What is it about California that cultivated and continues to foster great architects and architecture? A temperate climate that inspires compelling relationships between indoors and out? Vast agricultural lands that supplied a blank slate to design visionaries? A collection of architecture schools that honored the house as a worthy endeavor? Maybe it was a little magazine called Arts & Architecture, sponsor of the Case Study program, or an enlightened developer/builder named Joe Eichler. Even the considerable constraints of seismic codes and environmental regulations have served as catalysts to good design. Whatever the causes, the results speak for themselves: a tradition of excellence in residential architecture.

For this year's Leadership Awards, the editors of residential architect chose three exemplary Southern California firms: Kappe Architects Planners, Hall of Fame; Koning Eizenberg Architecture, Top Firm; and Jonathan Segal, FAIA, Rising Star. For 50 years, Pacific Palisades-based Ray Kappe has practiced his own brand of modern residential design, and it's taken that long for others to learn what he's known all along: Modern architecture can be warm, earth-friendly, site-sensitive, and very livable. Transplants to Los Angeles, Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg had no reason to believe interesting architecture couldn't also be affordable. They proceeded to prove good design is indeed within reach. In San Diego, Jonathan Segal didn't see the kind of rental housing he wanted to live in, so he designed it, built it, and managed it himself.

These are three trailblazing firms that have made the path much smoother for those who come after. They are indeed true leaders and fine examples for us all to follow.

rising star: jonathan segal, faia

Jonathan Segal, FAIA, may be the world's hardest person to interview. He zooms from one conversation topic to another with the speed of a Porsche gunning down an open freeway, leaving you mentally gasping for breath. By the time he's gotten to the end of his verbal maneuvers, you've forgotten your original question.

While it's daunting to a journalist, this talent for internal multitasking has fueled the 42-year-old Segal to the top of the architect-developer pack. "I have to be doing a lot of things at once," he admits. "I'm hyper, I guess." He needs to be, to handle his roles as architect, developer, and contractor of residential and mixed-use communities throughout downtown San Diego. Since his first development in 1990, Segal has created 16 high-design, small-scale downtown projects containing a total of 275 housing units. With the help of his wife and business partner, Wendy, and a tiny staff, he's become a mini-mogul with a distinctly unmogul-like accomplishment: He's won a truckload of design awards.

fast lane

Segal's penchant for speed was already apparent in 1979, when the Greenville, S.C., native entered the University of Idaho on a track scholarship. Afterward he spent two years working for San Diego architect Homer Delawie, FAIA, and a couple more with Antoine Predock's San Diego office. Then a real estate investor whom he met in an elevator offered him a throwaway downtown lot for $5,000, and Segal's entrepreneurial side found a venue to come out and play. The seven row homes he designed and developed in 1990, 7 on Kettner, sold briskly, just before a dive in local real estate values. The project showed lenders that a downtown housing market did exist in this traditionally un-urban city, and eventually won Segal his first of several AIA San Diego Awards.

He and Wendy developed three more downtown housing projects over the next few years, always with Jonathan as the architect. They didn't worry much about conventional market wisdom. "We've never thought about 'what will sell,'" he says. "We've always developed our architecture from what we thought was right: urban residential and mixed-use buildings." Wendy, who manages the 141 rental units they currently own, remembers the on-the-fly nature of their business' early days. "We used credit cards a lot, and we did a lot of juggling," she says. "We had very supportive investors to whom we gave a big piece of the pie."

In 1997 the Segals tried something different. Jonathan teamed with a group of other local architects, including Rob Wellington Quigley, FAIA, and McCormick, Smith and Others, to revitalize a block in downtown's Little Italy neighborhood. Each architect designed part of the mixed-use project, which garnered national acclaim as a new model for urban development. Segal's widely published portion, 16 fee-simple townhomes known as Kettner Row, represented the maturing of an idea he'd experimented with in previous projects: the notion of "convertible" housing. Just like his multi-track mind, his ideal residence can serve more than one purpose simultaneously. The units at Kettner Row feature private-entrance ground floors that can be used as retail or office spaces or rented out as separate apartments.

