The Forgotten Star Architect Behind Dr. Seuss’ Fantastical Library
William L. Pereira landed on the cover of ‘Time’ for his futuristic American creations—including the stunning brutalist library that houses Dr. Seuss’ collection.
Just up the hill from the most iconic piece of modern architecture in California—the Salk Institute, a travertine courtyard dropping straight into the infinite Pacific flanked by volcanic ash concrete towers—is another modern masterpiece from a starchitect who has become criminally overlooked. That’s why our latest selection for our monthly series on the World’s Most Beautiful Libraries is that triumph—William L. Pereira’s Geisel Library.
The library is a bit jarring in real life. It’s more like the Space Age tower headquarters of the police, only with hundreds of sunkissed students pouring in, out, and around it. The library is perched on the edge of a canyon and named in honor of Theodor Seuss Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, whose widow donated his collection and a few million to it), and it was completed in 1970 as the centerpiece of the campus of the recently established University of California, San Diego (UCSD).
A fusion of futurist and brutalist styles (accidentally, as the original design called for steel and glass but skyrocketing steel costs precipitated a shift to concrete) it looked and still looks like nothing else out there. Many instinctively recoil at mere mention of brutalism, let alone the pearl-clutching induced by contending some brutalist works are beautiful and worth preserving. See, for instance the ignorant and uninspired narrow-mindedness of this Reuters list of 10 ugly buildings to visit, which includes the library. But, make no mistake, the Geisel Library is beautiful. There’s a reason the university still uses it as its logo. And even more importantly, it’s a window into a history-altering period of architecture.
When the group in charge of commissioning a new central library for UCSD that would serve as its centerpiece were considering their options, it’s no surprise that Pereira and his firm won out. For nearly three decades (from the 1950s into the early 1980s) Pereira and the various iterations of his firms had overseen a gobsmacking number of society-altering projects. A 1972 Los Angeles Times article noted that he’d already overseen projects in the region totaling a thousand square miles of land.
The list is a long one, but by the time his career ended with his death in 1985, it included CBS Television City, the LAX Theme Building (Gin Wong and his former student Frank Gehry also worked on it under him), the campus plans of USC, UC Irvine, and Pepperdine (considered one of the most beautiful in the country), Catalina Island, LACMA (which his former student Gehry ripped recently), Great Western Savings (later Flynt Publications), Fox Plaza, Newport Beach master plan, Times Mirror, Orange County Airport systems, and the planned city of Irvine. North, in San Francisco, he built perhaps his most famous work, the pyramid-shaped Transamerica Tower.
In 1964, Pereira was put on the cover of TIME for his work planning the city of Irvine, which was the largest private development in the world up to that time. In a gushing profile that seems a bit cringeworthy given how 20th-century planning has aged, the article breathlessly declares: “The handsome man who can play such a godlike game is neither conqueror nor commissar, but one of a new breed of artisans arising in the world: the regional planner. The regional planner orchestrates vast areas of wilderness with cities, villages, farms and forests to serve the needs of men. As the planet teems with more and more humanity, his work, with its multiple disciplines—including history, sociology, engineering, botany, geology, hydrography and, above all, architecture—is becoming more and more a pressing necessity.”
To be fair, Irvine, as opposed to Brasilia or Chandigarh, has aged very well and is perennially ranked at the top of best cities in America to live in.
Despite reaching such lofty heights, his origins were relatively humble. Pereira was born in Chicago in 1909 and graduated during the Great Depression from the University of Illinois (where he lost 45 pounds because he was taking so many classes). He walked the streets asking men in suits for architecture work until he finally got a gig paying $90 a month. His career exploded shortly after, first with the 1933 Chicago’s World Fair and then designing movie theaters. He moved to Los Angeles in 1938 and got involved in the movie business making sets. Pretty soon he was art director of Paramount Pictures. But Pereira made his mark on the region with his stark futurist architecture. In 1969, when a reporter from the Los Angeles Times asked him about his approach, he boasted, “I did what seemed logical to do in the matrix of the future. I designed a city—a group of cities—for the third millennium to serve the people of the third millennium.”
In reading old profiles of him, his mentality seems very much in sync with urbanists today and the frustrations many feel toward American planning in the 20th century. He raged in that TIME profile about California, saying we “have become rather expert at abusing our land and our resources. We carve up our mountains not for the purpose of living, but only to drag our car to our bedroom door … Take parking lots. A great deal of our open land has been withdrawn to provide parking lots. Nothing is more ugly. Parks and other open spaces restore the land to the pedestrian. These open spaces must be connected by a pedestrian way."
And, yet, in reading old profiles this very handsome man—who resembled a cross between young Brando and Richard Gere—was pretty gross about women (and I’m usually somewhat sympathetic to the whole “it was a different time” argument). I suppose it may have sounded romantic then, but the story of how he courted his first wife, Margaret, a Coca Cola girl and the first model to appear in color on a Camel pack, is downright stalking.
