Turning It Around: Making the Leap from Onion to Orchid

Over the course of its 44-year history, Orchids & Onions has become the San Diego Architectural Foundation’s (SDAF’s) flagship event for a reason. The annual people’s choice awards, highlighting the most impressive and most questionable San Diego architecture, holds design professionals to a higher standard. The awards also give the public a pivotal voice in the shaping of San Diego’s built environment.

There can be a fine line between what qualifies as an Orchid (the pinnacle of architectural achievement) and an Onion (considered a blight on San Diego’s urban landscape). But Onions don’t have to make you cry. In fact, many recipients have used them to spur future achievement, turning architectural shame into design glory.

We turned to SDAF board member Roger Showley, our in-house historian, for help in compiling this list of Onions that became Orchids (and vice-versa). It’s proof that while the public demands excellence, it also rewards progress.

1976: San Diego Unified School District. In 1976, the school district received an Onion, then an Orchid in 1984, then an Onion in 2007.

    • Onion, 1976: “With a ‘standard package design,” San Diego city schools has built 10 elementary schools with little if any identification with the needs of the individual neighborhoods in whcih they are placed. The emphasis, which is apparent in the design, is total security from the surrounding community.”
    • Metamorphosis (Orchid), 1984: “The SDUSD is dramatically changing its design emphasis away from windowless, security conscious schools for which they received a 1976 Onion award…. The planning process has encouraged extensive public involvement and may eventually result in school facilities that are more responsive to the needs of the surrounding community. These bold efforts of the district deserve recognition from the general community at this critical point in the process.”
    • Onion, 2007, Thurgood Marshall Middle School, Scripps Ranch: “The worst of everything, from its site planning to the banal architecture to the lack of light and air in the classrooms to stucco, stucco everywhere . . . and what were they thinking when they put in those fake, fiberglass Doric columns?!

The San Diego Convention Center

1977: Big Dipper rollercoaster in Belmont Park, Mission Beach: The threatened demolition of this 1925 landmark earned an Onion: “A very significant historical landmark to the community will be lost by the City Council action in recommending the removal of the wood roller coaster.” Then in 1991, the coaster won an Orchid for being saved and restored after all. (No jury quotes available.)

1990: The San Diego Convention Center received an Orchid for architecture and an Onion for planning.

    • Onion: “What happened to waterfront access and building setbacks? Weren’t any lessons learned from the paternal twins next door [Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina hotel twin towers that did not match]? A building of this size should have been given a larger site instead of being built right on the water’s edge, blocking scenic views and easy public access to the bay.”
    • Orchid: “The architects have risen to the challenge along the bayfront and have instilled this mammoth center with a sense of lightness and emphatic imagery.”

1991: MTDB Harborview Trolley Station, a below-grade section of the trolley paralleling India Street.

    • Onion 1991: “Harbor View or Harbor Wall: After three successive Orchids for enlightening transportation planning, the frangrance must have gone to the heads of the MTDB [Metropolitan Transit Development Board, todays MTS] board. Separating the city from the bay neighborhood is not worth the traffic benefits. Let’s hope they get out of the veggie patch and back to the flower garden.”
    • Orchid, 1992: “Speak up and be heard or as the saying goes, ‘The squeaky wheel gets the oil.’ This Orchid goes to the community for insisting that the trolley be changed from an elevated structure that would block the bay view to an underground structure.”

1996: Solana Beach Train Station

    • Orchid 1996: “What a Quonset hut wishes if it could be when it grows up! What could have been a rather ungainly shape has been deftly turned into a whimsical practical piece of ‘wall-in’ sculpture. A very upbeat yet relaxed place to wait (and wait and wait some more, knowing Amtrak) for a train. Great.” “It works, it’s fun, has a tie to the history of the community, very creative.”
    • Onion 2000:¬†Grade Separation: “The grade separation of the railroad tracks from the road was deemed necessary for public safety and convenience. But its execution is like using an A-bomb to kill a fly! The enormous gash in the grounds, the concrete ramps and bleak industrial design looks like a railroad platform outside some European factory town. All concrete and gunite, there is very little vegetation to soften the hard surfaces. Is this an old zoo enclosure? Are there bears and gorillas on display here? Probably just the train passengers climbing up from the depths of this gravel pit.”

1997: The jury awarded El Cortez Hotel an Onion for historic preservation, in 2000 an Orchid for the conversion to a condo building, and in 2006 an Onion for the proposed tower on the balance of the block.

    • Onion, 1997: “How many times has the community of San Diego been presented with plans to revitalize this historic section of downtown, only to be disappointed? The jury awards this Onion to those past owners with their empty promises.”
    • Orchid, 2000: “A beautiful and grand restoration of the long-faded grand dame of San Diego’s skyscrapers. A vibrant classy restoration that will be the cornerstone for more residential on the best hill downtown.”
    • Onion, 2006: “This proposed project will rob Cortez Hill residents of their special relationship with their neighborhood icon, the historic El Cortez Hotel. The proposed structure is a high-density, blocky building, with virtually no outdoor space for its residents and it occupies every square inch of lot space.”

The San Diego Central Library. Photo by Darren Bradley.

1998: The jury gave the city an Onion for lack of progress on a new central library. In 2014 it gave the city an Orchid for the new library:

    • Onion, 1998: “This is an overdue notice. Why haven’t we built our new downtown library yet? There is an award-winning design for a domed library and cultural landmark waiting to be planted and nurtured downtown.”
    • Orchid, 2014: “It is a grand gesture that has created an iconic addition to the skyline of San Diego and contributed to further activation of the East Village.”

2000: eHotel Onion: The jury bestowed an Onion on this redo of the historic Riviera Hotel on Park Boulevard for painting the red brick white and adding a giant “e” on the facade. “E-gads! The horror! This beautiful brick building has been covered with a glaring white paint and a huge ‘E’ emblem that looks like some giant bird dropping. This reeks like an Onion from anywhere downtown.” Soon afterwards, the owner undid the paint job.

Contact Us

San Diego Architectural Foundation



P.O. Box 122228
San Diego, CA 92112-2228
Federal Tax ID: 95-3513927

Sign Up

Stay on top of your Architectural news

San Diego Architectural Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to education and promotion of outstanding architecture, planning and urban design throughout the San Diego region.

Get in the Mix