written by:
photos by:
March 17, 2009
Originally published in Urban Renaissance

Tired of waiting for innovative architecture to come to San Diego, this proactive architect added developer to his job description, and brought it there himself.

Segal’s urban-infill units (like the Titan shown here) eschew typical features like dysfunctional balconies and underground garages.
Segal’s urban-infill units (like the Titan shown here) eschew typical features like dysfunctional balconies and underground garages.
Photo by 
1 / 10
Architect and developer Jonathan Segal's “convertible units” are one-bedroom rental apartments with hydraulic lifts in their single-car garages, which allow two cars to be parked in one space.
Architect and developer Jonathan Segal's “convertible units” are one-bedroom rental apartments with hydraulic lifts in their single-car garages, which allow two cars to be parked in one space.
Photo by 
2 / 10
Jonathan and Wendy Segal on their master bedroom deck.
Jonathan and Wendy Segal on their master bedroom deck.
Photo by 
3 / 10
The street-facing façade. “We’re the developer, contractor, superintendent,” Segal explains. “We’re trying to go back to when the architect was the master builder and controlled everything. If I knew how to do plumbing and pour concrete, I’d do that too.”
The street-facing façade. “We’re the developer, contractor, superintendent,” Segal explains. “We’re trying to go back to when the architect was the master builder and controlled everything. If I knew how to do plumbing and pour concrete, I’d do that too.”
Photo by 
4 / 10
Segal designed the kitchen cabinets. The oven and cooktop are by Gaggenau; the sink is by Franke.
Segal designed the kitchen cabinets. The oven and cooktop are by Gaggenau; the sink is by Franke.
Photo by 
5 / 10
In the humidor-like living room, modern classics like the off-white armchairs by Hans Wegner complement pieces of Segal’s own design, such as the coffee table and long leather seating.
In the humidor-like living room, modern classics like the off-white armchairs by Hans Wegner complement pieces of Segal’s own design, such as the coffee table and long leather seating.
Photo by 
6 / 10
The industrial aesthetic of the Segals’ lounge area is softened by a white shag rug and the generous sunlight that streams through its ceiling of thick glass. The seating is by Paul Kjaerholm.
The industrial aesthetic of the Segals’ lounge area is softened by a white shag rug and the generous sunlight that streams through its ceiling of thick glass. The seating is by Paul Kjaerholm.
Photo by 
7 / 10
Upstairs, the clutter-free bedrooms of Segal’s teenagers reflect their father’s less-is-more ethos.
Upstairs, the clutter-free bedrooms of Segal’s teenagers reflect their father’s less-is-more ethos.
Photo by 
8 / 10
Apart from being visually stunning, the reflecting pool just outside of the living room also acts a sound barrier—the gurgling water cancels out traffic noise.
Apart from being visually stunning, the reflecting pool just outside of the living room also acts a sound barrier—the gurgling water cancels out traffic noise.
Photo by 
9 / 10
Matthew sets about finishing his latest knitting project while lounging on furniture of his dad’s design. A sound system and lighting by Halo are recessed into the ceiling.
Matthew sets about finishing his latest knitting project while lounging on furniture of his dad’s design. A sound system and lighting by Halo are recessed into the ceiling.
Photo by 
10 / 10
Segal’s urban-infill units (like the Titan shown here) eschew typical features like dysfunctional balconies and underground garages.
Segal’s urban-infill units (like the Titan shown here) eschew typical features like dysfunctional balconies and underground garages.
Project 
Segal Residence

Jonathan Segal’s message is clear: Keep it simple. Segal’s cut-the-middleman, screw-the-red-tape philosophy is straight out of Ayn Rand, and his fervor for urban infill development is flat-out evangelical. After a few minutes of listening to the 43-year-old architect/developer’s spiel, whole new vistas open up: You know that weed-choked lot across from your favorite coffeehouse? With a little imagination and elbow grease, it could be a gold mine.

Segal’s fiefdom is the formerly blighted section of downtown San Diego known as Little Italy (conveniently near the newly minted East Village). Since 1988, the native Californian has designed and built 245 smart, modern, and relatively eco-friendly rental units on odd and otherwise undesirable lots in and around the area, then turned them over to his wife Wendy to manage. “Control is everything,” says Segal about their landlord duties—and his aversion to private clients: “I’m making this wonderful widget. And when the day is done, I don’t want to give you the widget. I want to profit from it.”

As we tool around the neighborhood in Segal’s convertible, a beefy fellow developer in a big, black SUV leans out his window and shouts, only half-menacingly, “I thought we got rid of you!” as Segal smiles and waves. It’s an interesting turnabout. Segal was among the first to build here, when the area was all but abandoned by local land barons. Now that their soaring high-rises and Disneyfied condo blocks dwarf Segal’s airy lofts and two-story row houses, one of those same developers is buying him out—for a sum Segal would rather not publicize, but which is mighty enough to add “banker” to his list of roles. (All but a few of Segal’s rentals will be turned into condos. Control may be everything, but cash is king.)

Some call Segal the Tony Robbins of urban infill, but he’s more like a mini Donald Trump with a conscience. Segal’s units brim with money-saving and socially progressive ideas, in equal proportion: Grassy courtyards replace “stupid balconies.” His row houses are “convertible housing,” meaning their bottom floors can also be used as granny flats (one-bedroom, low-income rentals) or retail space—a nifty bit of social engineering that also guarantees tenant stability. In his Lusso Lofts, some street-level flats are used as Pilates studios or furniture workshops, creating the very environment that makes Segal’s other nearby buildings attractive to young urbanites. It’s a viral business model, and it works.

