Spotlight: Mentor Huebner’s “Exterior Overpass”

Mentor HuebnerMentor Huebner, Exterior Overpass, drawing for “Blade Runner,” c. 1982
Sepia sketch on tissue
Anonymous gift

Ridley Scott’s iconic film Blade Runner pictures a dystopic vision of our global urban future, replete with environmental decay, apocalyptic population density, and the looming threat of posthumanism. One of the film’s most notable characteristics is its complex architectural environment.

In Mentor Huebner’s Exterior overpass (c. 1982), seen above, this architectural environment is hand-drawn, a sketch for an artwork ultimately authored by Scott’s art direction team. Huebner’s drawing for Blade Runner, however, is not simply disposable, a “mere [byproduct] of the artistic process.”[1] It is itself an object, both a relic of a speculative filmic future and a testament to the handmade. Huebner’s sepia ink drawing feels deeply physical, a pen the extension of the human hand, immediately challenging the bionic future Scott’s replicants allude to; the drawing is certainly distinct, too, from processes of set-dressing, architectural modeling, and photomontaging that make up the environment of the film. Though this particular drawing is unrealized in the film, it shares an insight into the visioning process, capturing elements seen briefly on the silver screen.

As Dietrich Neumann, curator of Film Architecture: Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner at the Bell Gallery, notes:

Expansive sets, whose construction might have taken months and cost millions, often show up on screen for mere minutes or even seconds, and the spectator might indeed be distracted by the plot at this very moment. Closer examination of sets requires a certain disrespect for the technical conditions of the medium, which characteristically determine and limit the time and space for its contemplation. We have to stop the film, so to speak, in order to study frame enlargements or stills or rewind the film to see a specific scene several times. In this particular situation, sketches, drawings, blueprints, and models gain even more importance than they might possess for actual built architecture.[2]

Accordingly, a close reading of Huebner’s drawing allows film architecture to be understood as a distinct category—architecture created only for its visuality, seen through the lens of narrative fiction.

Huebner’s vision invokes a complex layering of urban species: the Louis Sullivan-era Chicago department store; the Chinoiserie of American Chinatowns; crosshatching highways reminiscent of the GM-sponsored Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair; a Monorail, not unlike the one opened by Disney in 1971; monolithic towers with a Gothic emphasis on verticality. Here, Batman’s Gotham meets a Los Angeles taken to its wildest conclusion, a dystopic, acid rain-strewn city of unthinkable density with hints of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. 2019, the year in which Blade Runner is to take place, is fast approaching, and LA looks nothing like this, nor does it look like the hyper-technological Hades depicted in the film. Both these urban visions, however, highlight deeply felt anxieties about class, placelessness, and the speed of change.

Huebner’s drawing illustrates mobility in this revisionist LA, with a distinct separation of classes—those walking the streets; the endless stream of drivers on distinct and interweaving highways; the Monorail riders; and, elsewhere, the spinners, spaceship-like vehicles that fly above the dense mess of the street (Blade Runner’s protagonist, Deckard, rides around in this mythical vessel). Cars trudge off the frame, cautioned to travel slowly, the monorail zooms forward, and pedestrians traverse the slick streets, one seemingly running toward the Chinatown gate. There is anxiety about mixing here, with the segregated highways invoking Le Corbusier’s idealized cordon sanitaire in Algeria, separating the colonized casbah from the Central Business District-to-suburb greenbelt.[3]

Huebner, about whom little is written, was but one of the designers who contributed to the eventual realization of Blade Runner’s visual environment, under the direction of “visual futurist” Syd Mead, and, ultimately, director Ridley Scott.[4] However, his sepia ink sketches clearly shaped the architectural environment of the film, enriching the complex landscape that has puzzled and enchanted sci-fi enthusiasts and architectural theorists alike for more than thirty years.

 

— Reya Sehgal, Curatorial Assistant

 

 

[1] Dietrich Neumann, Film Architecture: Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1996), 7.

[2] Ibid, 9.

[3] Zeynep Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers Under French Rule (Berkeley: UC Press, 1997), 40.

[4] Michael Webb, “’Like Today, Only More So’: The Credible Dystopia of Blade Runner,” in Film Architecture, 45.

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