Originally published in the La Jolla Light, December 2018
Jim Alcorn and Paul Benton have touched the lives of millions of San Diegans during the span of their careers, yet most do not know them by name. Both are the hands behind countless projects in and around San Diego and La Jolla since the 1970s.
For Paul, before his career began, he worked alongside his dad, a San Diego civil engineer. When he was just 16 and a La Jolla High School student, he found himself picking up soil samples at job sites and identifying rock formations for various building projects. From the first steps of soil classification and testing, his father taught him parts of the civil engineering profession and introduced him to the design professions that would serve through his professional life. And it would always bring him back to his community: his son Andrew has been continuing that work serving the design needs of San Diego.
When the time came for college, Benton wanted to study architecture. But his parents had a different plan for his studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He followed in his dad’s footsteps and pursued his civil engineering degree. And then he followed his dream to earn an architecture degree.
Today he is both a Registered Professional Engineer and a licensed Architect. The dual professions have given him both the technical and creative skills to visualize complex structural details and to follow through on his architectural designs.
Until 2010 when James Alcorn approached Benton about merging their two practices, Benton had worked for years as an architect and civil engineer, a city planning director, and in private practice as an architect.
Alcorn’s desire to change the scale of his practice and Benton’s decision to grow his practice came together perfectly.
“Jim and I had developed a friendship over the years and we enjoyed sharing ideas. We even had collaborated on a few projects together. Joining our firms made sense,” Benton said. “We could see that we are better off together than as individuals.”
Their design visions complement each other, he added. “We have very few skills that overlap. Jim is a modernist, and I am kind of the opposite. I can design a 17th Century barn,” Benton said. “Jim is a true artist – he has the gift of free-hand sketching beautiful architectural drawings and concepts on the spot.”
Both men have used their expertise to serve the community. Alcorn is currently Vice President of the La Jolla Historical Society and co-chair of the society’s Facilities Committee. He previously served as co-chair of the La Jolla Merchant’s Association design board. Benton was serving as chairman of the La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee and recently completed nine years of service on the La Jolla Shores Planned District Advisory Board.
A history of prestige
Each architect has experienced many of their own successes.
Alcorn, who was educated at University of California Berkeley, then a master’s at Yale University, has a portfolio that reaches all the way to Northern California. Some of his most prominent work includes the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum Complex, the Ventura County Government Center and the Brea Civic/Cultural Center. Locally, Alcorn is proud of the classic building for Margaret’s Cleaners, the townhomes on Herschel Avenue, and the nearly completed Green Dragon upscale townhomes. Alcorn’s work has been recognized with many AIA Regional & Local Design Awards.
Benton’s career involves a list of significant projects in Southern California, some at institutions such as San Diego State University and University of California San Diego, and has managed projects for the Port District of San Diego, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the renovation of St. James Church, Burns Drugs and several hotel renovations, plus numerous commercial and high-end residential projects.
Because of his affinity for working with artists, Benton has incorporated his passion for art into his projects. During his career, he has designed cutting edge smart classrooms, brought art to life, and has created accessible and flexible spaces.
Both Alcorn and Benton realize that their tasks rely on the wishes of their clients. For the present it seems that Alcorn & Benton are experiencing new challenges in historic preservation. “I don’t want to preserve and restore a building to the period. I think it is much better to adapt the building so its use is relevant, so the new users are not a servant to the time period,” he said. “For me the true test of design is: Did the client get everything they want? Even if it is years later, does it still mean something?”
Looking back, his appointment as senior engineer for the renovation and expansion project at San Diego International Airport in the 1990s is a source of pride for him. “I reported directly to the chief engineer. It was a great project, a once in a lifetime project, and it was the largest capital project in the county,” he reflected. “And we had a great team and a great experience.”
The future holds exciting new projects, too. One of his current projects – to design the structure that will house an electron microscope at UCSD – has recharged him. This project has created a need for him to learn new concepts and to stretch himself professionally as he adheres to strict guidelines for the building related to temperature, stray lighting and air flow.
“Every now and then you get a challenge to go back and relearn the basics,” he reflected. “When you get to the heart of the technical issues, you can find a truly new way to invent something new and useful”
The family legacy continues
Paul’s son Andrew joined Alcorn & Benton in 2003 as a project manager.
A graduate of the University of North Carolina’s business school, Andrew assists in running the operations of the business and manages numerous projects. His duties include working with state and local permit offices, maintaining the schedules for planning and development, incorporating technical matters into the application and review process, and creating innovative solutions to changes and problems in the field.
Andrew, who Paul refers to as a “tremendous designer and a most curious project manager”, manages the designs and prepares renderings. He also brings an expansive knowledge of technology and programming.
“He is the field contact, the client contact who can also handle the technical issues,” Benton said.
Andrew Benton is working closely with UCSD to upgrade the school’s earthquake simulator table in Scripps Ranch. The National Science Foundation granted the university $16.3 million. The project expands the test pads for research to more accurately simulate earthquakes.
Since joining the firm, Andrew has studied architecture under the supervision of his dad and has completed the required hours to take the licensing exams to become a licensed architect.
Reminiscent of the working relationship with his own father, Benton now is mentoring his son as they look to the future.