Raymond Watson dies at 86; architect guided development of Irvine

Ray Watson is shown at his East Bluff Village home in Newport Beach.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Raymond Watson, the architect and community planner who steered the development of Orange County’s signature master-planned city of Irvine and briefly ran Walt Disney Productions during one of its most tumultuous periods, has died. He was 86.

Watson died Saturday at his longtime home in Newport Beach from complications of Parkinson’s disease, his family said.

A carpenter’s son, Watson was born in Seattle in 1926 and raised by his grandmother in what he described as a rootless childhood in Oakland, sometimes in boardinghouses.

In 1960, seven years after he graduated from UC Berkeley with a master’s in architecture, Watson became the chief planner of the Irvine Co. The company, now a real estate and development colossus, was then an agricultural operation considering plans for its 93,000-acre ranch, which constituted about a fifth of Orange County.


Spurred by Los Angeles architect William Pereira, the Irvine Co. gave 1,000 acres to the University of California with the idea of building a town around the envisioned campus.

It fell to Watson to help build the town from scratch.

“Ray went around the world, studying cities, asking people what worked,” said Larry Thomas, a former Irvine Co. spokesman and longtime colleague of Watson.

The expanse of asparagus plants, orange groves, scrub and rolling ranch lands proved a planner’s dream — a blank slate on which he could construct a community distinct from “the suburban molasses oozing everywhere,” he said in an interview with the Orange County Register.

Central to Watson’s vision for Irvine — which was incorporated in 1971, and now has a population of nearly a quarter million residents — was the concept of “separate villages that had their own character,” Thomas said. “When you ask Irvine residents where they’re from, they often say, ‘Woodbridge’ or ‘Turtle Rock,’ not Irvine.”

It was billed as the largest project of its kind in the country. The self-contained but interlocking villages would have their own schools, parks, greenbelts and shopping plazas, along with housing ranging from high-end homes to apartments. One of the first and largest villages — which Watson considered among the city’s crown jewels — was Woodbridge, which features a large artificial lake.

Critics have long derided Irvine as sterile and stupefying in its orderliness, criticism to which Watson responded publicly with equanimity, saying that it was a free country and that people lived there because they liked it. The city’s success has inspired similar developments, such as Coto de Caza and Rancho Santa Margarita.

One of Watson’s sons, Bryan Watson, said that when he was a child in the late 1960s and early 1970s his father would take him and his three siblings for after-dinner trips to look at the city of Irvine in its nascent stages.


“He’d drive us out to the orange fields, and he’d talk about where things would be,” said Watson, 54, of Solana Beach. “I do remember him talking about this notion of a village, how people could feel like they’re inside of something.… He wanted to bring his family in on it. He always included us.”

When he was in college, Watson said he would challenge his father’s community-planning approach with common complaints that were in the air.

“I said, ‘Why are we just perpetuating this sprawl? Why don’t we make vehicle-less villages? Why do we have all these things spread out, with cars required to drive everywhere?’ ” Bryan said. “He had very thoughtful answers, about how we can’t really dictate what people do.... People moved to California and they wanted to live in these neighborhoods.”

Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank that Watson once chaired, knew Watson for 30 years. In his later years, he said, Watson enjoyed driving around Irvine and telling stories about the place he’d helped to build.


“He had a story about everything,” Baldassare said. “He could point to something and say, ‘This is how that happened. This is why we used a slope on this hill here, because it would work for this particular landscaping.” When residents went home at night, he said, Watson wanted them to feel “they were part of something, not just a big anonymous suburb.”

Watson was president of the Irvine Co. from 1973 to 1977, and vice chairman of the board from 1986 to 2003, when he retired. In 1999, a 73-year-old Watson grinningly described his continuing role as advisor to Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren: “I go in, I pontificate, I leave.”

Apart from Bren, Watson also worked with another central figure in Orange County’s history, Walt Disney, who in the mid-1960s summoned Watson to his office to hear his views on an early iteration of Epcot. That inaugurated Watson’s long association with the Disney company, which included a brief chairmanship in the 1980s when it was beset by takeover attempts.

In 2005, a bridge connecting UC Irvine to a business center was named for Watson.


Watson is survived by his wife of 58 years, Elsa Watson, their four children — Kathy Godwin, Bryan Watson, Lisa Lambert and David Watson — a sister and 10 grandchildren.