Take a tour through the best buildings, proudest plans and most inspiring architecture in Newport Beach and Orange County. -By Kedric Francis
When we think of the aesthetics of Orange County, it’s the natural world that comes most immediately to mind—the coast and canyons, the harbors and hillsides, and the bays and beaches. But since the early days when pioneers built wharfs and railroads to reach the sea, design has been crucial to the area’s growth. So here’s a whirlwind look at some of the best design and architecture in the area, from pier to Pavilion and beyond.
With the new Newport Beach Civic Center and Park now well out of the ground and taking shape, we don’t expect controversy over costs to completely cease. But it’s clear that the center’s design is something to celebrate, and the complex is destined to become one of SoCal’s civic and cultural jewels. Let’s also take a minute to appreciate the existing City Hall. With casual midcentury modernisms like its open-air promenades, it’s been a functional and delightfully understated place that’s representative of old NB, just as much as the new building will evoke the Newport of right now, and its future.
Soon after the McFadden Wharf was finished in 1888, a town started to grow around it. The early NB founders’ plans to turn our harbor into a commercial and industrial center to rival San Pedro was foiled — thankfully, we must say. But the basic design from whence Newport Beach grew still exists. The Santa Ana and Newport Beach Railroad line is gone, but you can still see the grand curve of Newport Boulevard where the trains and track ran, ending at the pier. The remnants of it and the Pacific Electric line are visible on a 1940s aerial image.
Newport Center’s sleek towers from the ’60s sit on the circular Newport Center Drive that surrounds Fashion Island. Designed as part of William Pereira’s master plan for the Irvine Ranch, the expansive layout still feels remarkably modern, with clean lines and largely unadorned towers. The shopping destination at its center has constantly evolved, and is now one of the finest outdoor environments in which to shop and walk in Southern California. And though we’ll admit to missing some of our favorite details that have been removed in recent redesigns (the carousel, the water–popping fountain that kids loved and the triple flying figure statue, to name three), we’re happy that the “largest wind chime in the world” still hangs on the harbor side of the center.
Newport Beach isn’t a place that’s easy to get around without an automobile, or perhaps a Duffy. At one point in the first half of the last century, one could get from the peninsula to downtown Santa Ana in less than 20 minutes on the Santa Ana and Newport Railroad, and from Balboa to downtown L.A. in about an hour via the Pacific Electric Red Car. Just try that today! But we do still enjoy one of the most pleasant transit experiences in the world: the Balboa Island Ferry. Since 1919, generations have enjoyed this sublime 800-yard journey across the harbor.
Pity the Point?
What’s O.C.’s most poorly designed downtown? Here’s a vote for Dana Point. The PCH split bifurcates the commercial center of town (such as it is), and though we keep reading about plans for rehabbing the harbor, these days it’s just sort of sad. The town’s resorts even disown the place: The Ritz-Carlton, which is officially in Dana Point, never relinquished it’s Laguna Niguel suffix, and The St. Regis claims Monarch Beach as its home. But definitely worth a visit in the town is the Ocean Institute, which of course was designed by NB’s own Bauer and Wiley.
NB’s Best Blocks
Our favorite street on the peninsula is 31st Street, from the Cannery restaurant to Newport Boulevard. The two blocks form a microcosm of NB’s history, with reminders of the industrial shipbuilding and fishing past (we love the old sail loft behind Alta Coffee and the Quonset huts across the street) mixed in with residential, restaurant (Bear Flag Fish!) and retail uses. It’s grown to its current eclecticism naturally, and should be a model for the future of the neighborhood as grand plans are afoot to link Lido Village and the soon-to-be-vacant City Hall site to Cannery Village and the pier area.
It’s one of the most important pieces of residential architecture in the world, and it’s sitting right on the NB sand at 13th Street. Designed by Rudolph Schindler and completed in 1926, the Lovell Beach House was recently at the center of the Southern California design world when L.A.’s MAK Center for Art and Architecture hosted tours of the house as part of its Pacific Standard Time exhibit on historian and writer Esther McCoy (makcenter.org). Thanks to the graciousness of the current owner, small groups toured the Beach House in an exceedingly rare opportunity (a visitor from Germany said he’d been waiting 40 years for the chance!) to see the view from within one of modern architecture’s true masterpieces.
