think about the process of architecture, even if you started a project now, it’s three to four years before it happens. And there are not a lot of them starting. We are an indicator of the economy, whether we like it or not.

The yellow accents (in her Pacific Beach studio) probably bring some sunlight, right?

Ha! Exactly.

Correction: The original version of this piece stated that the Extraordinary Desserts building that Luce designed was the original Hillcrest location, instead of its Little Italy site. We regret the error.

— Interview by KELLY BENNETT

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