If San Diegans, on occasion, avoid going out, Kopec knows the reason: the sun "is always here."
  • If San Diegans, on occasion, avoid going out, Kopec knows the reason: the sun "is always here."
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It's not even noon and already I'm closing the blinds on the south-facing windows of my home office. That pesky natural light is overrunning the glow of the lamp by which I work. Too much of a bright thing. Most mornings, in the cliché of coastal overnight and morning low clouds, the daylight coming into my room takes its time. Like age or awareness. But now, at 11:44, the light's pouring in. If I don't mute it, my eyes'll hurt. I'll disappear in the glare. I might be struck impotent, literarily speaking. Shades inside and sunglasses outside attest to my contending with the slow-unfolding, then Wham! Southern California light. How did it get so damn bright when it's not even that hot?

Coronado. "If you're at one of our south-facing beaches and you're looking north, you have this beautiful soft light coming."

Coronado. "If you're at one of our south-facing beaches and you're looking north, you have this beautiful soft light coming."

Cursing the light doesn't make much sense either. But because I came of age in the Midwest, the light feels harsher here, at times punishing. It's not that I don't like it; it's that I'm not used to the intensity. Which is frustrating. I thought after 22 years I would be more at home, especially when San Diego's climate is, compared to Ohio's, so consistent and so consistently uneventful. No thunderstorm, tornado, blizzard, flood ever bedevils the place. Sure, it gets hot for several weeks, maybe a month or two, each year, but it's a forgiving, unsteamy hot. And yet to my eye and my dark-glasses brethren the light remains a force, so much so that I wonder if what San Diego lacks in weather it makes up for in light.

Marriott hotel. On the curved twin towers and mirrored façades of the downtown Marriott, sunsets are purported to "explode."

Marriott hotel. On the curved twin towers and mirrored façades of the downtown Marriott, sunsets are purported to "explode."

Is our light special? Is it different than the light in other climes? Does the amount and the intensity of light characterize, in some way, where we live?

There's nothing really different about our light, says Dr. Edward Aguado, climatologist and chair of the Department of Geography at San Diego State University. Light is the same everywhere; "it all originates from the same place." Sunlight enters the atmosphere with a mix of wavelengths. The wavelengths range from the shortest, the violets and the blues, to the longest, the oranges and the reds. Coming through the atmosphere, wavelengths are scattered by the air molecules and dust particles they encounter. The shortest wavelengths scatter more easily; thus, the sky is blue. The sky is bluest when the sun is at its apex; the light then is traveling through the least amount of atmosphere. During evening and morning hours, light travels through the most amount of atmosphere. The shortest wavelengths are blocked while the longer ones penetrate. Thus, sunrise and sunset are orange and red. Pollution, Aguado says, creates more particles and more scattered light. In the desert, dawns and day-ends are redder than on the coast because more soil particles, unkept by the sparse vegetation, fill the air.

Is there any difference between San Diego's light and, say, the light in Wisconsin?

"There's not really a difference," Aguado says. But then again, he offers, the humidity may affect our perception of light. How? "In a drier environment, the sky is going to appear brighter. When you have a higher humidity, you might get haze droplets -- not enough to form fog or clouds, but enough to affect the intensity of the sunlight that comes in." More humidity and haze mean a more muted sun. In places without high humidity, the sun casts "more of a brilliant light."

So at least I'm perceptually right — the sun is more brilliant here. But despite my anxiousness about the light, I imagine a few San Diegans are drawn to it because of its intensity. The first thing you learn when you listen to their experiences is that San Diego light is not uniform: it might be muted at the beach, harsh in the mountains, and blazing in the desert, depending on the day and the season. The light's effects upon land and home and mood attract photographers and artists and architects and the occasional psychologist in ways I hadn't imagined. By going to the light you begin to see things you've never seen before because you've been in your room with the blinds shut.


Artist and photographer Becky Cohen can characterize the light here as well as anyone; she's been discovering its moods with brush and lens since 1972. Cohen is perhaps best known for her photographs of Robert Irwin's garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, published in Robert Irwin Getty Garden (2002). Irwin's garden at the Getty may be the finest of his many outdoor installations, among them the tennis-court nets in the eucalyptus groves at UCSD. In the book, Cohen's light-infused color photos, rich with orgiastic detail, resemble paintings. The photos marry Irwin's garden with Cohen's Southern California eye — a work of art about a work of art.

