Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
Fragments of a hologram rose: Re-seeing Blade Runner
“The postcard is a white light reflection hologram of a rose […] Holding it carefully between thumb and forefinger, he lowers the hologram toward the hidden rotating jaws. The unit emits a thin scream as steel teeth slash laminated plastic and the rose is shredded into a thousand fragments […] Parker lies in darkness, recalling the thousand fragments of the hologram rose. A hologram has this quality: recovered and illuminated, each fragment will reveal the whole […] from a different angle”
- Fragments of a Hologram Rose by William Gibson, first published 1977
The city and the city The architecture of Los Angeles, 2019
Despite its science fiction elements Blade Runner is a film noir, and the city is to film noir what the prairie is to the western. Indeed, an early version of the Blade Runner script included an atmospheric opening sequence which took Deckard from the latter to the former. Stretching over an afternoon and early evening and almost free of dialogue, the scene subtly linked the two genres before firmly establishing Blade Runner as metropolitan rather than rural.
New York and Los Angeles have been frequent noir locations. Dick’s novel was set in a decrepit, depopulated San Francisco, atmospherically caught in an early passage: “In a giant, empty, decaying building which had once housed thousands, a single TV set hawked its wares to an uninhabited room. This ownerless ruin had, before World War Terminus, been tended and maintained. Here had been the suburbs of San Francisco, a short ride by monorail rapid transit; the entire peninsula had chattered like a bird tree with life and opinions and complaints, and now the watchful owners had either died or migrated to a colony world.” San Francisco, too, had featured in important films noir, most notably Dark Passage (1947) starring Bogart and Bacall and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
Meanwhile, although Dick’s lifeless city was a powerful conceit, Scott felt that overpopulation would be a more appropriate background for Blade Runner regardless of his eventual choice of setting. In this respect, one can read Blade Runner’s post-industrial, overcrowded Los Angeles as successor to the New York of Richard Fleischer's Soylent Green, set in 2022 but released in 1973.
Although Blade Runner sits outside the canon of post-apocalyptic science fiction films made by American studios in the 1960s and 1970s, its source novel’s sensibility remains firmly rooted in the concerns of that era and Scott’s film honours this despite the shift in location and reversal of the principal population fear: “So we […] came up with a megalopolis — the kind of city that could be where New York and Chicago join, with maybe a hundred million people living there. Or maybe San Francisco and Los Angeles. In fact, at one point we were going to call the city San Angeles, which would of course have suggested that the eight-hundred¬-mile-long western seaboard had been transformed into a single population centre with giant cities and monolithic buildings at either end and then this strange kind of awful suburb in the mid¬dle.”
The megalopolis concept had in fact originated with architects and planners decades previously, but reading of the ‘Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis’, or BAMA, in cyberpunk writer William Gibson’s early short stories, published from the late 1970s, may have been a more direct influence on Scott’s thinking. Ten years after Blade Runner, science fiction action film Demolition Man adopted ‘San Angeles’ as its setting, albeit slightly differently constituted geographically.
In deciding where to situate his entry into the genre, the correct found aesthetic was paramount for Scott, but unsurprisingly the likely cost and practicalities of obtaining, altering and securing a large-enough section of townscape for the necessary time period also began to tell.
The complex – not to say conflicting – nature of all of these inter-related considerations no doubt contributed to the ambiguity that surrounds the name of the city in which the film is set that pervades much of Blade Runner’s early publicity material, with New York – to which many critics felt the film’s final look bore an obvious resemblance – being cited as often as any other.
Budget and convenience played a large part in the final decision to choose Los Angeles, although Scott had also identified a number of specific buildings in the city where he wished to film. These issues apart, the presentation of Los Angeles as rain-lashed, in permanent darkness and with its downtown area lost in an endless Satanic factory-scape might be considered somewhat satirical, especially when performed by a Briton from his country’s industrial north east.
Ironically the majority of Blade Runner’s street scenes were shot at Warner Brothers’ Burbank studios in California on the historic ‘New York’ outdoor street set. Simulating a typical small section of that city, its buildings had featured in countless classic films noir from Hollywood’s golden age including The Maltese Falcon. For the new production, they would acquire a very different look. “Our job,” said production designer Lawrence G. Paull, “was to take the street and design it into the future.”
Industrial designer Syd Mead was initially engaged only to visualise the film’s vehicles. Other than the Spinner, he showed these not as slick and shiny but dirty and used, added-to and evolved. Applying his normal technique of placing any such design into a realistic background to give it context and make it more believable, he used the same logic for Blade Runner’s streets and buildings: “The buildings would just become surfaces on which you'd mount retrofitted electrical conduits, air conditioning ducts and all kinds of other things. Additional power would come from a generator sitting on the street – which might be there for years, but initially it was a temporary idea. And then these big cables would be running up the sides of all the buildings […] It had to look like what it was. And what it was was a city whose discreet [sic] individual structures had been enveloped into sort of an urban machine, with people living inside."
