The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's MIX exhibit isn't a typical architecture show. It purposely avoids being a comprehensive survey of work in the region, instead focusing on a handful of innovative practitioners. "We chose only seven firms, and there are more people in San Diego doing interesting things," says assistant curator Lucía Sanromán. The nine architects and designers from these seven firms "have things in common: several are architect/developer/builders, they all look to challenge the limits of construction, and several have a generational link." MIX's eclectic roster includes the locally based firms estudio teddy cruz, LUCE et Studio, Sebastian Mariscal Studio, Public, Rinehart Herbst, Lloyd Russell, Architect, and Jonathan Segal FAIA & Development Co.

Each firm received its own gallery within the museum to fit out according to its needs. "We challenged [participants] to find new ways to present their work," Sanromán explains. "We said to think about your practice holistically, and tell us who you are."

While the show does contain the usual trappings of an architecture exhibit—models, drawings, and photos—they're presented in fresh ways and supplemented with other materials. The LUCE et Studio gallery, for example, features items that have acted as design touchstones for the firm in the middle of the space. "The center of the room is about getting inside our heads," says principal Jennifer Luce, AIA.

Some of these objects were contributed by other designers she and her staff admire—including architects Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, AIA, and landscape architects Martha Schwartz, ASLA, and Andrew Spurlock, FASLA. The room's perimeter focuses on process and execution: Photos of the design and building stages of various projects form a narrow horizontal band along the gallery's walls, and a wider band shows images of the firm's finished works.

A sense of the unexpected pervades MIX. Lloyd Russell, AIA, brought in two tons of tightly packed dirt to form natural display platforms for some of his models. He also created individual project soundtracks, equipping each model with a preloaded iPod shuffle. Jonathan Segal, FAIA, included business plan information, as well as glossy images of his projects, in an effort to show the relationship between his dual roles as architect and developer. "The intention I was trying to get across was that my art is two-phased—it's the business plan combined with the architecture," he says. And a model of a house in New Mexico by husband-and-wife-team Todd Rinehart and Catherine Herbst sits inside a large black metal box that eventually will be taken to the project and used as an outdoor grill.

The MIX participants' interest in broader regional issues comes across particularly strongly in installations by Teddy Cruz of estudio teddy cruz and Jim Brown and Jim Gates of Public. Both focus on the border relationship between the United States and Mexico. "We've become more and more interested in the troubles in our region," Brown says. "We want to have a larger voice in the community."

According to Sebastian Mariscal, who built a dramatic tunnel made of 2x4s as an entrance into his gallery, the exhibition demonstrates the local public's appetite for modern design. "The most important thing is that it shows San Diego is interested in modern architecture," he says. Russell had a firsthand experience that backs up this assertion: he recently received an e-mail from an eighth-grader who told him the exhibit made her want to be an architect.

MIX runs through Sept. 7, 2009; a round table discussion featuring Luce, Mariscal, Russell, and Segal will be offered on the evening of September 3. Click here for more information on the show and the featured firms.