Cohen's eye is redolent of the near-coastal blur, where the fog evaporates and the brighter light begins. "Light joins me to the world," she says over coffee in La Jolla; the café's view of blocky buildings also possesses a glimpse of two mighty blues, ocean and sky. "It joins anybody to the world, but for me, a photographer, that's the essence of what I do."

She tells me, "I'm a completely coastal person." She's lived along the Pacific shore since her family relocated here from Chicago in the mid-1950s. What she loves about San Diego light is that it "always makes the world available." There's something about it, something with the "clarity of ancient Greek sculpture, the light that caused those sculptures to be." It may be the light, Cohen thinks, far more than the weather — which everyone admits to — that lured people to San Diego and keeps them here.

For the Getty project, Cohen was present on the grounds twice a month for four years. She made 10,000 images of the garden. "I got there at first light and left when the light was useless." As a result, she became so "keen and aware of the sun crossing" that she could "feel it moving." Cohen recalls predicting clock time by the sun, not unlike a farmer or a sundial. What happened to her sense of time while charting the sun's movements? She says she was more alive in the moment. "It was like running a race all day. I was able to predict what I wanted to catch."

Driving her images of the Getty Garden was "the sexiness, the color" of the plants. This reflects where we are because "we're all so sexy and colorful in Southern California." In four years at the Getty, Cohen realized that "though our light is not the harshest in the world, one can see deeply into its detail." Looking through the book, we pause at a photograph of a just-bloomed Corsican hellebore. Light is both on and transmitted through the large, oval, cupped leaves; "the very tissue of the flesh" of the leaf lights up the shadowy inside of the flower. What we're seeing, Cohen says, in a moment of enthusiasm, is "description in the shadows and in the highlights. The thing about light, softened by some water in the atmosphere -- our coastal light -- is that the highlights aren't too hot and the shadows aren't too dark. The light we get here comes through a moist air that may reduce the tonal range but, on the other hand, makes everything visible."

Scott Davis, a differently called photographer, likes to shoot the desert at dusk, the beach at daybreak, and San Diego's coast at night. At 32, he treasures "how every day begins and ends in San Diego, the very soft light." One "eases into the day here: it's soft, subtle, quiet; it's approachable. If you're not a morning person, it's okay. It's not waking you up and blinding you as it would in Phoenix."

One telling photo of San Diego light is Davis's Surf Trail Near the Break, taken at 6:00 a.m. one July near Sunset Cliffs. The dust and dryness of the shot are palpable even in the very early diffused light. The photo lingers on a final rise and fall of a footpath to the beach, glimpsed between an eroded sandstone formation on the right and a robust patch of wormwood on the left. The path itself is "alive" with footprints from sneakers, bare feet, and bicycle tracks. A bit of rubbish indicates passage, not occupation. In fact, Davis says, "You choose the path that nature has laid out for you." This easy accessibility to the coast, Davis says, reminds him that San Diego is special because it is unlike Los Angeles. Though we're a "big city," he says, the way "we interact with the [natural] world is gentle." Such gentleness is evident by the community's general avoidance of "developing in canyons." During late afternoon, Davis is fascinated by how the light on canyon slopes illuminates the bright green ice plant and creates shadows among the gray-green sagebrush. This spectacle, he believes, has spurred many over time to value these canyons as one of our most distinctive environments, that is, after the beaches and the bays. Davis's sunrise photo documents how much can be seen even in a muted 6:00 a.m. light. This flips the notion that more light makes things more visible. On the contrary, the subtleties and varieties of light contribute to showing the subtleties and varieties of place.

Such subtlety also lingers in the ideas of Martin Poirier, San Diego's noted landscape designer. As half of Spurlock Poirier Landscape Architects, Poirier's big-ticket credits, where he and Spurlock are part of a "core design team," include urban housing in Little Italy, the Children's Museum Park, and Petco Park. For Petco, Poirier says in an e-mail, he wanted the "superstructure" of the ballpark white so that "it picks up the color of sunlight...especially with game time spanning bright daylight to sunset and darkness." As for our light, he says that since "we are a coastal desert, where most of our open space is low chaparral versus forest cover," we see "more horizon. We see more sky -- so there is a bigness to our perception of sunlight. This ability to see into the distance helps dramatize the light and shadow play on land forms (canyon walls, hillsides) as well as buildings. You see this in our east-west canyons, where the intense sunlight burns and dries out the vegetation into golden tans on the south-facing slopes, while the north-facing slopes are deep, dark green."

