Becoming the world’s only accidental architect.
From the cover of Sam Weller’s Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.
I first met Ray Bradbury while writing a feature story for the Chicago Tribune magazine in 2000, the year he turned eighty, and we quickly bonded over our shared childhood experiences (roughly fifty years apart) growing up in northern Illinois, as well as in Southern California. We had a remarkable number of things in common and a similar sense of curiosity and a joie de vivre, and we began to work together closely, as I became his authorized biographer.
For two years, from early 2010 to April 2012, Ray had an essay that he wanted to work on each time we met. It was always one of the first things he mentioned—“Can we work on my architecture essay today?”
Despite the fact that he had written about his work in the field of architecture in his book of essays, Yestermorrow, and I had surveyed his work extensively in my biography, Ray was resolved to get the entirety of his creations in the field of architecture down in one essay. He wanted me to submit it to Architectural Digest. The essay was never completed—it was never quite right, because he always had more memories or thoughts he wanted to add to it. And it was rough, having been dictated over many months. Even on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, with guests in the house, he called me into his den and asked me to record a new section. And the very last time I saw him, less than two months before he passed, he asked me again to help him finish it. There was something vital about this essay to Ray Bradbury—he wanted, I think, to prove to the world his influence on the field of architecture. Whatever the case, he very much wanted this essay published. It is presented here and in Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, in rough form, for the very first time. —Sam Weller
How did I become an architect? It was all a happy accident. I suspect it began when I was three years old, living in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1923. My grandfather influenced me by showing me architecture. He had pictures of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. I looked at these pictures through an old stereopticon, a Viewmaster, and I could see all the old, beautiful buildings.
When I was five, my grandfather influenced me yet again. And I think this caused me to go on and to eventually influence other people and to start thinking about public spaces and buildings myself. My grandfather was so important. When I was around five years old, he showed me a copy of the magazine Harper’s Weekly. It was an issue from around 1899, and it contained a story by H. G. Wells called “When the Sleeper Wakes.” The story had marvelous illustrations showing the cities of tomorrow. They were so beautiful. I fell in love with those pictures. They burned into my subconscious.
In the fall of 1953, when I was thirty-three, I had just finished writing Fahrenheit 451. I went off with my wife and two young daughters to France, and England, and eventually to Ireland, to write the screenplay of Moby Dick for John Huston.
When we arrived in London, we walked around town in the fog one night and we went to 221B Baker Street, and there was nothing there. I said, “My God! This is terrible! This is where Sherlock Holmes lived! There should be something here to indicate that this is where he lived.”
So the next day, I wrote to Scotland Yard, and I said, “You have to put a sign where Sherlock Holmes once lived!” And then I wrote to the consort of Queen Elizabeth. I knew he loved Conan Doyle. I said to the consort, “Arrange to have a sign put at 221B Baker Street, indicating that’s where Sherlock Holmes lived.” Today, as I understand it, there is not only a sign—there is an entire museum dedicated to Sherlock Holmes. And the underground Tube stop at Baker Street indicates it as well. So maybe, in a way, I began as an architect then.
A few years later, in the early 1960s, around the time of the publication of my novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, a young man working at the Disney studio saw an article that I wrote about a new edition put out by Bantam Books of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. I wrote the introduction to that book and in it, I compared the author of Moby-Dick to the author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Herman Melville and Jules Verne. I called it “The Ardent Blasphemers.” That young man at Disney sent that article to his friends in New York City who were, at that time, helping build the New York World’s Fair, and they read the introduction and they came to Los Angeles a month later and they knocked on the door, and I opened the door and they said, “Mr. Bradbury, shall we tell you why we are here?”
I said, “Why?”
“We are here to give you a fifty-million-dollar building.” I said, “What!? Come in, come in!”
So I brought them into the house and I said, “Why are you telling me this?”
