While architects Jim Brown, AIA, and Jim Gates specialize in designing buildings, they also enjoy creating and studying public art. Their appropriately named San Diego firm, Public, combines both disciplines at The Lofts at 655 Sixth Avenue, now under construction in the city's busy Gaslamp Quarter. A glass-and-aluminum skin projecting four feet out from the project's windowed west façade will act as both a sunscreen and a canvas for large-scale murals. “It became necessary to have something [for the sun] because the long exposure faces west,” Brown says. “We also saw it as an art opportunity.”

Public's concept calls for covering both the skin and the building itself in a translucent film imprinted with photographic images. The firm will select one artist to create two murals, with the idea that each set of images will play off the other in a way that will intrigue—and provoke reflection by—residents and passersby. The layered scheme adds a level of complexity to the building's otherwise straightforward elevations.

The Lofts' all-concrete structure will house 103 units, as well as underground parking and a ground-floor Portuguese restaurant. Many of the units open out onto balconies; those on the northwest corner feature sliding glass doors that roll all the way back, opening the space up to the outdoors. The studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments (along with one three-bedroom unit) range in size from 400 square feet to 1,300 square feet and will rent for about $1,250 to $2,500 per month.

The project's eye-catching artwork will begin to fade after seven to 10 years, freeing developer OliverMcMillan to commission new murals. “The building will always be changing and current,” Brown explains. It will evolve with the times, just like the city itself.