Architectural fantasies from the 1920s by Hugh Feriss
…and, eerily reminiscent of near-identical shots in Blade Runner, remarkable contemporary colour photographs showing a New York Airways Boeing Vertol 107 helicopter coming in to land on the roof of the Pan Am building, a journey Ridley Scott took many times (eralsoto; flypanam.posterous.com)
Locations and inspirations: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, Los Angeles Union Station and the Bradbury Building all featured in Blade Runner, literally and as ghosts elsewhere (briancooperman.com; unrecorded; Nicolais)
science fiction magazine 2000AD saw its writer’s cautious projection of a near-future New York leap-frogged by the imagination of Spanish comic book artist Carlos Esquerra who drew, quite unexpectedly, a city in which the Statue of Liberty was dwarfed by much larger structures and looped about by mid-air roadways. Editorial staff struggled to catch up, hastily pushing the story’s timeline fifty years further into the future and defining the city’s extent as “from Montreal in the north to Georgia in the south”, in a fascinating echo of Gibson’s BAMA.
In real life, the 1920s saw visionary Italian architect Antonio St Elia designing dizzyingly monumental buildings integrating railways, aerial landing platforms and roads. Le Corbusier evangelised for cities comprising regimented towers linked by swathes of concrete motorway and topped with airfields, whilst architect and illustrator Hugh Ferris’s atmospheric pencil massing studies of the theoretical shapes that would arise from the new American planning ordinance of zoning closely resemble Blade Runner’s smog-shrouded architectural forms. The General Motors-sponsored, Norman Bel Geddes-designed Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair flew audiences through a vast model landscape that culminated in a future city of curved glass towers.
In the 1980s and 1990s, two Japanese companies marketed architectural projects that could have been lifted directly from Blade Runner. Obayashi commissioned Norman Foster to design the conical, 170-floor Millennium Tower for Tokyo Bay, capable of housing 60,000 people. Shimizu advertised a ‘step over tower’ of 160 storeys that could be built on four legs, straddling existing buildings and roads.
The visual effects team scrambled to comply with Scott’s changes. Realising that architectural detail was no longer relevant at this new scale, basic geometric volumes containing thousands of tiny, illuminated apertures were quickly fabricated from simple materials. Filming in smoke, as with the Hades landscape, would add convincing aerial perspective. A complex shot, ultimately unused, was devised to convey the multi-lane freeway, looking down on a live-action character crossing a road which formed the upper-most level of an intersection with several other layers of airborne and road-bound traffic passing below.
It is unfortunate that, as a result of this change, the initial large-scale miniature work was relegated to a mere handful of shots in the completed film. Arguably they fit the mind’s eye image of Dick’s derelict, abandoned metropolis much more closely than the hazy, distant shapes of the super-scaled city and have a much greater connection to the street, where the business of a detective is conducted.
Although the architecture of 2019 would come into being primarily through the backlot set, the miniatures and also matte paintings on glass for shots requiring additional height, breadth and depth, Scott also filmed at a number of real buildings in Los Angeles. Unsurprisingly, most had been used many times before in Hollywood productions, to the extent that Scott was warned about returning to some. Scott however was determined to bring the same approach to rendering the familiar unfamiliar that he was beginning to demonstrate with other elements of Blade Runner, and treated each site accordingly.
The city’s Union Station was built in 1939 in the Hispanically-flavoured Mission Revival style. Its lofty main hall uses tile, brick and plaster in cool tones for a spare but elegant effect. The station had at first been due to play itself, another opening sequence having Deckard arrive by train, but was eventually relocated conceptually to within the precinct tower; the hall’s tall arched windows are a fair match for the curves of the precinct’s exterior. Bryant’s office was erected as a permanent structure within a corner of the hall, as part of a deal with the station’s owners to reduce the location fee (it remains there today). The kaleidoscopic wall tiling at dado level so delighted the art department that a nested chevron pattern derived from it was employed in fabric designs throughout the film, including Tyrell’s housecoat, Deckard’s sofa and Rachael’s suit.