They told me that they had just read my introduction about Jules Verne and Herman Melville in the Bantam edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “We think you are the most American of all writers,” they said, “and we want you to work with us and help us build the United States Pavilion at the World’s Fair, which will be opening in two years. They asked me if I could write an eighteen-page script on the history of America with a full symphony orchestra.
I said, “Yes, I can do that.”
By God, they put me to work. I wrote the script and when it was finished they recorded it with a full symphony orchestra, and when they built the United States Pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, at the center of it all was my program. So I became an architect, not realizing I would become one. The whole top floor of the U.S. Pavilion was the history of America starting five hundred years ago and coming forward through time, through Founding Fathers and the American Revolution and it ended on our possible voyage into outer space. So I helped create this, and it was my first job as a sort of architect.
A few years later, Walt Disney and his people came to me and said, “We are going to build a future city called EPCOT. Will you help us?” I said, “I will do that.” And so they told me about a great building they were planning called Spaceship Earth, and they asked if I would write the metaphors for the program inside. It would be a voyage through the history of the Earth. Not the history of America, as I had done at the 1964 World’s Fair, but the history of all mankind, starting with Adam and Eve and coming up through the Neanderthal man and then into the procreation of the various races of man all over the world. The Disney people said, “If you provide us with the metaphor and the poetry, we will place it at the center of Spaceship Earth.”
So sure enough, back in 1982, EPCOT opened, and Spaceship Earth was at the center of it all. Once again, I had become a designer, an architect, writing the script that would provide the blueprint for the interior of the centerpiece at EPCOT.
When they designed the Orbitron at Disney Paris, they hired me again to consult. I told them that the rockets should fly one against the other, in separate directions, so when they met, they met at greater speeds. And that’s the way they built it. They are planning a Disneyland in China. I believe, rather than the Matterhorn ride at the center of the park, they should build a giant dragon coming down a mountain, and people ride down the tail and along the back and all across this giant mythical beast.
All of this work with the Disney people over the decades began because of that one young man and the love the Disney people had for me.
So then, in the years following my work for the Disney people on the 1964 World’s Fair, I became worried about the way Los Angeles was looking. It was falling apart at the seams. In 1970, I wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine re-creating the center of L.A. called “The Girls Walk This Way; The Boys Walk That Way.” Sometime later, a renowned architect named Jon Jerde came to me and said, “Have you seen the Glendale Galleria?”
I said, “Yes, I have.”
“Did you like it?” he asked. I said, “Yes.”
He said, “That’s your Galleria. It’s based on the plans that you put in your article in the essay in the Los Angeles Times.” I was stunned. I said, “Are you telling me the truth? I created the Glendale Galleria?”
“Yes, you did,” he said. “Thank you for that article that you wrote about rebuilding L.A. We based our building of the Glendale Galleria completely on what you wrote in that article.”
Sometime later, 20th Century Fox was suffering because their films were not making any money. They had made Cleopatra, and it had bankrupted the studio. So they sold the northeast corner of their back lot to a group that was going to build a mall called Century City. Because of my work on the Glendale Galleria, they came to me, and I looked at their plans and told them that it wouldn’t work. They weren’t putting the right things into the mall. They didn’t listen to me and they built it anyway. A year later, they came back to me and I told them how to rebuild the mall. This time, they listened. I told them how to make it more social—they had to put out two hundred tables and chairs and parasols. There had to be twenty or thirty more restaurants! So at the center of Century City, after they had rebuilt it, there was a nucleus of thirty restaurants where you could buy all kinds of food and carry it out to the tables and chairs and umbrellas I had talked about. I also recommended they put a first-class bookstore—Brentano’s—there, and upstairs above that, ten motion picture theaters, so they did it all. There was a center of book reading, and moviegoing, and dining. I suggested they add a really good hot dog stand, and they did it. I said, “Somewhere you have to have a man who sells popcorn,” and they did that, too. As a result, they reopened the second version of Century City, and it was a great success. People came in by the thousands every day. The City kept building, and today it is in very good shape.