Poirier finds the "most engaging light...around San Diego Bay. The reflectivity off the water back into the atmosphere really charges the environment with an active buzz. Being surrounded by water brightens and clarifies the ambient light. The reflectivity off the ocean into our downtown sky bathes the atmosphere with a softer, indirect light. The effect is heightened by the expanse of the flat, planar surface of the bay contrasted by all the busy clutter of the surrounding land and buildings. This geography creates a theaterlike setting to watch the light show."

Like Poirier, cinematographer Richard Crow knows how active and how temperamental the local light can be. For 15 years, working mainly on feature films, commercials, and episodic television shows, he's operated the Steadicam, a 70-pound camera that is saddle-mounted on his chest. He shoots actors who themselves are moving from outdoors to indoors and back out. He's "always watching the direction of the source of light in conjunction with the angle of my camera." Over coffee in Point Loma, Crow tells me he loves San Diego's natural light; in fact, getting lively lit-up shots outdoors is two-thirds of his work. He rarely uses direct sun, because it's too hard. He holds up a fist to cast a shadow in a bright afternoon sun to show me that hardness, its edge almost a "pencil line." He filters the light with a napkin; the shadow now "is very soft but also still dense." The ensuing light, he says, is silky.

In San Diego, this silky light occurs best, Crow notes, between November and January, "when the sun is setting far to the south. It has this side-directional light on us all the time. So if you're at one of our south-facing beaches and you're looking north, you have this beautiful soft light coming. The air quality, when it's colder, has more blue in the air, less pollution." The prime times are from sunrise to 10:00 a.m., then 3:30 to dusk. Shooting a TV pilot, Veronica Mars, for UPN, Crow filmed a scene at Ocean Beach, at a spot and a time that the producers had specifically chosen for the sun. "We didn't need to bring in generators or artificial lights. But you can't always depend on the weather. You [may get] a marine layer coming in. And that happened. All of a sudden, we were shooting and this big cloud came over and dumped on us and we had to stop. The sun was behind the cloud. The producers were saying, 'Okay, let's go, quick-quick-quick, before the rain comes back.' I said, 'Listen, guys' -- and they're from Los Angeles -- 'in about 15 minutes you're going to have this gorgeous sun coming out from underneath that cloud, and it'll be between the cloud and the horizon and it'll be stunningly beautiful.' Well, they were going to go into overtime if we did that, tens of thousands of dollars: it really wasn't economically feasible. But. It is beautiful." Crow says the sun did break through, he went, "ha, ha, ha," and the producers missed the shot.

Crow insists that "overpaved" L.A. has lost that trademark quality of Southern California sun. Natural and human-made topographies, haze, and smog have made the light in Los Angeles "absolutely different" from San Diego's. Movie and television people used to stay up north to film the play of light and coast -- the sun breaking up the fog, the marine layer softening the sky, the glare of light off the beachfront bungalows near the end of day. Now they come here.


Increasingly we live with less access to the light. Building booms, busy lives, backcountry pushed farther back. Our indoor environments, at home and work, are often sealed to keep out noise and heat and cold -- or keep them in. The walls and baffles mean foiled light. So says David Kopec, who at 36, with his doctorate in environmental psychology, teaches at the New School of Architecture and Design. Among his clients are people who want to redesign their living space because their health problems have not responded to traditional medical treatments; they and Kopec suspect "environmental modification" is in order. When Kopec enters an environment, he doesn't see "the shape and the design as an architect would." Rather, he sees "just the opposite -- the people's behaviors" and then how the indoor space expresses those behaviors. So the nightclub manager's home will be darker than the grade school teacher's.