Deckard later drives through the Second Street tunnel. Completed in 1924, its glazed ceramic lining reflects his lights, generating a vast halo that keeps pace with the vehicle. The tunnel went on to appear in several films including The Terminator, made two years after Blade Runner.
The beautiful late nineteenth century Bradbury Building had already featured in several films, and would go on to appear in many more. Its magnificent atrium is of buff and glazed brick and is covered with an iron and glass roof. Tiled stairs and a wonderful scrolled iron lift tower give access to the office floors, whose galleries onto the atrium have highly-worked wrought iron railings. Shot at night, in smoke, lanced by light beams as from a hovering advertising blimp and with its floors wetted and dirtied, a dilapidated Bradbury became the lobby of the block that holds J.F. Sebastian’s apartment. Originally conceived as the former presidential suite of the echoing building, its crumbling architecture became a metaphor for its sole, rapidly-aging tenant in the same manner as Leon’s pathetic hotel room, Tyrell’s chilling office and Deckard’s defensive apartment.
This last was built on a sound stage as a five-walled set, that is, one with a ceiling. This is unusual in film-making as sets are normally left open to ease access for lighting, microphones and cameras but Scott had done the same with the Nostromo interiors in Alien to give a sense of reality and claustrophobia. The apartment’s distinctively-styled, rough-textured walls, however, were the invention not of a set designer or artist but, indirectly, one of the world’s greatest architects.
In 1925, Frank Lloyd Wright completed the Ennis house on a ridge outside central Los Angeles. It was the last and biggest of five in Los Angeles to be built by Wright between the wars using his ‘textile block’ construction system. Patterned concrete blocks were made with local sand and aggregate, enacting Wright’s preference for an architecture linked to location, and stacked to form walls. Steel reinforcing bars threaded between them horizontally and vertically and grouted into place added strength and gave the system its name. The blocks formed both the façade of the building and the interior wall surface; at the Ennis house, they display a clear Mayan influence in their design.
For Blade Runner, the exterior and parking garage of the actual Ennis house served the same functions for Deckard’s apartment block. Rather than shoot inside the house, casts were taken of its textile blocks and used to make the walls and ceiling of the lift lobby, the dark, cave-like apartment interior and the dramatic 97th-floor balcony overlooking an abyssal street on a sound stage.
The effectiveness of this method can be seen and felt watching the film. The exteriors, lobbies and interiors are of a piece. Deckard’s apartment feels as though it truly belongs inside the real Ennis house. Frank Lloyd Wright never built a tower using his textile block method; Ridley Scott did it for him.
Despite the variety of methods involved, there is a remarkable continuity across Blade Runner’s actual and invented locations that ties them together. The palette of materials – stone, tile, brick, metal – is consistent. The filigree detailing of the Tyrell pyramid exterior echoes the ironwork of the Bradbury building, whose brick textures complement the concrete of the Ennis house, whose block pattern is similar to the reliefs on the counter fronts at Union station, whose coffered ceiling is replicated in the matte painting that provided Tyrell’s office with its own ceiling.
When creating the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, Scott’s experiences and an innate visual sense honed over many years as a designer and director gave him a complete understanding of the city as a built entity, from the dense urban grain of the street to the dominant American trope that is the skyscraper via the sprawling industrial belt that was his home. That same sensibility, coupled with the fresh perspective on an actual city often taken by a foreigner, ensured the components of his fictitious city, whether a model, a painting or a location, were perfectly chosen and knowingly assembled to build the most fully-realised future landscape ever filmed. Scott rooted the architecture of the future in the architecture of the past. For that reason, it still feels like a very current future.
This article is one of five that together form the online project Fragments of a hologram rose: Re-seeing Blade Runner. Find each from the subject pages for architecture, film, television, design and art
Posted May 2012