People in Your Neighborhood: La Jolla architect Eugene Ray is still learning and creating at 90
The influential founder of San Diego State University’s former environmental design program links his ‘radiant’ creative spark to a boyhood encounter with a UFO.
Only a handful of architect Eugene Ray’s designs have been built since he began his career in the 1950s. Yet his impact is significant. As founder and head of San Diego State University’s environmental design program from 1969 to 1996, he mentored students who designed dozens of San Diego buildings.
“He was an extremely inspirational person for me as a young student because he thought and taught differently,” said San Diego architect Frank Wolden.
RNT Architecture principal Kotaro Nakamura said, “When I was exposed to Eugene’s thinking, it opened my eyes that the built environment is much more than floors, walls and roofs.”
Chikako Terada, Nakamura’s partner at RNT, said she learned from Ray the “vibrational” power of spaces to provoke “Wow!” sensations that words can’t capture.
Though Ray’s students have realized countless buildings, the prime example of his own architecture is the hillside La Jolla home on Nautilus Street known as the Silver Ship, which he designed and built of concrete and wood with his students in the late 1970s.
Silver Ship is a “stretched dome” supported by a cross-hatch vault of wood beams that resembles the diamond pattern on a rattlesnake. Ray took the concept from “lamella roofs” designed by early-20th-century German engineer Friedrich Zollinger. The idea also was used at the Houston Astrodome and the Superdome in New Orleans.
Ray sold Silver Ship years ago following the death of his first wife, Marian. A subsequent remodel added a metal roof and covered up hand-bent redwood siding with corrugated metal. Undoubtedly it’s now more weatherproof, but to Ray, it’s beyond recognition.
Today he lives with his second wife, Marianne, at Chateau La Jolla, a seaside retirement community across the street from redwood cottages where he lived as a young architect and blocks from the Red Roost and Red Rest cottages he helped preserve.
At Ray’s spacious, sunny apartment at Chateau La Jolla are thousands of drawings and collages he has assembled over the decades. They combine his elaborate designs with images from architectural, personal and historical sources, with themes highlighted in distinctive rub-on lettering that wraps curved corners. He says science-fiction author Ray Bradbury once proposed a film incorporating the graphics.
Even closets and bathrooms serve as display spaces. Artifacts cover almost every available surface. On a living room table are international design journals such as Domus and A+U that featured his work. In his office are hundreds of books, a fraction of the 10,000 he once owned.
His vast archive at SDSU and at home is managed by his former student and longtime friend David Fobes, a San Diego artist and furniture designer who taught at SDSU and works closely with Ray. Thanks to Fobes, many videos of Ray’s lectures from the past 50 years can be found online. Fobes also co-curated a 2019 “Radiant Architecture” exhibit in San Diego devoted to Ray, with models and wall-size panels showcasing projects, mostly unbuilt, from Tanzania and Tehran to California, Hong Kong and Bohol Island in the Philippines.
When Ray explains “radiant architecture,” he speaks of biomorphic structures, biotronic energy and synergetic environments. Sources of inspiration run from Nikola Tesla (“If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration”) to Bugatti sports cars, and from nature to extraterrestrial life. Architects R. Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff and Goff’s University of Oklahoma colleague Herb Greene — whose buildings were featured in the 1940s Life magazines that Ray’s father brought home — also are in the mix.
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Ray says he admires the radical designs of his peers at Archigram in London as well as the work of architect Paulo Soleri, who founded the Arcosanti experimental community in Arizona. Ray is fascinated with Imhotep, a pyramid designer in ancient Egypt, and with Native American tipi dwellings — durable conical fabric structures not unlike the ones designed by Ray and his students. Years ago, Ray took a class to the Yucatan to study Mayan architecture.
According to a paper Ray prepared for a French government symposium on energy in 1985, radiant architecture “explores relationships between architecture and energy” and posits that “architecture can be organized to magnify and direct natural energy systems for human well-being.”
Solar power is just part of the concept. Cones, domes and spheres transmit “bioenergy” to people inside them, Ray says.
Such forms are beyond the architectural mainstream, which is one reason most of his designs were never built. Cubes, squares and rectangles are more familiar and marketable.
Materials and methods he favors also fall outside the mainstream. Years ago he designed a La Mesa home featuring domes of ferrocement — a mortar that is spread over steel armatures to create lightweight, durable structures. In spite of a phone-book-size set of engineering specs calculated on UC San Diego’s supercomputer, the city of La Mesa would not approve the building because it did not fit existing codes.
One of Ray’s collages depicts an elongated structure that resembles the ribbed body of a insect, anchored by volumes resembling plant or animal forms. “If the Earth was going to grow buildings, they would not be boxes,” he said.
It is well-documented that Ray attributes his relentless creative spark to a boyhood encounter with a strange object.
“At 15, I saw a UFO over our house in Baton Rouge — a cylindrical craft, cigar-shaped,” he said. “A bunch of us were flying huge kites made by my dad. ... We were lying there watching our kites, and all of a sudden this craft flew slowly overhead from west to east. And to this day I have the feeling they were watching us. Certainly my work has cosmic consciousness because of that.”
“Alchemy” is one of Ray’s favorite words. It dates from ancient times and elixirs prepared by shamans and has evolved over centuries to encompass science, technology, metaphysics, theology and philosophy.
Ray studied architecture and taught at Louisiana State University and Tulane, where he earned a master’s degree. The region had a strong impact on him due to its diverse culture and his family ties. He recalls the early post-and-beam houses he designed there, along with a small jazz venue in New Orleans’ French Quarter. There also was a plantation owned by distant relatives that featured a domed structure.
In the late 1960s, San Diego architect Lloyd Ruocco and his wife, Ilse, an artist and a textile designer who taught at SDSU, recruited Ray to launch an architecture program in the art department. Ray branded it “environmental design” to reflect a broad mission incorporating courses in art, sculpture, photography, ecology and engineering.
He invited radical architects to lecture, such as Goff, L.A. modernist John Lautner, Archigram representatives and Soleri. Ray says some lectures were boycotted by some San Diego architects, but he was eventually invited by Archigram’s Peter Cook to lecture twice at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London.
Computer-aided design was part of Ray’s curriculum long before CAD software became standard. He and his students experimented with high-strength ceramic and glass with the intent to make lightweight, affordable structures. He recalls how his students bested students from UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley and Cal Poly in a competition. Their “biomorphic tensile structure” withstood an overnight windstorm, while a concrete block structure by another team collapsed, he says.
Though it helped launch important San Diego careers, Ray’s SDSU program was eliminated shortly after his retirement in 1996. He had come down with malaria during a visit to Brazil, and when he returned, he couldn’t continue teaching all seven of the department’s environmental design courses. Without Ray, support for the program evaporated.
Since his retirement, Ray has devoted much of his time to genealogy. He said he traces his lineage to the medieval Knights Templar, whose fortresses, he says, were modern in their design.
Ray and Marianne made a pilgrimage to the Chateau du Clos Lucé in France, where Leonardo da Vinci, another of Ray’s heroes, spent his final years as court artist and architect to King Francis I, and where models of da Vinci’s inventions are on display.
As he looks back on a life devoted to converting skeptics, Ray said he’s optimistic about his legacy.
“My legacy is as strong now as it’s ever been,” he said. “I have a huge international reputation. The material that’s been published around the world, lectures and exhibitions in 12 countries, has given me a huge audience. When I die, I believe my legacy is going to expand considerably.” ◆