Moving to San Diego from Massachusetts 16 years ago, Kopec immediately saw his mood change: no more cabin fever, no more gray-flannel skies. "When I came out here," he says, "it was like a key in a keyhole." As a college student, his academics went south. He blames the sun for lowering his GPA. "There are studies by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan that say green spaces and offices with windows increase productivity and make people feel better. [The sun] had the opposite effect on me. I wanted to be outside; I didn't want to be studying." Observing Southern Californians, he found that light and sun make people more competitive outdoors -- on mountain bikes, in marathons -- but less competitive in the workplace, in part because the light seems to be calling us out, especially if we're deprived of it in offices. People should go out in the sun in the morning, Kopec says, because bright light will inhibit the production of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone the body will make during the day in dimly lit environments. Without enough light, people drink more coffee and eat more sweets for energy, which, very easily, they could get by just going into the sun for ten minutes. He says it's commonly known that "nurses who work the 11:00 to 7:00 shift gain ten pounds the first six months." They've loaded up on carbohydrates, which they may need to stay awake.

If San Diegans, on occasion, avoid going out, Kopec knows the reason: the sun "is always here," he says. "Tomorrow's going to be very similar to today. In Massachusetts," in summer, "I wore shorts and went outside because I knew it was going to end." There, he says, he camped regularly; here, he puts it off: "I can always do it next week." (The idea is echoed by feng shui practitioner Lynn Scheurell. She believes that since light is so available locally, people can be "expansive and open; boundaries aren't as strong; people can be scattered and ungrounded." Such folk are so social they can't find personal direction; they're lost in the flux of outdoor living. There they go, Rollerblading down the boardwalk in blue thongs.)

One of Kopec's clients is a woman who was living in a dark apartment, feeling depressed and gaining weight. She had seasonal affective disorder, a condition, one might think, that could happen only elsewhere. Visiting her, Kopec discovered she had no eastern exposure for early morning light. He encouraged her to get up at six and go for a walk in the light or take short walks during the sunny part of the day at work. Weeks after beginning this regimen, she felt better, stopped coffee and sweets, lost a dozen pounds. Natural light and fresh air had been taken away: it was up to her to re-acquire it. Kopec's client tells me by phone that after moving here, she watched her child enter a San Diego school whose classrooms had little natural light, nonopening windows, and air-conditioning. The woman's son got sick frequently and did worse in school; today, she attributes his poor health and fuzzy concentration to the absence of fresh air and sunlight.


What Kopec has revealed is just how ignorant local buildings are of our light. Indeed, says James Robbins, local designers have an abysmal record for making buildings that use the sun's heat and its light in tandem.

Robbins, an architect with Robbins Jorgensen Christopher, does not separate light from climate. A childhood in Houston, Texas, imprinted him strongly: there, the thunderstorms burst, then quickly cleared out; sun and bounteous clouds were the norm, making dramatic sunsets, he says, more than the "slow slipping of the orange disk here." He says of architecture in general that "it's the best record of how a culture adapts to its particular conditions. The way buildings adapt to light reflects their location and climate and their attitudes toward life. It's different from place to place." Robbins says the reason Russian Orthodox churches feature a staggered array of onion domes was that in the far north the low-angled early and late sun would make them glow. On Wall Street, in Manhattan, he says, when you look up from the canyonlike streets, you see "a sliver of light at the top," creating a "Gothic-cathedral quality that contributes to our perception of Wall Street as the temple of mammon." In Venice, reflected light off the canals "reaches the buildings so that [with the sun from above] shadows go up as well as down."

For Robbins, Southern California is "drenched in light." Here, south-facing structures need overhangs to block solar radiation and a few windows to receive light. The west and east sides need shading against the glare of sunrise and sunset. The north needs no shade and should have many windows to take advantage of the indirect light. These facts are understood by San Diego builders, Robbins says, but they regularly disregard them. People were sensitive once to such site-specific issues. Today, however, we have "more mechanical means to intervene -- we can have windows that reflect; we can control the transmittance of light through the window by the glass we choose. We don't have to think as much about how the window is shaded, and we can depend more on air-conditioning and heating." In other words, we live less with the sunshine in mind, despite our attraction to it.