Kettner Row's success established Segal as a true player in the downtown housing market, and he never looked back. He continues to explore live/work arrangements in many of his projects. "Jonathan has been really influential in creating a good example of live/work units activating the street," says Garry Papers, AIA, manager of architecture and planning at San Diego's nonprofit Centre City Development Corp. "Downtown is generally becoming more pedestrian and more urban, and that's something he has contributed to."

well-oiled machine

Segal's architecture and planning undergo a continuous refinement. Always designed in a Modern vein, his buildings have grown progressively sleeker and more simple. Where an older project might contain an ornamental gate or light fixture, he's stripped his newer jobs of all that to concentrate on pure form and material. He's also removed underground parking, double-loaded corridors, and elevators from his work. "They're all very inhumane ways of architects designing buildings to create an interactive environment," he says. "Take an elevator. It puts people who don't know each other well in a small box. Why would I ever want to do that?" Now parking takes place in central courtyards, hallways are single-loaded, and, because few of Segal's buildings are more than four stories, residents take the stairs. "By entering our front door on our stoop, we see the neighbors coming in and out," says landscape architect Marty Poirier, who lives at Kettner Row. "It's better for the community."

Along with his design sensibilities, Segal constantly tweaks the way he does business. Put off by California's "strict liability" laws for condominiums, he stopped developing condos in 1996. Since then he's focused on rental buildings, with an occasional fee-simple, for-sale job thrown in. His reach within San Diego has expanded from the Marina district and Little Italy to the East Village/Gaslamp Quarter, and most recently to Golden Hill, a rolling enclave on the edge of downtown. Filled with old Victorian and Craftsman-style houses, the neighborhood will soon be home to two Segal projects: The Union, which combines 20 lofts and 5,000 square feet of office space, and K Lofts, a nine-unit adaptive reuse of a former Circle K grocery store.

After a couple of contractor debacles in 1999, Segal decided to start doing his own general contracting. This new wrinkle has given him and the local architects he often works with on a consulting basis, including Guillermo Tomaszewski and Sebastian Mariscal, even more design freedom. "The latitude we have is unparalleled," he says. "We make big art with our hands. We can continue to refine it as it's getting built." Right now he's working on an unusual (for him) project: a custom home for a client who is using an outside contractor. "If there's a problem with how something's being done on one of our regular projects, we can go directly to the person who's responsible for it," he says. "The loss of that control on the house I'm doing now scares me."

budget living

Contracting has given Segal's restless mind the chance to investigate new uses for standard building materials. The budgets on his rental projects are incredibly tight. The 22 units at The Titan, built in 2003, cost $87 per square foot to construct, and they rent for $900 to $1,900 a month. The average monthly rent for one of his units is $1,300, which is moderate for downtown San Diego. But Segal is by no means a large-scale developer; the biggest project he's done is 37 units. He simply doesn't have the deep pockets of a national company, so he's got to keep his building costs as low as possible. What renters sacrifice in high-end materials they gain in style and spatial quality, the value of which can't be overestimated. But perhaps it can be estimated: He's recently been approached by several developers interested in buying his rental properties and converting them into for-sale housing. "They think they can sell them for 20 to 30 percent above average prices," he says, but he's still mulling the offers.

Regardless of the outcome, he'll continue to use his favorite cost-effective goodies, such as ground and polished concrete slab floors, commercial storefront windows, and the rusted mild steel he calls "the poor man's Cor-Ten." He hopes to replace interior stucco and drywall altogether with concrete block and plywood, and inserts two-story volumes into most of his rentals. "By distorting a small space, by making it taller, you get a better feeling," he says. And he dreams of simplifying the building process enough to mass-produce a 20-by-25-foot urban box, making it into a kit of parts that anyone, anywhere could buy.

According to Segal, his life changes every two years. He, Wendy, and their teenage kids, Matthew and Brittany, have lived in many of his developments. Last year they left Little Italy for a house Segal designed in the posh suburb of La Jolla, motivated by a desire to place Brittany in one of the area's top-notch public schools.

Though he's no longer a city dweller, Segal is in no danger of losing his urban roots. True to form, he situated his new house directly across the street from La Jolla's downtown--right in the middle of the action.