A place can often be defined by what wasn’t built as much as what was. The corner of Newport Coast and PCH was originally planned and approved to be the site of three 10-story hotels, shops and office buildings, and some recall that Sand Canyon would have connected to around where Crystal Cove Promenade Center is now located, and there would have been another hotel there. Years of negotiations and lawsuits modified the plan to the unique combo of open space, luxury homes and one resort we have now. Other abandoned plans are still more obscure, including the Port of Orange, a 1907 master plan near what is now the Westcliff area of Newport Beach, with a hotel in what is now Castaways Park.
Not all great design manifests as a brilliant building. NB’s Wonderland Bakery turns out luscious cakes and baked goods with divine designs that are the equal of anything on food television shows.
The SoCo Center is doing something we would have thought impossible: turning a disaster of a design center into something truly cool. The OC Mart Mix is evolving into a place worthy of the “Ferry Building” connections drawn in the marketing, and the grand new Fixture store takes kitchen design to a stunning new level.
Battle of the Titans
What’s the most successful master plan in all of O.C.? Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the land of Disney vs. the villages of the Irvine Company. May the best
Of the new restaurants in O.C., Katsuya probably is the most hyped from a design standpoint. And we are impressed—Philippe Starck, and all that. But the dark horse for best new restaurant design is Three Seventy Common in Laguna Beach. It’s understated and comfortable, with no “look at me” moves. With its new, clean design, we find the transformation of the well-worn space (formerly Sorrento Grill) very cool. Other favorite O.C. restaurant designs include True Food, CrowBurger, Stonehill Tavern, Anqi, Copper Door, Taco Asylum and Marché Moderne.
For anyone who loves design, especially of the midcentury modern variety, the California Design exhibit at L.A. County Museum of Art is a must-see. Part of the Pacific Standard Time group of shows at SoCal museums, the LACMA exhibit is so beautiful, it almost hurts. And there are some Orange County connections, including lovely architectural renderings of the homes at Monarch Bay.
South Coast Fab
South Coast Plaza and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts form one of the most important centers for design culture in California. The artists, architects and designers who are represented in the area would form a who’s who list of legendary figures from the past century. But what it’s been missing for the past few years is a bookstore worthy of the place (and no, the hardly missed Borders doesn’t count). Enter Assouline: It’s a temple to all things aesthetic, with gift books and coffee- table tomes on fashion, art, automobiles, travel and most of the other things that make life worth living.
NB’s Best Buildings
Among the most architecturally significant structures in Newport Beach are The Balboa Pavilion; the Price residence in CdM, designed by Bart Prince; Mariners Medical Arts building, designed by Richard Neutra; the Lovell Beach House; and the John Lautner-designed Rawlins House on Balboa Island.
NB’s Worst Buildings
We asked around, and we looked ourselves. And although it’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, architects, aesthetes and design aficionados find these local buildings particularly annoying: the brick parking structure at Lido Village; Triangle Square; the new lifeguard headquarters on the sand at El Morro State Park; the triumphal arches at the entrance to Newport Coast; the massive Monarch Building lofts on 32nd Street; and the vacant building on PCH and Jasmine blocking the view of the Brown Building in CdM.
The battle over the architecturally iconic Crystal Cathedral campus rages on. Our solution? Chapman University acquires the property and opens SoCal’s greatest grad school of architecture, perhaps in conjunction with SciArc or another established school. Build a SoCal architecture museum amid the designs of Richard Neutra, Richard Meier and Philip Johnson, lease out the cathedral for services, and suddenly O.C. is a world center of architecture and design.
NB Hidden Design Gems
Not all of the interesting architecture in Newport Beach comes with a famous designer, historic relevance or prestigious provenance attached. A few design bright spots that fill in around the ordinary edges include the angular Brown Building that sits a half a block back from PCH in Corona del Mar, near Baja Fresh; the rustic beauty of the Brownell Architects office that sits on Mariner’s Mile across from the Newport Sea Base; the Goldenrod Bridge that links CdM to the sea for Flower Street pedestrians; the Stradas of Lido Island; the Sandcastle condos on Avocado; and the midcentury modern office building at 446 Old Newport Blvd., which always makes us do a double take. ,