4 decades of orchids and onions

Posted: August 26th, 2016 | Communities, Feature, Featured, Small Business | No Comments

Voting on annual juried awards event begins soon

By Dave Fidlin

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 and a staffer with 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 out of sight after the 2002 competition. After a period of dormancy from 2003 – 2005, the SDAF revived the program a decade ago.

The Hub, the newly redesigned shopping area in the center of Hillcrest, is up for both an Orchid and an Onion. (Courtesy SDAF)

The Hub, the newly redesigned shopping area in the center of Hillcrest, is up
for both an Orchid and an Onion. (Courtesy SDAF)

Much like a hearty perennial that comes back year after year, the Orchids and Onions program has gotten better with age, said Lauren Kim, who has co-chaired a committee tasked with organizing the logistics of the event.

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.

Vote from Sept. 1 – 15

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 of Heritage Architecture; Susanna Samaniego of 4 Corners International Design Concepts; Carmen Vann of Turner Construction Company; and Laura Warner 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.

Dunedin North Park, a New Zealand-inspired restaurant located at 3501 30th St., is nominated for an Orchid in the Landscape Architecture category. (Courtesy SDAF)

Dunedin North Park, a New Zealand-inspired restaurant located at 3501
30th St., is nominated for an Orchid in the Landscape Architecture category.
(Courtesy SDAF)

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 the Hillcrest and North Park areas have been well represented over the years.

Some of the projects receiving an Orchid have included:

  • Whole Foods Market (1998) — interior design.
  • North Park Elementary School (1998) — fine arts.
  • Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre (2008) — historic preservation.

Onions also have made their way into the neighborhood:

  • Hillcrest LED Sign (2011) — historic preservation.
  • North Park “Clones” (duplicate condo projects) (2006) — architecture.

And while the Village Hillcrest residential complex got an onion in 1992 for architecture, just two years later, the developer had made enough changes to garner a Blooming Orchid Award in 1994.

Nominees for 2016 are all available for review on the website. Readers are encouraged to peruse the list of nominees in preparation for the upcoming People’s Choice selections and it’s even fun to read the comments.

As we go to press, the nominee with the “most views” is Qualcomm Building AZ Pacific Center Campus and the “most buzz” (comments) is the County of San Diego Alpine Library.

There are a number of North Park developments up for orchids this year and even a few onions; and the HUB in Hillcrest is in the running for both an orchid and an onion.

For more details and to review all the nominees for this year’s Orchids and Onions program, visit

—Contributing Editor Morgan M. Hurley contributed to this report.

—Dave Fidlin is a freelance journalist with a special affinity for San Diego and its people. Contact him at

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