Early San Diego buildings were adobe, the only material to build with. Walls were thick and uniform to keep the heat out; tiny windows allowed only a small amount of light in. Coast dwellers brought adobe construction from interior Mexico; it took years before they discovered that the proximity to the coast meant structures here could be different from those in the desert. "Normally," Robbins continues, "you have an onshore flow, so it's gray in the morning, burns off at midday, and in the afternoon, you get bright light. In such a temperate climate, walls didn't need to be" adobe-thick. Change came as westering immigrants brought their East Coast preferences for wood homes with them. Though walls made of wood are load-bearing, the windows could be modestly sized.

Is this legacy of the wood house the reason why so many San Diegans, despite the near-perfect weather and our abundance of light, live in dark boxes?

Robbins cautions me that the available materials, not the weather, determine how the homes are built. Even with more elastic materials like wood and stucco, San Diego's ample light was still cut off from entering the home. How, architects began to wonder, could the wall be less of a wall and more of a filter? The answer came with modern architecture: the load-bearing wall was replaced by post-and-beam construction. "The window is not a hole in the wall anymore," says Robbins. "The window is the wall. That barrier between inside and outside has been dissolved."

So why haven't developers made homes with more windows?

Robbins says that house designs are standardized. Even if there were a lot of windows, they wouldn't automatically make good light. Placement is key. Big windows facing south or west can produce as much glare as light. "Any room," Robbins says, "that admits light from two, three, or four sides tends to be more pleasant and there's less differential from the high light to the low light." Houses in tract developments are never situated with reference to the sun; it's not economical. Robbins describes the suburbs as places "where efficiencies of production and scale are employed to reduce costs." There is no economic incentive to make the house on the north side of the street any different from the one on the south side. Hello, Clairemont!

You can have a home in San Diego that responds to the light -- if you've got the money. You can retrofit your home by adapting an old window or adding a new one, each mindful of the sun. You can employ new technologies to transmit more or less heat, to transmit more or less light. But Robbins sees the technology of adaptation as pushing homes further and further from their environment. He describes the scenarios of unbridled technology with the royal pronoun: "We don't have to adapt the building to the hill, because we can flatten the hill; we don't have to be sensitive to the climate, because we can import oil from Saudi Arabia and run air conditioners; we don't have to worry about the size of the window opening, because we have hyperthermal glazing. Technology facilitates laziness. Most houses are not designed to optimize the experience of living within that particular house. Most houses -- 99 percent -- are designed to deliver the most space and the most amenities for the lowest cost." Robbins says houses are advertised by their size, their bedrooms, their Jacuzzis. But "you'll very rarely see a house advertised because it has really great light."

We have lost what our ancestors had -- living with the elements. How few houses are set up to invite us outside. A room that opens into a courtyard replete with plants, shade, and sun, he says, reminds us of "places that we love -- places where the buildings are defining the outdoor rooms." The courtyard was essential to the old haciendas of Mexico and Alta California. "Those courtyards," Robbins says, "are more memorable than the interior rooms. It's the sense that the outdoor room is defined and shaped that makes us instinctively love that place -- as opposed to other outdoor places that are just leftover, residual space between objects."


Another architect, this time with a light-oriented "agenda," is Steven Lombardi, a fixture in Ocean Beach since 1979. At the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, Lombardi studied an innovative view of architecture: that the local environment should drive the design of the building. When he came to O.B., he found a community whose love of its self-image matched his love of "lighting."

Lombardi says no matter where he designs a house, he considers the environment and the sun first. "If there's anything we call a God, it's that thing in the sky." Though traditional Western architecture has not been sun-oriented, native construction always has. "Look at the Inca," he says, who oriented their habitats toward the sun. "During the winter the sun was low enough to heat their space, and during summer it was high enough where it wouldn't come inside. Same with the Southwest. The natives" reckoned with "the earth and its rotation. Let the sun in, get rid of the sun. That's why I don't see a big difference between landscape and architecture; I don't draw a line between the two. But the way we practice it, there are certainly a lot of boundaries."

He calls the small amount of natural light in San Diego homes "unfortunate; a lot of these developments have no concept of solar orientation. Even Shea Homes, who promote photovoltaics on the roof, don't even address where the windows are." Shea Homes builds housing tracts that "could be anywhere in the world. They're not site-specific." Lombardi's blueprints follow none of the traditional California styles, Mission architecture, for example. And, he notes, there are only a handful of good projects that are not trapped in this historic architectural loop. The preference locally is to conform, not to engage new ideas. Clients must be as game as Lombardi to reimagine their spaces.

