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A Bouquet of Orchids and a Whiff of Onions

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When it comes to San Diego’s Orchids & Onions awards, ugly is in the eye of the beholder. Okay, these annual celebrations of local design are about beauty, too. But let’s face it: The Onions are lots more fun than the Orchids.

Take University City’s Mormon Temple—the towering, ersatz-Gothic edifice that looms over Interstate 5. Back in 1992, the year it was completed, O&O judges awarded it a big, fat, pungent bulb. At the time, I quoted one of the critics as suggesting the Mormons ought to subscribe to the theory of “separation of church and interstate.”

A couple of years earlier, I’d described a terminally garish, pink-stucco condo project near the Mormon Temple on Nobel Drive in University City (poor UC) as looking “like an explosion at the Pepto-Bismol factory.” The design judges confirmed that assessment with an Onion for the project later that year.

One nominee in the early ’90s met with a groundswell of public support. A critic nominated Tom Werner and his colleagues, then-owners of the San Diego Padres, for an Onion in the “Historic Preservation” category. “Werner’s design for redefining—or, more correctly, demolishing —this San Diego institution,” the ballot read, “is worthy of the same public censure reserved for those who destroy significant historic buildings.” (The Padres survived; Werner & Co. did not.)

In the early years, judging of San Diego’s Orchids & Onions awards—established in 1976—was done by a fairly equal mix of laymen and design professionals (most of them members of the American Association of Architects or the American Planning Association). Over the years, professionals began to dominate the judging. But for the past few years, while professionals have continued to sponsor the awards, judging has been exclusively by laymen.

This year’s panel includes a lawyer, a banker, a member of the media and an electrician from a county Indian reservation, among others. And overall responsibility for the awards falls to steering committee chair Alexandra Elias of the Centre City Development Corporation.

In this month’s issue of San Diego Magazine, we’re publishing photos of some of the just-awarded 1999 Orchids & Onions. In addition, we’re celebrating some past winners that still surround us, to cheer us or confound us.

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