Scott took to Mead’s idea immediately. It became known as retrofitting, and would create a near-future streetscape that was not only credible but particular to the film-makers’ vision of 2019 Los Angeles. It is also tempting to draw a parallel with two contemporary British architectural practices whose work Scott, a design graduate, is likely to have been aware of. Pop culture collective Archigram had popularised the idea of component-based ‘plug-in’ buildings in the 1960s, whilst Richard Rogers and Italian Renzo Piano deployed something akin to this the following decade with their winning entry for the Pompidou arts centre competition in Paris. This included roof-mounted cranes to maintain the exterior and a large external ‘information wall’. Completed in 1977 the actual building, with its intricately-articulated externalised structure, colour-coded service pipes and massive advertising hoardings, could sit quite easily within the Blade Runner landscape. Scott has hinted at this in interview.
Mead developed specifics by sketching on photographs of the Burbank set. These collages were then used to inform sumptuous full-colour production paintings and, after Scott’s approval, the art department’s practical work. This involved sourcing industrial fittings, waste and machine parts to dress the buildings in order to bring Mead’s designs to life.
A single street would be insufficient to achieve the scope of Scott’s vision, however.
First, specially-shot photographs of actual Los Angeles buildings were commissioned and used as reference to create large-scale miniatures. These were needed for the visual effects work necessary to smooth the transition between street level, as filmed on the Burbank backlot, and the wider city landscape, especially during Deckard and Gaff’s initial Spinner flight.
Throughout the making of Blade Runner, Scott enacted near-obsessive attempts to commit to celluloid a plausible future that would not date. This would ensure longevity for the film as a credible artistic achievement, as well as being entirely appropriate for the noirish story that he wished to tell. Indeed, Scott has been quoted as saying that Blade Runner “is a film set forty years hence, made in the style of forty years ago”.
In keeping with this dictum, the city’s modern steel and glass skyscrapers were studiously avoided during this process in favour of its more textural inter-war Art Deco and Moderne architecture. Moreover, the buildings scouted were not duplicated; instead individual architectural elements were taken and used to create buildings that were fictional but which could have come from the period.
Made at inch-to-the-foot scale in order to exploit the many ready-made items available commercially for dolls’ house enthusiasts, the painstakingly-crafted models stood many feet high and featured lit, fully-furnished interiors behind their windows. Copying the Burbank set, the same retrofitting concept was then applied. Dirtied-down and entangled with cables and servicing units, the jaunty geometric scallops, flutings and bandings that so characterise the Deco and Moderne movements now spoke of long-faded glamour and down-at-heel grit.
Behind-the-scenes stills of these buildings, juxtaposed with images of the kind of Los Angeles architecture they were modelled on, reveal an intense realism. Their period facades also recall the old, cold European cities of comic creator Enki Bilal. Scott greatly admired his work, which had appeared in French punk comic Metal Hurlant in the late 1970s, and used it to inform several aspects of Blade Runner’s look.
One of these miniatures was built for a scene intended to establish the relationship between the aging core of the city and the seemingly limitless field of petrochemical works – nicknamed the Hades landscape by the crew – surrounding it. A rooftop, framed by equally finely detailed models of the sides of two other buildings, was to be seen in the foreground, with the Hades landscape beyond. How this scene was to fit within the narrative is not known. Although shot, it was not used in any known version of the film.
Nestled amongst these buildings is the police precinct, a cylindrical tower with elevations featuring forward-stepped, radiused bays that are reminiscent of a genuine architectural icon. Model maker Mark Stetson is quoted as saying that Scott “had kind of an infatuation with the Chrysler Building”, and this appears to have set up a subtle architectural and design typology for Blade Runner that stretches beyond the precinct’s walls. The actual Chrysler Building would appear fleetingly but lovingly in Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me five years later.
In one of Blade Runner’s most impressive and dynamically-shot sequences, Deckard and Gaff approach the precinct building in a Spinner and spiral down to its roof, which is equipped with landing pads that retract into hangars below. This breathtaking scene is one of the most celebrated in the film, and was inspired by Scott’s lifestyle as a hugely successful director of television commercials: “I used to fly in and out of New York a lot over a period of about five years, back before they stopped the helicopters landing on top of the Pan American Building. It was seven minutes from the airport to the roof, and I could remember coming in in January or February – in blizzards and high winds – and landing on the Pan Am Building. We used to drift in over the city, very close to the buildings, and it felt like the way of the future”.