As it did with Robbins, the question comes up: Why, when we live and work in such a wonderfully light-dazzled place, are our interiors so dark?

Lombardi springs to action, showing me a photograph of a three-story medical center, "a completely enclosed box" in which the windows don't open. "The building's heating and cooling system is enclosed; it has nothing to do with its environment. It could be in Jakarta -- it wouldn't matter." The hand surgeon who owns the business has asked Lombardi for an evaluative redesign. Lombardi is confident that he can reduce the man's monthly electric bill by half, from $8000 to $4000. But that's not his main motivation. "When I walk through these spaces," he says, pointing at a photograph of the ugly structure, "that have no windows, I'm appalled." On one visit, he asked a secretary, " 'If you had an operable window in here...,' and her eyes just lit up." Office staff are often in cubicles with four blank walls and four fluorescent bulbs. Lombardi does a quick comparison to where we are: his second-story office in a two-story building in downtown Ocean Beach, which faces west with ample light and ocean breezes. "They're in a space that doesn't even have what I have. Psychologically, I'd say they are very unproductive people. Because sunlight, natural light, and ventilation stimulate the mind. If anyone worked in a room without what I call these basic requirements," they may accomplish, during an eight-hour day, "only four hours' productive work. [A redesign] could affect not only the bill but also the morale" of the employees. Most people, he says, "don't know what it's like to work in an environmentally green building. They need a job" regardless of the surroundings. A "psychological retrofit" that would increase the bottom line takes some intelligence and long-term thinking, Lombardi says. A task he's up for.

Another one of his projects is a new home in Ocean Beach with roof-mounted photovoltaic panels. These will open like a sunflower as the day comes on and shut down at night. The system will provide all the light, electricity, and warmth the inhabitants need. Lombardi likes to get his houses "off the grid," if he can. His design is environmentally synergistic: an upright slab of concrete, or thermal mass, that is heated by the sun and emits heat at night; a pond system for used hot water; a maintenance-free rock garden; overhangs that block the sun in the summer.

Such ventures, I say, almost make living here more perfect, if such a thing can be.

He agrees. This is an example, he says, of "taking an existing house and adapting it to San Diego." Lombardi estimates that he could "make better," as in more energy- and light-efficient, 75 percent of the existing houses here. "But," the bane of the nontraditional architect, "not everybody is thinking, 'Why do I need to make my house better?' Everybody thinks about the payback. But have they thought about the psychological? Maybe the house they've been living in all their lives has no effect on them. Maybe it's not even important to them. But people come here because of our weather. And we have these dumbfounded houses that don't respond to San Diego."


Virtually everyone I speak with agrees that our locale's best-lighted spot is Balboa Park. There, for five years, Chris Travers, director of the Booth Historical Photograph Archives, which resides in the basement of the San Diego Historical Society, has come to work. A photographer with training in architecture, Travers has fallen in love with the light in what she claims is San Diego's most photographed place. "How do I know?" she asks. The Booth Archives, she tells me, has more than two and a half million local photos, and Balboa Park is by far the single most popular site to shoot, outstripping generic beach or Hotel Del pix. Travers also knows the park intimately by photographing it herself. On a spring afternoon, she walks me down the famous arcade along the south side of the promenade across from the lily pond. The arcade is somewhat darkened, even with a bright sky. Photographers love to frame the descending box of arches, its Oxford University look. Farther down is an opening to the south, and the sun, filtered by some vegetation, is glowingly evident. Here a wedding photographer is posing his couple so the soft side lighting animates the bride's veil. Later we espy another camera's focus: a man and a woman, models maybe, hugging cloyingly, an engagement pose or a commercial depicting it. The woman kicks up a heel. People photograph the park and the light in the park because the surround makes them feel they are or they should be in love.

