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Close-up: Gordon Carrier

Creating experiences, extracting emotion in architecture

Imagine walking into a building for the first time, blindfolded. Soon the blindfold comes off, and you find yourself in the middle of that building - without any people or commotion.

Now imagine that, based on what you see, you immediately feel what sort of business this particular building encapsulates: who works there, what the business contributes to society, what sort of personalities drive the company and what philosophies the company emulates.

Such is good architecture, according to Gordon Carrier.

"Our object is not so much to 'do a building' or a space, but to create an experience," said Carrier, president and principal of Carrier Johnson, an architecture and interior design firm based in San Diego that specializes in architecture, interior environments and branding strategies.

Gordon Carrier

"We began to realize that the buildings that seem to have had the greatest success for us have been the ones that were really the result of getting to know a client sufficiently, to understand their business proposition or their purpose as an entity," he said.

Now in his 30th year as president of the firm, Carrier understands that designing a building is about discerning a company's unique personality, and then manifesting that reality in the overall design.

"The idea is to haul in what the real belief system is for that particular client," he said. "We're talking about the underlying philosophy of the reason that the business separates itself from other businesses in the marketplace. If you understand that, you now have ammunition that allows you to begin the design process ... because you know how they feel, not just what they want."

To tap into those distinguishing characteristics of a client, Carrier Johnson recently acquired CULTURE, a collection of sociologists, graphic designers, product designers and journalists who consult clients and determine effective branding strategies.

While having the ability to operate independently of Carrier Johnson, CULTURE serves as a tool for the architecture firm to gather critical information about a company and apply it to its building design.

"It's dealing more with the philosophy of a client's needs before we start drawing buildings," said Carrier, calling the CULTURE acquisition a marriage of graphic and branding skills with interior environmental design.

Carrier Johnson's recent completion of Diamond View Tower downtown embodies the comprehensive experience that Carrier said is critical to good design.

He described how the base of the building, comprised largely of retail, "emulates the history of the area" with its warehouse-style look -- something that points back to the city's historic warehouse district.

The building's cutting-edge glass and metal tower, on the other hand, glances toward the future with what Carrier calls "a very modern statement about technology and space uses." This juxtaposition of the past and future, Carrier said, shows that the building "lives in a very special place, and it can share peculiar experiences because of where it is."

Additionally, Carrier mentioned his firm's involvement in what he coined "probably the city's most intensive mixed-use project to be done yet" -- the $300 million, single block project at Seventh Avenue and Market Street downtown that will feature a 220-room hotel, an African-American cultural arts center, restaurants, retail, apartments and for-sale condos. Set to collaborate on the project with New York-based developer Related Cos. as well as CityLink Investment Corp., Carrier Johnson is in "early design" at this point.

The 42-story building will comprise 660,000 square feet and enjoy a view of the ballpark looking down Eighth Avenue.

"We created a series of terraces that look back at the ballpark that have the circulation systems of all these different users coming together on outdoor platforms," said Carrier of the model design that his firm will employ. "It's a huge development ... and we're excited to be the designer."

Looking ahead, Carrier spoke of the vitality that mixed-use developments will bring to San Diego.

"If you're in only a housing development, what you get are people who are in the living cycle of only what you do at your home," he said. "But if you're in a place that has employment uses, cultural uses and residential uses, the frequency of movement is a much different type of frequency, and the energy is a different energy.

"And I think a lot of people are really looking for that kind of energy."

Carrier also mentioned that, while high costs can pose difficulties for architectural firms and interior designers, it also stimulates an innovation and creativity that might not otherwise emerge.

"We are believers that a good idea doesn't cost any more than a not-so-good idea," he said, pointing to a preponderance of local projects with relatively inexpensive corrugated metal panels as an example. "If (a building) has a strong idea, you can use a variety of materials to implement the idea."

The son of a carpenter, Carrier sees the parallel between creating a building and telling a story.

"Storytelling is a passion of a lot of people, and what we find is that people are more enabled to understand the architecture of something if they can understand its story," he said.

"To be able to enjoy envisioning something and seeing it become a physical reality -- there is no greater pleasure than seeing that happen."


McRoskey is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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