This presentation is a critical analysis of the post modern city as depicted in the movie Blade Runner. First of all, I will try to define dystopian architecture and present the theoretic background of the post modern city. Then I will describe the dominant spatial forms illustrated in the movie.
BLADE RUNNER’S SYNOPSIS
Concerning the film at hand; Blade Runner was filmed in 1982 by Ridley Scott and is a Neo-Noir science fiction film that depicts the dystopian Los Angeles of 2019. The film is an adaptation of the 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” written by Philip Dick. It takes place in a dystopian future when technology has advanced to the point, when it is able to create artificial humanoid robots called “replicants”. These replicans are designed with a four-year life span and are used as work force at colonies in other planets. The film follows a washed-up “Blade Runner”, a special police officer tasked with hunting down replicants who escaped to earth in search of their maker.
An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression and terror (1). The dystopian view of the world is developed especially in the 19th century Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and The Time Machine by Orson Welles (1895) . Science Fiction continues the utopic pre-existing literature and tries to solve the problems of the contemporary city (2). The dystopian architecture depicts a social hierarchy. The priority of technological placement makes the buildings cluttered and unreceptive to natural light. In the 20th century, a series of events led to the change of perspective about the future and the cities of tomorrow (World War II). Accordingly, utopian thinking abandons visions of ideal conditions and shifted to visions of destruction and disasters. In these visions, technology and authoritarian governance played a key role. Science Fiction (in both literature and art) became a way to express these dystopian visions of the bleak future, and also a way to search for solutions. The dystopian narratives tried to describe the form of the future cities while taking into consideration the contemporary events. It is only natural, that these narratives bended in many political directions. The dystopian themes also flirted with global ecologic disasters. So we have different futures, with intellectual machines, multinational corporations taking over, and people abandoning this planet. We see nuclear wars, increased pollution, and economic exploitation. Dark or not, the narratives in Sci-Fi use the contemporary events as an inspiration and project them to the future.
Back to the Blade Runner; a nuclear war has destroyed earth and most of living organisms, leaving radioactive dust. Future is described, not as a place of technological advancement, but as a problematic situation created by the imbalanced use of technological means. But what is the connection with the contemporary city?
Murray Bookchin in his book “Limits of the City” speaks of 29 metropolitan areas with more than one thousand residents constituting the 44% of global population in the 70s (3).
Lefevre on the other hand in his book “The Right to the City” (4) suggests that the governance in the post-1970’s cities is being reconfigured in three ways:
• First it is rescaled -the institutions an supranational scale are taking greater power
• The policy is being reorientated away from distribution and towards competition -where information, knowledge and technology are EVERYTHING-
• Finally there is a shift from government to governance -government transfers many of its powers and duties to complex networks of non-state institutions-
So Blade Runner’s City is a dystopian example of the future post modern city, where TYRELL corporation has all the knowledge, the know-how and the power, and is the centre of commerce. According to Marcus Doel and David Clarke, the film’s representation of post industrial decay expresses the new phase of capitalism (5). The focus on commerce has led to the extinction of all nature.
METROPOLIS AND BLADE RUNNER
At this point, I would like to connect Blade Runner with another movie which had great impact on the visualisation of the future cities: Metropolis, created in 1927 by Fritz Lang. The German Expressionistic style of Metropolis is similar to the style used in Blade Runner. In the city of Metropolis, we can clearly see the underground working class supporting the upper-middle class elite that lives in gardens and tall buildings. Metropolis’ city, divided between the ruling class on the top and the factory workers underneath, bears a similar resemblance with Blade Runner’s Los Angeles.
In Blade Runner there is a chaotic street level for the masses, namely the immigrant community, the deformed, the poor, the criminals and the ill. The streets are depicted as terribly overcrowded and packed. People are like ants, part of a flow, colorless, one with the mass. At the top are the police building and Tyrell’s pyramid, where the “creator” lives. The elite class is either on the top level on gone to other colonies. Sunlight is a privilege only shared among the wealthy.