Across the way, Travers shows me the park's "most over-photographed spot." It's the classic shot of the rectangular lily pond, which fronts the bilious-colored botanical building, itself a rectangle with a mesh roof like an inverted basket. Before us, tripod marks stipple the grass from the many photographers who've shot this person-in-front-of-a-famous-building photo. So oft-taken, why? Travers says, "People in San Diego don't have anything else quite like this. A big open plaza." The shot is free from what is relentlessly apparent: advertising, passing cars, telephone poles, whose uniformity repels looking. Seeing the light in Balboa Park is a deviant act: the most photographed site in the city is most unlike the visual commonality of the city.

On the north side of the promenade, those Spanish baroque façades (the fancy word is churrigueresque, wedding cake in stone), Travers says, "just pop out in relief as the angle of the sun changes; the details show up." The dappled shadows of plants and trees against the building are produced by what Travers calls "this beautiful light." What's beautiful light? She's hard-pressed to define it. Soft is beautiful but so is hard. An abundance; nothing precious. When she's taught photography, the most difficult thing for the students was to "look in the camera and see the light. Because they would look with their eye [outside the lens] and see the light. But that wasn't what the camera was seeing." She thinks everyone sees the light on the park's buildings, but she's not sure whether it's just her or everyone else who registers its aesthetic charge -- seeing though not appreciating what it is they're seeing. The light is the last thing seen.

In the archive, Travers shows me her black-and-white photographs of two other spots. The first is a shot of what Richard Crow identified as one of the best light-savvy scenes in the city: the bridge trusses in Mission Valley where I-8 and I-805 cross. Travers shot it at ground level, seeing the great freeway legs at low light. Then there's a landscape of Cuyamaca Reservoir, a day of thunderstorms on which a person -- coincidentally, tragically -- was electrocuted by lightning. Travers's vision has captured, with Ansel Adams-like sublimity, the welcoming and forbidding backcountry. Of this shot, she says, "things with light sing to people," and yet the song is not one of benign nature. Because of the fires of 2003, Travers realizes her inspired photo has become as much document as art. "The lake may not look like this for another 100 years."


I ask everyone I interview to name places, building or landscaped space, accidental or planned, each would consider the most dramatically lit in San Diego. Balboa Park makes everyone's list. Other places include the curved twin towers and mirrored façades of the downtown Marriott, in which sunsets are purported to "explode"; those wonderful light-slanting archways and beige light-absorbing surfaces of the Linda Vista Library, designed by Rob Wellington Quigley; and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, whose great "plaza of stone" was designed by Louis Kahn to open to the immensity of the sky and the Pacific Ocean (the Salk building is one of the subjects of My Architect, the documentary of Louis Kahn's life and work made by his son).

I choose two places to look at: both are recommended and both are uncharacteristic of so many dark San Diego spaces: each insisted on light in its construction and each features what the other does not.

The first is the Palomar Apartments at Sixth and Maple. A "funny pile of a building," as James Robbins calls it, the four-story structure with interior atrium was erected in 1914 by Frank Mead and Richard Requa as a residential hotel for the affluent attendees of the Panama-California Exposition in nearby Balboa Park. Lovers of North African- and Mediterranean-style design (balconies, tile roofs, Moorish arches, wrought iron, carved beams, a roof garden), Requa and Mead made a square donut of a building. Its 25 units open into the atrium, where, in Spanish-courtyard style, it's meant to be cool on hot days and to bring people out of their rooms into a common space. Unlike the open-air atrium of the downtown Hyatt, the Palomar's is enclosed on top by glass panels; the original milky, mesh-laced glass remains. The panels' effect is to diffuse light throughout the inner courtyard. Owner Mark Warner tells me that he has never seen a building remotely like it in San Diego. Indeed, the Palomar "was built too well," he says, one reason it's so unusual. The other reason is that the light is layered differently on each floor, changing from very bright on the fourth floor to muted and shadowy on the first.

The second example is Terminal Two at Lindbergh Field, a spot most San Diegans know. The two-story windows of its glass-and-steel façade face south, its concrete pillars tilting forward with a kind of excited leaning into the light. During winter, the inside is warmed by the low-angled sun; during summer, the long-tongued overhangs keep the high sun at bay. All the while, its high glass walls bring the outdoors inside. Very few people see the building, because nowadays they stop only briefly to drop off or pick up airline passengers. Those getting off planes, who are rushing to loved ones or vacation villas, rarely notice the grand proscenium that takes them into the light. Such is the veil of invisibility in the age of terrorism.

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