Segal ticks off a laundry list of money-saving, better-living elements of his urban designs: “Eliminate stair towers, eliminate elevators. The whole idea of underground parking is sacrilegious to us.” Case in point: Right next to one of Segal’s larger loft buildings is a similarly sized condo box by a rival developer. Whereas Segal’s tenants enter from the street into a sunny parking court lined with crushed gravel, their neighbors descend into a dank underground garage, a barred steel gate guarding its maw. “Think of the creepiest person you’ve met,” says Segal, “then imagine being stuck in a four-by-six-foot box with them. It’s called an elevator.”

Of course, Segal didn’t invent lofts, row houses, or infill—which is kind of the idea. He’s adamant that smart, simple housing can be built for a lot less than big, bad apartment blocks, which makes him more than a little frustrated. “Our stuff is less expensive than sucky architecture,” he fumes, “but you can’t mandate good design.” And what about the arcane zoning regulations, obstreperous NIMBYs, and bureaucratic molasses that usually cut progressive urban architecture off at the knees? Segal is appropriately vague when asked how he gets the copious variances and permits that allow his more interesting ideas to flourish; one suspects it’s a combination of architect’s charm and developer’s clout.

Segal also designs and builds his own home/offices, and sells them off when the next generation rolls around. His most recent—version 5.0—tackles the unique challenges of its site: the tony seaside community of La Jolla, just north of San Diego. In La Jolla, there’s no such thing as affordable housing and, one would think, no lot so undesirable that it fits Segal’s infill criteria. Yet in 2002, he found exactly that on the site of a former Shell gas station, a mucky, triangular brownfield that jutted into La Jolla’s most heavily trafficked intersection.

From busy Prospect Street, which funnels cars down to La Jolla’s shoppe-clogged main drag, Segal’s house—completed in June 2003 and dubbed the Prospect—is a blur. But as seen from the more neighborhoody south side, it’s an elegant modern presence in La Jolla’s clunky mix of Spanish-style mansions, block-long malls, and incongruous single-family bungalows.

“We tried to make some sense of the strange geometry,” says Segal of the isthmus, which he filled with rectangular stucco and Cor-ten steel volumes that utilize as much acreage as possible, without resorting to unusual (and expensive) custom shapes.

A series of bulwarks protects the living areas from street noise and looky-loos: First are the nine-foot outer walls. The city of San Diego wanted Segal to knock them down to the civic standard of three feet, but after some gentle arm-twisting, they agreed to accommodate the walls behind landscaping that reached the 36-inch limit. Though Segal finds even this regulation “stupid,” it turned out to be an improvement, as the sloping berm and drought-resistant plantings soften the building’s silhouette.

Behind the Prospect Street wall is a separate guest house, accessed from the main house by a path that leads past a narrow pool. The quarters are monklike in their privacy, and feature a tiny, high-walled outdoor courtyard that provides visitors a personal open-air space for meditation, yoga, or a furtive cigarette.

Segal installed the reflecting/lap pool as another sound barrier—the gurgling water cancels out traffic noise. The walkway past it feels like a drawbridge into the main house, an open, L-shaped volume of living/dining/kitchen sheathed in dark Sapelli wood panels—including the ceiling. “There’s no drywall,” notes Segal. “It’s all sup-posed to feel like one big cabinet.” The live-in humidor effect is softened by a shag rug in the living area and walls of thick glass on both sides that fill the room with light.

The lower level of the house includes a family room, with a projection TV and pool table. It also contains  Segal’s former office space, a subterranean room with a tempered-glass ceiling that looks up to a sun-filled side yard. The former office is being transformed into a ’70s-style “love lounge,” complete with a wet bar.

The grassy yard on the quieter south side of the house leads to a perfectly square stand of pear trees near the lot’s narrowest point that, when fully grown, will provide a shady, Italianate canopy. On one stucco wall of the yard, Segal projects movies in the summer; on another is an outdoor gas fireplace of his own design. Segal’s nods to environmental responsibility include drought-tolerant landscaping, solar water heating for the pool, and photovoltaic cells on the roof.

Outside the master bedroom is a deck where you can enjoy the ocean view—if you can ignore the traffic noise. “I’m not a big view guy,” admits Segal. “But at night it’s great to sit up here and have martinis.”

Affixed to the prow of the Prospect is an abstract metal sculpture by Malcolm Leland, an 82-year-old artist who also worked with Los Angeles architectural icon Richard Neutra in the 1950s. To an Angeleno, the bauble is ironically reminiscent of the dingbat style of L.A. apartment buildings, those mid-century stucco boxes with names like Ultra Encino and the Galaxie that augment their sculptural titles with retro doodads, recalling overgrown Nelson clocks or metallic macramé.

But Segal doesn’t quite get the reference, and seems uncomfortable with it. He’s not about thumbing his nose at stuffy, old-money La Jolla, nor is his architectural practice ironic in the least. Segal enjoys the rewards of his success: a Porsche in his garage, a couple of motorcycles, armloads of awards for his contributions to the San Diego skyline. But what he craves most are architectural kudos. For all his business triumphs, Segal not so secretly wants to be considered an artist.

But there’s no Pritzker Prize for balancing a checkbook. Segal’s greatest gift to contemporary urban architecture is his empirical proof that smart design can be good for people—and even better for the bottom line. 

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
angular
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016
amaroso40040
When a garage damaged by termites had to go, a studio emerges.
June 19, 2016
the blue lagoon iceland geothermal spa hotel water visitors
The famed geothermal spa outside Reykjavík, Iceland, is entering a major new phase—paving the way for the area’s first five-star hotel.
June 19, 2016
heaven on earth maya lin topography what is missing california academy sciences wood video
A new monograph by Rizzoli explores the memorial project by the renowned artist.
June 19, 2016