Dylan Chappell has come full-circle from his Ventura College days. Studying in the college’s architecture program, Chappell went on to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, to complete his degree and become a licensed architect. With his own architecture firm, Dylan Chappell Architects based in Carpinteria, which employs three people, he is overseeing the design of a new restaurant and brewery in Ventura across from the college and Foster’s Freeze, one of his first projects in the city.
Chappell’s successors, the architecture students at Ventura College, will hold a showcase on May 19 at 5 p.m. offering a glimpse into their own work as well as a chance to see the college’s facilities for the program, which has, over time, served as a pipeline to the Cal Poly program. It’s where Chappell got his start. But at a time when people in Ventura County and beyond are rethinking livable space, transportation and how to merge the burgeoning needs of millennials and aging baby boomers alike, it’s also a place where re-thinking what lies ahead is happening on a grand scale.
“Ventura College was fantastic for me,” Chappell, 38, said. “My dad is a contractor and I worked for him. I didn’t really have plans to go to college, but I started at V.C. and my dad suggested I take a few architecture classes.” He and several friends went through the program together, moved to San Luis Obispo and graduated from Cal Poly in 2006. “I opened my own firm, and just recently we decided to change the software we use so I went back and took a class at V.C. again. I really did come full-circle,” he said.
It’s not an easy job, however. “You’re dealing with so many different agencies and bureaus that it’s very hard to bring a project to completion,” Chappell said. “To make projects actually happen isn’t as easy as drawing something up and getting it built.”
Ralph Fernandez is head of the architecture program at Ventura College and a licensed architect. Chappell was in his classes and Fernandez taught the latest class that Chappell took recently.
“We really teach twofold,” Fernandez said. “We teach practical aspects of architecture for employment, like technical computer skills, how to work as a team and all that. We also teach how to be competitive at a university, and we focus on both design and quality as well as the academics to get there,” he said.
Fernandez said that it’s also important that his students recognize that the work they produce has quality and aesthetic.
“A strong architecture program in our county means, hopefully, that our county benefits and gets quality building projects.”
Nicholas Deitch teaches in the college’s program as well and runs Mainstreet Architects in Ventura.
“The challenge of being an architect in Ventura County is maintaining the balance between suburban and rural,” he said. “If you look at what happened in Orange County and the sprawl there, that happened unconsciously. But we’ve been more conscious of sprawl and its negative impacts in the last 25 years or so.”
Deitch, 59, grew up in Hawthorne, California, and went to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. He said that Ventura County is a sort of medium between the two. “We live in a place where people really don’t trust change, and for good reason. The root of that, though, is not understanding what good urbanism is.”
For Deitch, urbanism is living closer together in communities where the public space is just as important as the private space, and people are in walking distance to plazas and squares and parks.
“This is not a new idea,” Deitch said. “This is how people built cities before 1930, before the car dominated. But it’s a completely foreign idea in Southern California, where the dialogue includes things like should we allow three stories, because people are afraid of buildings being too big and too crowded.”
In that way, Ventura County has itself fallen prey to sprawl that shuts out agricultural areas or, at least, has forced both residential and agricultural to be right next to one another, limiting what kinds of buildings can be built and creating strange bedfellows at best.
“But that’s my passion,” said Deitch. “Creating and reinforcing communities that are walkable, livable and healthy to live in.”
That communities might have such an option is also a foreign idea, according to Deitch. The automobile has staked its claim in Southern California, and it’s one reason why such things as Elon Musk’s driverless cars send most Southern Californians into a panic.
Mainstreet Architects is in the process of practicing Deitch’s passion for urbanism in several areas of Ventura that has, as yet, not been made public.
“The first project is called Laurel Court and it’s on Front and Laurel streets, near The Wharf. It’s about as urban as we can get in Ventura,” Deitch said. The project is a combination of all the things that architecture can be. Parking is underneath the project and on the street. It’s part of the downtown-specific plan in Ventura and it’s a combination of mixed-use residential and business as well as having a courtyard, and it’s in walking distance of downtown and the beach. “This is anti-sprawl,” Deitch said.
The second is the iconic Top Hat location where Deitch was challenged to keep a piece of the city’s history beloved by so many. It, too, fulfills the urbanism creed.
“The community wants that Top Hat so badly that the owner has agreed to keep it and let us design around it,” he said. Since 2006, the owner of the property has been trying to revamp it and give it new life. But as it is near the San Buenaventura Mission with archaeology going on for a number of years, getting something done proved difficult. “Being an architect in Ventura means working on these projects that are like lightning rods,” Deitch said.
The design for the Top Hat space includes a full mixed-use facility in what Deitch said is an important location in the heart of downtown Ventura. The new space will have residences above and shops down below with parking behind the building. “I’m really excited about it, actually. Everyone I have shared both projects with says, ‘Oh, wow, yes!’ ” he said.
Mainstreet Architects employs 13 people, four of whom are registered architects and another four are graduate architects.
“The crash of 2007 sent a lot of architects running for the hills. It was hard on this field,” Deitch said. “One of the challenges we have is that building can move at a snail’s pace, and projects move to profit so slowly. It’s hard to keep the engine stoked.”
Deitch loves teaching architecture at Ventura College — and he’s not just teaching how to move the mouse and adapt to the software.
“I’m teaching hand-sketching for architecture students. I still spend time talking about how, in the age of computers, it’s still really important to draw with your hand,” he said.
Drawing, Deitch said, is the key to the idea. The computer has limitations that become immediately apparent for most designers. The proverbial drawing on the placemat or napkin is still a very real thing.
Deitch has also had more than 30 interns come from Ventura College over the years, and has hired a few graduates as well. One of those is Gregory Moore, 26, a drafter and a graduate of both Ventura College and the University of Oregon’s architecture program.
“I put to paper the ideas that Nick and his partner, Debra (Guthrie), come up with,” said Moore. “It’s true what they say; you should always carry a pen with you — that’s when the ideas happen. Typically, it’s working on improving the work you’re assigned to.”
Moore graduated from Oxnard High School, where drafting classes, now long gone, were on their way out.
“I remember, in one class, I drew and designed a wood block; and the next day, we got to go and make that block, cut it and shape it. I remember holding it in my hand and was just sort of amazed,” Moore said. It set him on the path to Ventura College, where he went into Fernandez’s program and then on to Oregon. “There’s really something about it that I love, putting fresh ideas into older neighborhoods. I’m optimistic about it.”
Fernandez, too, is optimistic. “Our program is growing every year and more people are coming, but it’s also true that a lot of people don’t know about our program. It’s not just for architects, either. Drafting is applicable to everything. If it wasn’t made by nature, someone drew it, and having those skills is important,” he said.
But Fernandez is also optimistic about Ventura County and the changes that are surely coming. “Working as an architect and teaching in the county allows me to bring real life experiences to the students who are also from this county,” he said. “These people are getting to know those who will be their contacts and neighbors. We’re going to design quality communities.”