The urban vision of Metropolis was seeded by the skyscraper boom in New York, so Manhattan is represented as an example of the future city. Blade runner on the other hand, is an amalgam of Tokyo, Shangai and New York. The eastern influence is justified, taking into consideration that Tokyo was the centre of technological advancements at the time, and it was believed that Tokyo would dominate the future. The ethnic and cultural confusion amplifies the continuous process of destruction and reconstruction of the contemporary city.
BLADE RUNNER’S LOS ANGELES
Film spaces carry out roles that support the narrative and provide the background for caracters. They are often used to communicate specific types of experiences to the viewers, evoking certain emotions and moods (7). For example, the dystopian city of Blade Runner evokes despair. Our sense of the spaces is constructed from glimpses and repeated patterns (8).
Blade Runner is a portrait of a failed society and a doomed urban environment (9). Humans are leaving the decaing world to live in the colonies. The future does not seem pure nor mathematical nor functional as LeCorbusier imagined. Instead it is controlled by corporate Frankensteins according to Skye Shermin (10).
The oppening scene of Blade Runner gives us a perfect view of this futuristic LIMITLESS city, as a warning for populaton increase and dense urban environment. (9). The post modern city of LA is vast and extends not only vertically but also horizontally. The industrialization is obvious with fire and smoke emitting from the tall buildings. The city in decay is as a huge factory working to support consumerism. The dark cityscape is only visible by the artificial lights.
With a closer look, we see a decaying architecture with lost public spaces and empty or abandoned buildings (9). This version of Los Angeles is an amalgam of old and new; crumbling buildings oppose to neon signs and digital advertise. And the ever-watching geisha, a symbol of consuming, sees everything. In addition of looking futuristic, LA looks old and deserted (11). The movie depicts a city forty years in the future that simultaneously could be 40 years in the past. The retro-future style of the movie (essential to the steampunk genre) was also a result of limited production cost. The result is Blade Runner driving his Sedan through the 2nd street tunnel in LA (12).
In order to really understand the urban structures in Blade Runner, we should talk about the symbolic buildings and archetypes. These landmarks visibly stand out from their context differing in form, shape and scale. They symbolize qualities like the Tyrell building of power and knowledge. Another important landmark is the police station which in fact, is the US Bank of Los Angeles.
But why the director uses real landmarks of the city of Los Angeles? During the movie we can see normal locations and everyday places but also extraordinary examples of architecture, like Frank Loyd Wright’s Ennis House. This iconic house was used for filming the interior of Deckard’s home and it was built in 1924. Wrigh uses similar forms, techniques and decorations to the Mayan decorations seen in Mexico.
The answer to the previous question is really simple. When you shift a city towards time, there is a lack of correspondence (12). These sites are used by the director to bridge the real LA with the fictional city of the future. This way, the viewer associates the location with the LA when he sees the interior of the police department that is in fact the Union Station.
Furthermore, we can see the Bradbury Building as the puppeteer’s house. This historical and most filmed building in the LA underlines the importance of preserving old buildings as part of the local heritage.
Finally the 2nd road tunnel is the only place that feels exactly like the movie, according to the fans, doing a pilgrimage to the Blade Runner locations.
The dystopian landscape of Blade Runner is inextricably linked with biblical images of disasters and distraction. First of all, during the hole movie we see the images of the endless rain of the Flood (especially at the final Battle). The chosen ones have entered Noah’s Arc to other planets while the corrupted are punished here on Earth. We see the towers of perverse knowledge and a corrupt city burning in its own fire and smoke (12). We can see the Pharaonic imagery of Tyrell’s pyramid, the art deco and the smaller additions that create a polyglot city. The multilinguality and scientific ambition transform the city to a futuristic Tower of Babel.
According to Julian Gitsham (9) in his speech about Blade Runner, futuristic LA is a vertical city of isolation. The depiction of vertical living reflects problems with today’s trend for building tall in major cities. For example, Deckard drives through the tunnel, takes the lift, walks to his apartment but he does not speak to a single person. When you build tall you can become extremely isolated. The film also shows Deckard entering whole skyscrapers that the general public cannot access. This fact resembles the gated communities that architects used to design and made cities to fail. Underneath all these huge buildings and skyscrapers like canyons, we find narrow places of slaves and “little people” (12). Images that are not very far from today’s images of poverty next to wealth.
