January 16, 2015

Why was Ray Bradbury’s home demolished? An interview with architect Thom Mayne


Thom Mayne

Thom Mayne (via YouTube)

When news broke earlier this week that the Los Angeles home where Ray Bradbury lived for fifty years, the dominant reactions were frustration and grief. Responses on Twitter to a story I wrote about the demolition yesterday were fairly consistent: one user described it as “heartbreaking” news; another wrote “I should build a time machine, go back in time two minutes and not check twitter because this article makes me sad.”

In other corners of Twitter, people blamed Thom Mayne, the famous architect who had purchased the house in June and ordered its destruction. One user framed Bradbury and Mayne as polar opposites, writing “Ray #Bradbury and Thom #Mayne, Two forces of history in action: Writer, Architect of our souls – and starchitect doing exactly the opposite.” Geoff Manaugh described Mayne’s decision to raze the property as “surprising + surreal.”

At face value, which was how the story was widely reported and received, the demolition was an avoidable tragedy and Mayne was clearly a goat.

Mayne himself tells a somewhat different story, however.

When I learned about the demolition on Wednesday, something was missing from the coverage: an explanation for why this happened. So I emailed Mayne that evening; he wrote back late that night and I spoke to him Thursday afternoon, while he was getting ready to attend a play in Williamsburg that featured one of his employees.

In a brief phone interview, Mayne explained that he and his wife, who had lived in the same home in Ocean Park for 30 years, were looking to build a new house to live in, now that their children are grown up. The couple had fallen in love with Cheviot Hills (and Mayne clearly adores the neighborhood—he described it as “lovely” and said he appreciates its”quietness” and a “lack of pretension”) and had spent five years looking for a property before discovering the right fit.

At first, they had “no idea it was the Bradbury property.” There was nothing in the neighborhood to announce it as such; in fact, Mayne told me, “it wasn’t one of the more remarkable houses in the neighborhood… My wife and I joke a lot about [her being] a verbal person and me being a visual person. Bradbury was clearly a verbal person.”

When Mayne discovered that the house belonged to Ray Bradbury, he was initially surprised that the family was willing to part with it. Dealing with a foundation and not the family, Mayne told me that “[Bradbury’s] daughters had no interest in the house.” (It’s worth noting, however, that that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were apathetic about it or its future—just that they didn’t have a developmental interest in the house. The Bradbury family has not publicly commented about the house’s fate or spoken to Mayne.)

Aware of Bradbury’s longtime fascination with architecture, Mayne was disappointed with the home itself. “I was interested in the architectural aspects of the house,” he said. But, to Mayne at least, the house was characterized by an overwhelming “ordinariness” that Mayne nevertheless found interesting.

Mayne was also surprised by the lack of historical interest in the home. “I read Bradbury just like everybody else,” he told me. “He’s a huge part of my literary background. I was curious as to why nobody wanted to turn the house into a relic.”

Bradbury’s family has not yet commented on Mayne’s decision to demolish the home; Mayne indicated that they were not a part of the sales process and it’s unclear how involved they were, or if they knew of or endorsed the demolition.

The Director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, Jonathan Eller, however, has supported Mayne’s plans for the property. According to KCRW, Eller wrote the following letter to the architect after hearing about his purchase of the property:

I wanted to thank you for the care you are taking with some of the “bones” of the Bradbury home, which I understand will be reworked into wood projects in the future. I also want to let you know how pleased I am that you are planning a home for your family on this historic lot. I think Mr. Bradbury would be glad to know that an architect owns the property (he was a lay visionary in urban architecture who occasionally worked with Jon Jerde on projects in the 1970s). He also worked with young writers in much the same way that you have taken time in your distinguished career to teach and encourage young architects. It’s sad to see the Old Yellow House go, but there is also great promise in this new beginning.

I think you might like to know that we are re-creating Mr. Bradbury’s basement office here at the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies on Indiana University’s Indianapolis campus (IUPUI). Through a gracious gift of artifacts by the Bradbury family, we now have the papers, working library, office furniture, and many of the awards and mementos from the Cheviot Drive house. It’s a bit of a logistics and funding challenge, but we make a little progress every day.

Mayne, too, sees signs of a “great promise.” He is, quite clearly, extremely excited about his plans for the property–he told me that “our house isn’t going to be ordinary—our house is going to be a garden.” He envisions the house as a model for a new kind of home in Los Angeles: he wants to build a “prototype that is landscape-neutral and water friendly… I want to make a contribution to Los Angeles.” So in one sense, Mayne wants to replace one historic home with another.

Mayne also intends to pay direct tribute to Bradbury. Mayne told me that he intends to put up a wall at the edge of the property that will be etched with the titles of Bradbury’s books—an act Mayne poetically describes as a “signature.” The home itself—which Mayne consistently described as a “garden” rather than a “house”—will not be visible from the street, but the wall will—in fact, it will be the only thing visible from the street. Ironically, Mayne’s home will do more to announce Bradbury’s connection to the lot than the house itself did. But of course, Bradbury didn’t have to announce his relationship to a house he had lived for fifty years.

The response the demolition has received came as a “shock” to Mayne, in large part because the decision was endorsed by the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies and, perhaps, because of the silence of the Bradbury family itself. “Maybe I’m naive,” he told me. “But it’s really been a bummer.” (Mayne, it’s worth noting, is an energetic conversationalist who sounds considerably more youthful than his 70 years.)

But he doesn’t seem to have any regrets; in fact, he feels as connected to Bradbury as ever. “It would have been very lovely to have been able to talk to him. I have a feeling that we would have a very strong connection about our worldview—about what it means to be contemporary. For what it’s worth, I feel quite comfortable.”

I’m convinced that Mayne hasn’t done anything wrong here—he bought a house legally and discussed its distinguished previous owner with a foundation devoted to his work; Bradbury’s family, by all accounts, had no interest in the home or in discussing its future. And it’s clear that he’s committed to honoring Bradbury’s legacy in deed and in spirit—that he is determined to build a house that Bradbury would have loved is a poignant detail in a story that otherwise lacks them. But none of this changes the bare facts of the matter: we’ve lost a literary landmark, where one of the most extraordinary figures in literary history created some of the twentieth century’s most enduring classics. We still have the books, of course–they continue to be read by millions. Yet to think of Los Angeles without the house on Cheviot Drive is to live in a world where Ray Bradbury is a little more distant.

UPDATE 12:42: An earlier version of this post suggested that Mayne had discussed the house’s future with the Bradbury family. That is not the case—the Bradbury family has not commented on Mayne’s demolition of their father’s home.


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.