Then, in San Diego, in the 1970s, they were rebuilding downtown. I wrote an essay called “The Aesthetics of Lostness,” once again for Jon Jerde, the architect. The premise behind the essay was building a city where people could spend an afternoon, getting safely lost, just wandering about. Jon Jerde built Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego using my essay as his touchstone.
A few years later, a planning group looking at ways to rebuild Hollywood came to me and asked if I would help rebuild Hollywood. Hollywood at that time was beginning to resemble Hiroshima at high noon. I told them that somewhere in the city, they had to build the set from the 1916 film Intolerance by D. W. Griffith. The set, with its massive, wonderful pillars and beautiful white elephants on top, now stands at the corner of Hollywood and Highland avenues. People from all over the world come to visit, all because I told them to build it. I hope at some time in the future, they will call it the Bradbury Pavilion. But much more needs to be done with Hollywood. There is much work left to do. Hollywood Boulevard from one end to the other needs to be redone. The corner of Hollywood and Vine—nobody knows that famous corner, but to me, it’s the most famous corner in the world—even more than 42nd Street in Times Square, or the Champs-Élysées in Paris, or Piccadilly Circus in London. People should know Hollywood and Vine is the heart of the world. There is a statue at the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Olympic Avenue in Los Angeles, not far from where I live. The statue is about twenty feet tall, all in bronze. It is a scroll of film going up and up into the air with pictures in the frames of Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin and others, indicating who had created Hollywood. A duplicate of that statue, twice its size, all in gold, should be at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, lit by spotlights from every corner. That way, when people arrive and see that statue for the first time, they know they are at the center of the city that influenced the whole world. Along the way, we should relight all the theaters along Hollywood Boulevard and put the names of all the famous films that first appeared in them. In the lobbies of these magnificent old palaces, there should be brief histories and photographs of the movies that premiered there, way back in 1928 and 1932 and 1939. This would turn Hollywood Boulevard into a museum of film history as you walked all along it. One theater could be open all day showing the cartoons of Chuck Jones and Walt Disney. Another theater could be open all day showing all the old classics.
And there is one last thing very late in time, one last building I would like to work on.
What is it? you ask.
Why, a library of course.
We should build a library with a great Egyptian mummy out front, a Tutankhamun statue, and his mouth opens and speaks to you, asking, “Where would you like to go in the library?” You tell the mummy where you want to go. There is a front door, of course, but for the young and the young at heart, he sends you down a rabbit hole into the library. When you slide down and arrive, there are books all around and by every shelf there is a different mummy and you speak to them and ask, “What’s on this shelf?” and it tells you. And you say, “I want to go to the stars,” and the mummy says, “In the back of the library there is a spiral staircase that goes up to the stars.” And you climb the stairs and arrive at the top among books on astronomy and you are surrounded by stars. There is a glass window on the ceiling, a moonroof, looking out at the sky. So when you are in the room at night, you can read books about the stars, at least partially, by starlight.
As I look back over the last fifty years of my work in architecture, I can’t help but think about the time I visited the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933. I was twelve, and as I wandered about that incredible city they had constructed, I fell in love with the future. And after I left the fair, I went home to the small Illinois town where I lived and in the backyard of my parents’ home, I constructed buildings out of paper and cardboard, not knowing that thirty years forward, in my own future, I would start my architectural work helping to build another World’s Fair, the 1964 New York World’s Fair, thus beginning my career as the world’s only accidental architect.
This essay appears in Ray Bradbury: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, out this month. Reprinted with permission of Melville House.
Ray Bradbury (1920–2012) is the author of twenty-seven novels, including Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, and more than six hundred short stories. Bradbury won many awards throughout his lifetime, including the Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America and a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Sam Weller is the author of The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury and Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, and the coeditor of Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, which won a Bram Stoker Award. Weller is an associate professor in the department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.
Last / Next Article