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Fresh Crop

Architecture is a social act and the material theater of human activity. — Spiro Kostof

If you told me five months ago that one day in the near future I’d be standing before 500 people and whipping a world-famous architect with my favorite riding crop (the red-and-black one, of course), I’d have asked for a bite of the brownie you must be eating so that I too could hallucinate some crazy-ass shit. Yet, there I was, in a black rubber corset with red laces, playfully brandishing my stiff whip behind Graham Downes, who had — I suspected intentionally — exceeded his time limit for accepting an award.

I was visiting my in-laws in June when I received an email from my friend Deborah asking if I’d be interested in emceeing “Orchids and Onions,” an awards show that honors the best and worst designs in San Diego (architecture, public art, landscaping, interior design, etc.). I’d never heard of the San Diego Architectural Foundation’s annual fundraising event, but David — who has subscriptions to Dwell and Interior Design magazines and refers to real estate listings as “porn” — explained the concept and told me that our architect friend Allard received an Orchid for the Kensington live/work lofts in which we used to reside. It was David’s enthusiasm that prompted my speedy reply to Deborah’s request.

Serving as mistress of ceremonies was nothing new to me, but the subject matter was. I’d hosted and presented public events in the past, most of which have involved live music, such as the San Diego Indie Music Festival, the San Diego Music Awards, and a fundraising concert at the Hard Rock Café. At the time I agreed to this gig, my mastery of architecture ended just beyond the doorway of my condo. Architecture was an abstract idea, something that happened without my having to think about it, like electricity or running water.

I travel in many circles, most of which are populated with bohemian types. I remember my surprise when I discovered that my hipster friend Lloyd was not only an architect, but he had been written up in some of those magazines David gets. It sounded like such a grown-up-type job. Since when had my friends become grown-ups?

I worried about how my ignorance of their world and my flippant nature might clash with the planning and development elite — had I made a mistake by accepting to represent something so serious? I’d seen how uptight and self-important people can be about their careers — I’ve worked for lawyers.

My fears were quelled when I returned to town and met with Deborah and her co-chair, a perky landscape architect who joked self-deprecatingly about being a gardener. Detecting the odor of audaciousness emanating from him, I knew we’d get along fine. Once they confirmed I was the official emcee, I asked to be as involved in the process as possible, partly because I was interested in learning more about the industry and partly because I knew the more familiar I was with the material, the more seamless would be my presentation of it.

A panel of nine jurors had whittled down over 250 nominations to around 40 finalists. The event’s committee organized a “jury day,” during which all the jurors could tour the sites together. On the eve of the big tour, I was nervous about joining a jury comprising architects, landscape designers, a museum curator, a resident artist, and a city planner — important-sounding titles beyond the reach of my forte. But while I was fretting over how to act around these people, it occurred to me that regardless of industry or prestige, all these “grown-ups” were just that: people. When I thought about it, I realized every career could be distilled down to one of three groups: creators, operators, and fixers. Architects, pilots, and doctors were really only a handful of years of schooling and a few degrees of ambition away from painters, cashiers, and mechanics. A job is a job, and as I gathered from Allard and Lloyd, just because your job sounds overly serious, it doesn’t mean you have to be.

It’s amazing how much you can learn when you admit to not knowing anything. In one day, I spent 12 hours with Orchids and Onions organizers and jury members touring places the public had nominated as the sweetest and stinkiest designs in town. Many I hadn’t heard of, such as Vantage Pointe and the 1906 Lodge in Coronado. Others I was intimately familiar with, such as Hamilton’s Children’s Garden and Starlite. But I hadn’t known that the slats forming the hexagonal entrance at my favorite lounge were made of something called ipe, an ironwood from South America. It hadn’t occurred to me how poor a choice it was for landscapers to include so much grass around the Plaza at UTC or how great was the need the children’s garden filled for what one juror called “educational and interpretive amenities for San Diego’s kids.” A veil was lifted, and a new dimension to my beloved city was revealed.

I gleaned even more in deliberations — the five-hour meeting during which jurors conceptually dissected each finalist and put it all to a vote. By the time I received a drafted script, I felt competent enough to make edits. Which brings me back to my whipping Graham’s ass.

I was thrilled the co-chairs were so receptive to my ideas, especially the one about using a riding crop (substituting for the ol’ giant cane of vaudeville fame) to coax any loquacious drones offstage. It was Chris’s idea to play Devo’s “Whip It” to cue my crop. I had underestimated the kink factor of what I’d presumed would be a stuffy crowd, as the only complaint (from about a dozen people) I received was that I hadn’t employed my whip often, or hard, enough. To which my response was, “Consider yourself lucky I didn’t know that in advance.”

At the after-party, held in one of the many rooms of the bank-turned-nightclub On Broadway, I caught myself taking a keen interest in the decor and the structure of the walls that formed the cozy labyrinthine layout of what used to be vaults and what I imagined were secret back-rooms where diamonds and rubies were once kept.

I sidled up to an architect I’d met moments before and said, “Don’t you find it interesting that the inside of this place is so neoclassical while the outside appears to be so beaux-artsy?” The man seemed to be at a loss for words. Assuming I’d stumped him with the incredible depth of my knowledge, I collected my crop and cocktail from the small table between us and set out to impress his colleagues.

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