LOST IN SPACES: Unique La Jolla architect feted in SDSU gallery show

La Jolla resident Eugene Ray, an architect since 1960, taught environmental design at San Diego State University from 1969 to 1996 and is now a professor emeritus there.

The 86-year-old retired architect ambles excitedly from one display to the next, narrating a Cliff’s Notes version of his life’s work as it appears in hand-drafted renderings and plans, collages and projection sequences. One of the glass-encased drawings shows a fiber-optic tensile structure, resembling a “Star Wars” scout ship, that he envisioned as a Golden Gate-style entrance to San Diego.

“It would have been a very powerful experience entering San Diego from the north,” Eugene Ray says of his vision, which would have gone over the southbound Interstate 5 near the La Jolla Parkway interchange.

Ray turns his attention to another physically unrealized rendering next to it. This one looks like a UFO perched atop two columns of fiery exhaust.

“Now this is my favorite big-house design for the future,” he says. “I originally designed it as a La Jolla home, but I realized they would never allow me to build this because it’s too radical.”

Ray originally intended this design for a La Jolla house. Later, when San Diego State University was considering an art park, he repurposed it. Neither has been built — 'so far,' he added.

An exhibit, “Radiant Architecture: The Visionary Work of Eugene Ray,” runs through Oct. 6 at the San Diego State University (SDSU) Downtown Gallery, 725 West Broadway. It celebrates the 50th anniversary of Ray’s start date at SDSU, where he taught environmental design (a program he founded) until 1996.

There’s a reason Ray’s drawings seem ripped out of science-fiction movie storyboards. One in a long line of unique things about Ray is that his work, which he began in 1960, was largely inspired by seeing a UFO as a teenager. Ray is an ardent ufologist who regularly attends conferences.

“When you see a UFO as I saw that day, you will never forget it,” he says.

It was 1947, Ray recalls, the same year something that the U.S. Army claims was a nuclear test surveillance balloon crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. Ray was 15 and flying a kite in his Louisiana hometown of Baton Rouge.

“Immediately, I felt like I was being observed,” he recalls.

This is not a ‘Star Wars’ ship but a fiber-optic entrance to San Diego that Ray envisioned for the I-5.

Many people who reach prominence in respected fields equate associating with UFOs with placing their credibility at risk.

“Well,” Ray says with characteristic bluntness, “they’re dumb.”

Ray’s most widely known design is the one that most closely resembles what he says he saw in the sky that day. He called the three-story, cigar-shaped house the Silver Ship. He lived in it for 25 years, and it still gleams down from a bluff atop Nautilus Street.

In 1978, five years after arriving in La Jolla, he bought a lot with a 32-degree slope that most owners would have bulldozed and filled in to provide a building site. But not Ray, who left the bluff in its natural state and worked for the next two years — alongside four unskilled students he hired or who worked for class credit — using pre-industrial tools (a come-along hoist instead of a crane, for example).

“Now that was a job, building it there,” he says. “We dug the foundations by hand and cranked the steel and timbers up.”

Ray recalls building the Silver Ship as “a teaching experience” for his students and himself. However, it also saved him a bundle. (Construction ran just north of $40,000 — about a third of the cost of using conventional techniques and labor.)

Ray’s best-known structure, the Silver Ship, still sits atop Nautilus Boulevard — modified slightly since Ray built it as his home and office from 1978 to 1980.

Ray’s “radiant architecture” (the title referring to the important role that natural and artificial light play in his structures) has terrestrial influences as well. The biggest is nature. Ray says that biologically engineered (biomorphic) structures such as seashells and fruit demonstrate nature’s preference for curves over sharp angles.

“You will see cones and spheres prominent in my work,” Ray says, pointing out a 1991 rendering labeled “Power Residence Prototype,” a rocket-shaped domicile that sleeps people in its command module up top — a sphere under a cone. (“That way, you have double the energy experience and exposure,” Ray says.)

Ray’s theory is that the “biotronic energy” radiated by biomorphic shapes benefits humans in ways we’re not even aware of, making for healthier and happier living spaces. He explains this energy as “a natural physical phenomena that expands and intensifies the energy in the volumes of certain biomorphic structures.”

“It’s not imagination,” he says. “There are people who will read this article who will think it is, but you can actually — through gaussmeters and Kirlian photography — record this energy.”

Fellow architect and multidisciplinary thinker (and former Mensa president) R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller was intrigued by similar pseudo-scientific ideas, and thus inspired Ray. (Fuller once guest-lectured at SDSU at Ray’s invitation, as did Bruce Goff, another architectural influence on Ray.) A geodesic dome — a shape popularized in the 1940s by Fuller, who once suggested building one over the entirety of Manhattan — centerpieces the SDSU exhibit.

“I designed several domed houses,” Ray says. “Domes are not only good for the health and spirit, but they’re also economical and they have a cosmic orientation.”

Among Ray’s other projects that came to physical fruition are several California villas he designed, based on observations made on more than 40 trips to Italy. (The best-known is Pierruci Villa, built in 1981 above the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido.)

When asked how many of his projects made the jump from his mind to reality, Ray replies: “I knew you were going to ask me that.” When pressed, he guesses “hundreds,” but says he can’t be sure because he was “always too busy to keep track.”

A new exhibit of designs and ephemera from architect Eugene Ray occupies the entire SDSU Downtown Gallery through Oct. 6.

Regardless of the legacy he will leave behind in concrete, Ray is assured enduring prominence among fellow architects and futurists. This is suggested by a letter included in the exhibition, which Ray forgets to mention until after concluding his tour.

“You are a jackdaw like myself,” science-fiction author and screenwriter Ray (“Fahrenheit 451”) Bradbury wrote to Ray in 1972, “collecting bright objects and ideas and tumbling them together in a kaleidoscope to see what prism lights hit the sides of your skull and other people’s brains.”

“I always liked the sound of that,” Ray says.

IF YOU GO: “Radiant Architecture: The Visionary Work of Eugene Ray” is showing at the San Diego State University (SDSU) Downtown Gallery, 725 West Broadway, San Diego. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays-Mondays until Oct. 7. Admission is free. (619) 501-6370. A free reception with Eugene Ray will take place 5-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19.