Then there’s this bit in a Los Angeles Times profile:
“Pereira always has had an eye for pretty girls. Even today he considers it ‘absolutely essential’ that nontechnical girls hired for his firm be attractive. ‘Every once in a while, I’ll see a few girls in the building who don’t quite measure up, and I’ll have to go into personnel and find out what the hell’s going on,’ he said, acknowledging with a broad grin the suggestion that it is no coincidence two of the most beautiful girls in the building are his secretary and the receptionist on his floor. ‘They’re nice, aren’t they?’ He says.”
One can almost hear the cries of “Me too” from the grave.
By the late 1960’s, Pereira was a titan in southern California, and the UCSD project would only add to his accomplishments.
His library towers above at 110 feet, a five-story “spheroid” perched on top of sixteen 30-foot concrete columns which Pereira intended to call to mind hands holding up books. Like any great building, it is a joy to walk around in its entirety, as the view of it is dramatically different straight on versus at a corner. Walking underneath, you can appreciate the lattice grid Pereira used underneath the exposed floors of varying length.
His firm’s treatise is a fascinating and thorough examination of how and why they chose the design they did. He found the historical functions of libraries (big reading rooms with long tables and the rest really serving as book storage space) useless in a graduate setting. The firm researched a number of university libraries built around the country whether towers like those at Texas and Notre Dame or cubes like Beinneke to subterranean (University of Washington), or gateway (Clark University), or compounds (Northwestern).
He wanted something that worked well in terms of circulation for readers and librarians. It had to be architecturally striking as it was to be the centerpiece of the campus but also had to remain open to pedestrian flow. And finally it needed to be designed and sited in a way that allowed for easy expansion when the university grew. But Pereira was a bit of a Goldilocks when it came to design.
Towers were striking architecturally and could command viewpoints, but they weren’t great for library circulation. Cubes worked well for circulation but were boring architecturally. Plus if the library needed to expand (which he anticipated it would), cubes make that difficult. Subterranean wasn’t commanding and not great for natural light. And so on.
Pereira came to the conclusion that, at least when it came to circulation, “the best shape for a building housing a book collection is an ellipse in section or a flattened sphere.” So, he took the tower, flattened it into a cube and then pulled it out into such a flattened sphere. When it came to expansion, Pereira decided that if he split the collections above and below the plaza level, the library could easily expand below and still get light because it would just “cascade down the canyon.”
But he still needed it to be striking and allow for traffic flow given its location in the center of campus. So, he lifted it up.
While The New York Times (which was a fan of the design) referred to it as “a stack of wheatcakes held aloft” it’s far more than that in person. When I asked Alan Hess, the prominent architectural critic who has long worked to preserve Pereira’s legacy, why the building is so iconic, he explained, “It’s a very powerful, muscular building. It's uplifting. It literally lifts its upper floors up into the air. And it shows you how it does that on these great concrete angled supports and buttresses. It’s a mystery and you kind of want to go inside and explore it.”
I did explore it this past February as the library (pre-COVID) was open to the public for tours. It is entered through the 1992 underground expansion designed by Gunnar Birkerts. While it maintained the iconic visual of Pereira’s building, Birkerts’ work (which was meant to be like a fissure in the ground) is very 80s in terms of the reflective glass. The library inside is generally unremarkable besides the views of the surrounding eucalyptus trees. Pereira was more concerned with the interior being functional (although time would prove his ideas to be far from functional) and the building shape and exterior be what made a statement. Instead, the joys on the tour are found in seeing the highlights of Dr. Seuss’ collection and the random updates in student life (they have reading treadmills now?!).
While opinions have varied over time as to whether Pereira’s library was mere gimmicky oddity or an inspired original, it’s undoubtedly iconic today. So, too, are the Transamerica Tower in San Francisco and the LAX Theme Building. So it’s a bit wild that the architect of three such recognizable works is now a virtual unknown. How did that happen?
My theory is the same I have for Ricardo Bofill—that his buildings were often so varied, he didn’t have an easily recognized style to the untrained eye like Gehry or van der Rohe. Alan Hess, however, says it’s pure snobbery.
“He was an extremely successful architect who built hundreds of buildings and especially after he passed in 1984 his reputation was not very highly regarded. He was considered a commercial architect. A big corporate architect,” groused Hess. (One can just imagine the hiss in the hallowed halls of big name architecture schools.) “That's one reason why there is really one good book on him. There's been only one exhibit on his work.”
Ironically, Pereira might have only himself to blame.
He made the choice early in his career not to do any residential projects. "It seemed to me that the average house buyer must be a pain in the neck,” he scoffed. And yet, Hess explains, “the house is a serious architectural challenge. And so if you do make a name designing houses, whether you're Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry, and if they're well respected, you get a lot more a lot more attention and praise.”
But perhaps that is part of the joy of visiting Geisel Library—a chance to dig into a fascinating, complicated person who in his time reshaped the earth and then time forgot. Regardless, it’s a fantastic addition to our series on The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries and worth the stop when all this is over.