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The Great Indoors

The latest project by San Diego starchitect Jonathan Segal is a mind-blowing, rule-breaking palace with a subterranean car lift. Would we expect anything less?

Segal says his designs evolve to a point where “we like what we’re doing. Then we stop and say, ‘What can we remove?’” Here he removed walls and floors and replaced them with glass.

Segal says his designs evolve to a point where “we like what we’re doing. Then we stop and say, ‘What can we remove?’” Here he removed walls and floors and replaced them with glass.

The living room and dining room flow into each another.

Sliding glass doors erase any sense of enclosure.

From the master bedroom, the Segals can see and hear the ocean.

Two-story concrete panels on the south side create a rhythm rooted in nearby palm trees, Segal says, as well as some privacy and sun protection. Fit for a pharaoh, the patio’s sunbathing area is tucked far away from the street.

Segal commissioned S.D. artist Chris Puzio to design welded steel gates and safety bars. 

Once again, starchitect Jonathan Segal has moved into a glamorous new house he designed and built on a challenging lot. And yet again, although it hardly seems possible, he’s outdone himself in demonstrating how to embrace the good life, SoCal style.

Each home that Segal—a savvy architect, builder and developer—and his wife and partner, Wendy, create for themselves (there are a total of six in San Diego and a nearly finished vacation house in her native Idaho) seems more intriguing and sophisticated than the last. Their latest, a glittering, transparent box called The Cresta near the ocean in La Jolla, marks a stunning advance in Segal’s design vocabulary, with a few well-chosen quotations from Los Angeles icons of midcentury modernism.

Forget about indoor-outdoor “rooms.” The Cresta wraps around a monumental outdoor space that’s as private as it is grand. One enters the house via a dramatic procession through this space, which is outfitted with matching lounges, like something out of ancient Egypt or Rome. A reflecting pool that runs parallel to the front of the house turns a corner to become a deeper lap pool. A spiral stair leads from the Segals’ home office to a Jacuzzi on the roof. It’s sensational without being showy.

“When we open all the sliding glass doors, the house seems four times bigger,” says Segal, sounding a little awed himself.

For two decades, the peripatetic, driven and increasingly successful Segals have moved with their two kids from one innovative house of their making to the next—from ragged downtown areas to ritzy La Jolla and back again. Segal’s career has spawned dozens of live-work lofts and mixed-use buildings, which have proved to be wildly popular. The three single-family residences he’s designed and constructed are all in La Jolla on lots that others bypassed due to their odd shape or other limitations. All have basement entertainment rooms illuminated by glass floors in the living quarters above—now a breathtaking Segal hallmark—and huge sliding glass doors that, when open, turn the houses into breezy pavilions.

The Segals’ homes in La Jolla include The Prospect (2005), which they sold at top speed for top dollar at the bottom of the market, and The Cresta (2013). The third La Jolla house, which fits snugly between flanking houses yet faces the ocean, belongs to Stefan Lemperle, one of Segal’s extraordinarily rare clients. “I see it being a struggle to work with a client,” Segal says. “I’m neither geared, nor looking for, any clients.”

Another reason Segal doesn’t court clients is that he doesn’t need them to make his business go. That’s one of the advantages of owning and renting out the buildings you design, develop and build. Architect Segal might take a little loss, which he then makes up with Contractor Segal’s help. Capital rolls from one project to the next.
Segal is also anything but risk-averse. In the beginning, he and Wendy were urban pioneers in redevelopment zones that weren’t yet family-friendly. With Jonathan’s knack for finding oddly shaped and overlooked lots, he worked the system.

Segal’s initial efforts—7 on Kettner, which defied common wisdom by hugging railroad tracks on a triangular site, and The Brickyard—are small, multifamily projects with unique character, nonstandard floor plans and a bold, urban attitude that was then lacking in San Diego. These imaginative buildings shook up this “sleepy Navy town” by famously embracing the vitality of raucous city street life.

Segal’s designs not only sparked long waiting lists to get into his projects (which Wendy managed around the clock); he began amassing local, regional and national architecture and urban design awards, a seemingly unstoppable trend that now totals more than 60 national and local accolades. Segal himself received the 2013 Distinguished Practice Award from the American Institute of Architects California Council and a national Rising Star Award in 2004 from Residential Architecture magazine. In 2003, at age 42, Segal was San Diego’s youngest architect ever to be elected into the national AIA College of Fellows, an honor most AIA members earn late in their careers.

Now that the Segals are empty nesters, the couple divides their time between two homes with offices: the Cresta and their two-story penthouse atop The Q, their most refined mixed-use project, in Little Italy. Their kids, Matthew, 26, and Brittany, 24, live elsewhere downtown in Segal-designed lofts.

All four Segals, a strikingly handsome bunch, work together, literally building the family real-estate empire of rental lofts and, in prerecession times, condominiums. Vice President Brittany, who attended Academy of Art University in San Francisco, manages rentals and coordinates with local artists, such as Matt Devine and Chris Puzio, whom Segal seeks out to create art and ironwork for architectural settings and practical use. Vice President Matthew, a USC School of Architecture graduate, is racking up the hours he needs to become a licensed architect by working with his dad. He also recently founded Fancy Lofts, his own design-build firm.

Segal is nationally known as a wizard who wears the three hats many architects would like to don. He’s developed an eight-hour class called Architect as Developer, which attracted 700 wannabe architect-developers in L.A. and 600 in Washington, D.C., last year. Last July, he launched the same course on the Internet and he’s so far gotten 230 takers.

“I enjoy helping other people learn about taking control,” he says. “Architecture rules.”