Born in Chicago, Illinois, Pereira graduated from the School of Architecture, University of Illinois and began his career in his home city. He had some of his earliest architectural experience helping to draft the master plan for the 1933 “A Century of Progress” Chicago World’s Fair. With his brother, Hal Pereira, he designed the Esquire Theater at 58 East Oak Street, considered one of Chicago’s best examples of Art Deco style.
He had two wives, former model and actress Margaret McConnell (married June 24, 1934) and Bronya Galef; the latter marriage ending with his death. He has two children, William Pereira, Jr., and a daughter, Monica Pereira, a Spanish teacher.
William Pereira died of cancer at age 76 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. At his request, no funeral services were planned.
In the 1930s, he and Hal moved to Los Angeles. After working as a solo architect, Pereira was hired by the Motion Picture Relief Fund and designed the first buildings for the Motion Picture Country House in Woodland Hills, California, which was dedicated September 27, 1942.
Pereira also had a brief stint as a Hollywood art director. He shared an Academy Award for Best Special Effects for the action/adventure film Reap the Wild Wind (1942). He was the art director for “This Gun for Hire”, Alan Ladd’s first film. He was production designer of the drama Jane Eyre (1944), and of the war drama Since You Went Away (1944) . Pereira was also the producer of the noir crime/drama Johnny Angel (1945), and of the Joan Fontaine drama From This Day Forward (1946).
Though his buildings were often quite stark and sterile in their appearance (owing largely to the science fiction of the era), they were noted for their functional style with a certain flair that made them unmistakable. He took pride in the concept of designing for the future. A great deal of Pereira’s “futurist” style is owed to his longtime design collaborator James Langenheim, who had created the initial design for the Theme Building at LAX. The initials “J.L.” have appeared as the designer’s signature on a number of blueprints for Pereira projects including the similarly futuristic library at UC Irvine, but it is unclear if the initials are Langenheim’s.
In 1949, Pereira became a professor of architecture at the University of Southern California. He then formed a partnership with fellow architect and classmate, Charles Luckman, in the early 1950s. The firm, Pereira & Luckman, grew into one of the nation’s busiest. The duo designed some of Los Angeles’s most well-known buildings, including the famed “Theme Building” at Los Angeles International Airport (in collaboration with Paul Williams and Welton Becket).
He parted with Luckman in 1959. Afterward, he formed the third and final company of his career, “William L. Pereira & Associates.” In the 1960s and 1970s, he and his team completed over 250 projects, including drawing up the master plans for the Los Angeles International Airport expansion and developing the master plan for the 93,000 acre (376 km²) city of Irvine, California, which put his photograph on the cover of Time Magazine in September 1963. He later worked with Ian McHarg on the plan for the new town of The Woodlands, Texas.
Pereira’s buildings were easily identified by their unmistakable style, often taking unusual forms such as pyramids and ziggurats. They usually projected a grand presence, heavyset in appearance and often sitting atop “pedestals” that were themselves an integral part of the building. Many of his buildings were complemented by water features and some were almost entirely surrounded by water. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for instance, was a complex of three Googie-esque buildings rising up out of a lake and interconnected by a series of causeways and bridges.
Pereira designed the campus plans of the University of Southern California, the University of California, Irvine, and Pepperdine University.
His material of choice in creating his unique geometric forms was pre-cast concrete. Working in this medium, he could create his impressive facades by simply attaching them as panels on to the steel frame of the building.
By the time of his death, Pereira had over 400 projects to his name. Among the structures he designed throughout Southern California were CBS Television City, the Los Angeles County Art Museum, and the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim. He is also responsible for creating the monumental Spanish-inspired facades that defined Robinson’s department stores for nearly 20 years, and he was the architect of Pepperdine University at Malibu, named by the “Princeton Review” as the most beautiful college campus in America. Out of his immense body of work, three have really stood out in the public mind: the master-planned cities of Irvine and Newport Beach, and the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco.
His most praised and criticized work was probably the Transamerica building, which was completed in 1972. It was first panned as an intrusion on the city’s skyline, but has been accepted as having more character than the buildings around it and as being an oddly creative city symbol.
Perhaps his greatest lasting legacy besides his buildings are the numerous respected architects of today who came out of both Pereira’s firm and the classes he taught at USC, including Gin Wong, William Blurock, and Frank Gehry. Pereira’s firm was taken over upon his death by his two primary cohorts, Scott Johnson and Bill Fain.