A Brief History of the Monterey Design Conference

Julia Morgan Building

By Tim Culvahouse, FAIA
with thanks to Shelly Kappe, Hon. AIA; Paul Welch, Hon. AIA; David Meckel, FAIA Robert Ivy, FAIA


Entering its fourth decade, the Monterey Design Conference (MDC) brings together the country’s—and the world’s—leading architects and design thinkers for an intellectually vibrant weekend at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California. It emerged out of the 1978 AIA California Council Annual Meeting in Orange County, which the AIA California Council president, the late George Bissell, had dedicated to the theme of “design.” Bissell, “the father of MDC,” anointed a dynamic trio of co-chairs—Ray Kappe, FAIA, Timothy Vreeland, FAIA, and Bernard Zimmerman, FAIA, who conceived an ambitious format that anticipated today’s Pecha Kucha events: Groups of invited architects gave four-minute talks on their work in parallel sessions; each session had a designated recorder; and, at the end of the day, everyone got together and shared the results in a common “wrap-up” session.

Spurred by the excitement of that meeting, the AIACC inaugurated its first dedicated design conference the following year. Conference Chair Richard Saul Wurman—who went on to found the TED Conferences—dubbed it “Design 101,” inviting architects from the three states served by Highway 101 (California, Oregon, and Washington) to gather at the Monterey Convention Center. Held annually for its first few years, Design 101 soon outgrew its downtown facilities and in the mid-1980s moved to Asilomar, gaining both generous space and a glorious bayside setting amidst the buildings of Julia Morgan and John Carl Warnecke.

Designed by designers for designers, the now biennial MDC brings together a virtual Who’s Who of the design world in the remarkably intimate space of Morgan’s Merrill Hall, where every session is a plenary session. Presenters and participants alike comfortably span the generations. Around the turn of the millennium, David Meckel introduced a “Tribal Elders” session, which has since featured Pierre Koenig, Sym van der Ryn, Ray Kappe, Warren Callister and Jack Hillmer, William Krisel, and Paffard Keatinge-Clay. At the other reach of the career trajectory, the conference features “Emerging Talent,” future leaders of the profession. A film focused on some aspect of design culture, sometimes accompanied by the maker or the subject, provides an additional dimension to festivities. Shared meals and after-hours gatherings carry the discussion deep into the night.

Robert Ivy, former editor-in-chief of Architectural Record and long-time MDC master of ceremonies, sums up the remarkable fellowship that is the Monterey Design Conference:

“Asilomar’s unique location—adjacent to the Pacific in a grove of trees, where wood smoke mingles with the salt spray—invites casual conversation, relaxation, and stimulation in a natural setting that encourages friendship and expansive thought.”

Asilomar Conference Center Grounds