To sum up, Abbott believes that Sci-Fi can help planers to understand the influence of a range o social theories on public understanding (2).
Architecture nowadays, tends to be all about branding. Science Fiction reveals the wish to recuperate a new role of theory which defers and resists this call to new order and consumerism. The ultimate goal is to find a more opened and less commercially conditioned role for architecture and architectural education (13).
Julian Hatsman (9) also believes that science fiction can inspire. He believes that Blade Runner is an excellent example of creativity and fantasy and should be used for professional education.
Overall, Sci-Fi is a critique of the present, and as a critique, can inspire different ideas concerning the way architects design and think. Moreover, it can be used to increase the knowledge and the critical discussion about the urban environments of the past, but also of the future. Finally Science-Fiction gives a great opportunity to include the cultural issues that arise from ethical concerns to the educational process.
NOTES / SOURCES
• (1) G.Negley & J. N. Patrick, Quest for Utopia (An Anthology of Imaginary Societies), 1952
• (2) Abbott Carl, Cyberpunk Cities: Science Fiction Meets Urban Theory, Portland State Uniersity, 2007
• (3) Murray Bookchin, The Limits of the City, Harper & Row , 1974
• (4) Henri Lafebvre, Le Droit à la ville, Seuil, 1972
• (5) David Clarke, The Cinematic City, 1997
• (6) Building Brave New Worlds, Architects’ Journal, Issue 19, Nov. 21 2014
• (7) Maha Zeini Al-Saati, David Botta, Robert Woodbury, Depictions of Architectural Spaces in Film, The International Journal of the Image, Volume 2, Issue 3, 2012, http://ontheimage.com/journal/, ISSN 2154-8560
• (8) Repeated Patterns, Kein 1998
• (9) Julian Gitsham, Keynote speaker at Building Brave New Worlds: The Architectural Visions of Sci-Fi Cinema, A Study Day at the British-Film Institute (BFI), London
• (10) Skye Sherwin, the Rise of the Mahines, Modernism on celluloid: from Utopia to Beyond, Modern Painters, April 1, 2006
• (11) Brian Webb
• (12) Will Brooker, The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic, London: Wallflower, 2005
• (13) Paul Walker (2014) Architecture Post Mortem: The Diastolic Architecture of Decline, Dystopia, and Death, Fabrications, 24:2, 290-292, DOI: 10.1080/10331867.2014.961225
• Antoine Picon, Robots and Architecture: Experiments Fiction Epistemology, Text © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: pp 54-5 © Emile Loreaux/Picturetank; p 57 © FRAC Centre, photography François Lauginie; pp 58-9 © Gramazio & Kohler, Architecture and Digital Fabrication, ETH Zurich
• David Desser, Race, Space and Class: The Politics of the SF Film from Metropolis to Blade Runner
• Douglas E. Williams, Ideology as Dystopia: An Interpretation of “Blade Runner”, International Political Science Review/ Revue internationale de science politique, Vol. 9, No. 4, (Oct., 1988), pp. 381-394, Sage Publications, Ltd.
• Douglas Spencer (2010) Replicant urbanism: the architecture of Hadid’s Central Building at BMW, Leipzig, The Journal of Architecture, 15:2, 181-207, DOI:10.1080/13602361003791044
• G. Negley & J. N. Patrick, Quest for Utopia (An Anthology of Imaginary Societies), 1952
• Maria Kontoudi (Μαρία Κοντούδη), Ουτοπία και Πόλη: 3 Διηγήματα Επιστημονικής Φαντασίας, University of Thessaly, Department of Architecture, Volos, Greece
• Michael Hanlon, Tall Buildings Got Off to a Poor Start with the Tower of Babel, but the Sky Really Is No Limit Now, The Times (London), May3, 2012 Thursday
• Terri Meyer Boake, Architecture and Film: Experiential Realities ans Dystopic Futures, University of Waterloo