Scott is referring to the scheduled helicopter service that was operated by New York Airways between the roof of the 59-storey Pan Am building and New York’s airports and airfields. Beginning in 1965, shortly after the Pan Am tower was completed, the service had featured in the 1968 Clint Eastwood film Coogan’s Bluff. For Scott it seemed a perfect pointer to a future where “every building would have a landing platform on its roof […] some future city where the World Trade Center might be half the size of some other buildings, and where rotorless jump-jet platforms are on every rooftop, is not terribly far-fetched […] The first vehicles would be police. The police, by then, will be paramilitary – they're already paramilitary in Los Angeles. Then there'd be corporate and other official vehicles, and already you'd be creating a helluva traffic jam in the air. But we all agreed and felt that that was pretty much the way the cities will go. And also, for us, it was a very nice visual notion."
The New York Airways service ceased in 1977 after a fatal accident, but present-day Rio de Janeiro, where there are more helicopters registered than in New York and more helipads than in the entire United Kingdom, could be viewed as a validation of Scott’s prediction. And whilst the current Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division has no Spinners, it does operate nearly twenty helicopters, and from a rooftop base.
For scenes set over the Hades landscape itself, a forced-perspective miniature composed of a few foreground models in three dimensions and thousands of successively smaller etched brass cut-outs was used to simulate the numerous catalytic converter towers. Filming in smoke, with flame effects added optically, completed the illusion.
This district was dominated by the Tyrell Corporation headquarters, an identical pair of pyramids with dramatically-angled detached buttresses to each side. The reference to ancient Egypt or South American civilisations is strengthened by the choice of an owl as Tyrell’s pet and would have been inescapable had the scripted revelation of Eldon Tyrell’s sarcophagus at its summit been filmed. In the years since Blade Runner was made, highly sophisticated digital modelling, engineering stress analyses and computer-aided manufacturing has allowed a number of buildings with angled facades to be created in the real world. The Luxor Las Vegas hotel and casino, completed in 1993, takes the form of a glass pyramid. It even has inclined elevators, similar to that at the Tyrell building, but at only 30 storeys high is many times smaller than Blade Runner’s megalomanic monument. The uniquely-styled China Central Television headquarters, opened in 2008, angles much of its superstructure over void to alarming effect.
As the miniature buildings were being crafted, however, Scott suddenly requested two fundamental changes to the built environment of Blade Runner. The city core was to be massively expanded, and its new blocks would represent a radical change in scale height – many hundreds of storeys rather than a few dozen.
Mead described the new approach: "The old city structures would still be there, but the buildings might now be hollowed out and used as service access or plenum chambers for the really big megastructures above them. Or maybe the building would be left where it was, but with a whole column built inside; so you'd have a normal five-story building, and then out of the top of it would be a big pylon that would go up a hun¬dred stories to the underside of another building. So there'd be all this incredible changing scale. And I don't think it's too far-fetched. If today we can build the World Trade Center, which is two buildings, side-by-side, about eleven hundred feet tall, it seems reasonable to assume that forty years into the future —with better steels and technology and computerized wind loading and such — we could probably at least triple that as a fairly common occurrence. And it's also reasonable to assume that if that happens, the older sections of the city — those closest to the ground — will be the least desirable for living and working.”
A network of high-level roads was to be strung between the new blocks, an extrapolation of Los Angeles’s existing freeway system. This was critical to establishing a scale for Los Angeles whereby “the viewer looks up the equivalent of seventy stories to a huge platform. When one realizes that this is merely the underside of a free-way type of intersection for spinners, located at the entrance level of one of these skyscrapers, their immense size is hammered home”, to quote some publicity.
This new, extended urban vista has countless precedents in twentieth-century culture.
Science fiction has brought such visions to life across a range of media, from the covers of a hundred pulp novels through Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (whose look was inspired by Lang’s impression of New York and which, in turn, was in Blade Runner’s team’s minds) to Frank Hampson’s art for Dan Dare. Fascinatingly, just a few years before production of Blade Runner began, the first Judge Dredd story for new British
This sequence of images, taken from different sources but, fortuitously, showing exactly the same part of the New York street set on the Burbank backlot, demonstrates how it was transformed for Blade Runner. The oblique aerial view shows the very set used for Blade Runner, twenty five years on. The slightly kinked, left-hand façade of the triangular block in the centre can be clearly identified as the subject of the picture that follows. Retrofitting this facade can be seen in rare daylight photographs. Note the dancers’ clear tubes, the streetlights and the ducting.
Art Deco and Moderne buildings in Los Angeles, of the type sampled by the production to glean visual references for the series of large-scale miniatures initially thought sufficient to create visual effects footage for the Spinner flight sequences (Rizzoli)
The miniatures under fabrication. Note the architectural detail, the retrofitted pipes and the remarkably convincing overall appearance
Exceptionally rare on-set photograph of the absorbing rooftop shot, meant as a bridge between the miniatures and the smaller-scale Hades landscape. Two models and a painted backdrop made up the set piece, here being filmed. The footage has not surfaced in any form
The large-scale model of the police precinct house, inspired by William Van Alen’s Chrysler Building...