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Hollywood & Highland Center’s design is based on the Babylon set from the 1916 film ‘Intolerance’

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That’s pretty weird, right?

Hollywood & Highland Center.
Hollywood & Highland Center.

If you’ve been to the Hollywood & Highland Center and have a working knowledge of silent film history, you may have noticed that the hulking mall’s design has been lifted with mixed success from the Babylon set in DW Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance. (An influential and ruinously expensive feat of filmmaking in which Griffith calls out critics of his previous film, The Birth of a Nation, as the real racists; it interweaves tales of intolerance from ancient Babylon, the life of Christ, Renaissance France, and then-modern America).

That’s pretty weird, right? What kind of mind came up with that? In a posthumous essay just published at the Paris Review, late science fiction author Ray Bradbury says it was his idea.

Intolerance’s Babylon set was built on a still-dirt Sunset Boulevard, at Hollywood, site today of the Vista Theatre, and it was both carefully researched (though Griffith insisted on the totally inappropriate elephants) and enormous; in Kevin Brownlow’s book The Parade's Gone By, second-unit director Joseph Henabery describes the scale: “The walls of Babylon were ninety feet high. The walls were about the same height as the columns on which the elephants were erected; it is safe to estimate the overall height at one hundred and forty feet… At its widest point, the tower structure was forty feet.” (He adds that “Altogether we spent little more than a couple of hours on the scene.”)

Intolerance flopped. There was no money left to dismantle the set, and for a few years it became an actual ruin in the middle of Los Angeles. It was finally torn down in 1919.

In his essay at the Paris Review, Bradbury—who led a campaign in the early 1960s to build a monorail system in Los Angeles—writes about his career as an “accidental architect,” influencing designs for the 1964 World’s Fair, EPCOT, and, strangely enough, the Glendale Galleria. In 1970, Bradbury wrote a Los Angeles Times article called “The Girls Walk This Way; The Boys Walk That Way”; Galleria architect Jon Jerde later told him “We based our building of the Glendale Galleria completely on what you wrote in that article.”

He says he also came up with the food court at Westfield Century City (“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!”) and the movie theater there. Eventually, a group came to him “looking at ways to rebuilt Hollywood”:

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.The Hollywood & Highland Center opened in late 2001, at the beginning of what has become a wildly successful rebirth for Hollywood. EE&K designed the complex, with a grand stairway leading up to a "Babylon Court" with a replica Intolerance gate (which frames the Hollywood Sign in the distance) and, of course, a few elephants.

But Bradbury, who was working on this essay up until his death in 2012, didn’t think that was enough. He wanted a giant gold monument to mark Hollywood and Vine and to revive the old theaters along Hollywood Boulevard. And he wanted to build a library “with a great Egyptian mummy out front” who asks visitors where they want to go and then sounds them down a hole to their destination, where they’ll also be serviced by talking mummies.

Bradbury’s own house in Cheviot Hills was pretty unremarkable. It was down by architect Thom Mayne, who says he hopes to build a prototype for a new kind of Southern California house.