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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.

La Main Ouverte
L
e Corbusier
La Main Ouverte, 1955
Color lithograph

 

Le Corbusier (née Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) is most commonly known as an architectural thinker and urban planner responsible for authoring seminal treatises on design. Le Corbusier was one of the founding members of CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne), an influential organization that codified the standards of modern architecture and urban planning, most notably in the Athens Charter. His most famous architectural works include the Villa Savoye, Unité d’Habitation, and the Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp.

In addition to his life as an architect, urban planner, furniture designer, and writer, Le Corbusier was also a visual artist. His paintings and works on paper morphed in style throughout his life, many inspired, in turn, by Cubism, Surrealism, and Purism—the latter exhibiting his interest in geometric and volumetric understanding and experimentation. His later works tended to be more formally expressive, often abandoning visible relationships to objects and using bolder, more animated colors, as seen in his lithograph La Main Ouverte. Several of his later paintings and drawings served as studies for elements eventually realized in architectural projects. (His strongest works, said art critic Hilton Kramer, are those where “he was working in a pictorial realm that closely approximated the constructivist interests of his architectural designs.”[1]) La Main Ouverte is one of these pieces.

Le Corbusier developed a monumental proposal for La Main Ouverte (The Open Hand) after convening with Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister. In 1950, Le Corbusier was commissioned to build a new city for the state of Punjab, which had lost its capitol (Lahore) to Pakistan during the 1947 Partition. The new city of Chandigarh was meant to create a new vision for India, and a high modernist architect with egalitarian views like Le Corbusier seemed like the right man for the job. Le Corbusier created the urban plan for Chandigarh, complete with distinct sectors that included markets and green space, effectively keeping neighborhoods from merging into overwhelming shopping districts or overpopulated public spaces. As part of Chandigarh’s capitol complex—with the massive Secretariat and court buildings—Le Corbusier proposed the Open Hand Monument, which included a public assembly space and a symbol of optimism for the new nation. In his own words:

The Open Hand is the only political act of my life,” said Le Corbusier—though many would disagree, asserting that his controversial urban plans and codified architectural systems were both utopically egalitarian and dystopically anti-urban.

The idea for La Main Ouverte may have been a part of Le Corbusier’s symbolic oeuvre since the 1930s, having originated during a “[flash] of unexpected insight” in Paris.[2] The iteration pictured above comes significantly later in Le Corbusier’s career and, given the abstracted images of sky and sun in the background as well as a platform underneath the hand symbol, is likely a sketch for Chandigarh’s Open Hand Monument.

 

Free Open Hand
I
mage by Design Observer

Though the Open Hand Monument was proposed in 1954, it remained unbuilt until 1972, and even then did not achieve the contemplative atmosphere Le Corbusier had envisioned. The built monument, complete with a public amphitheater was virtually unused by Chandigarh’s residents, largely due to high levels of policing which barred groups from entering the space. Recently, however, groups of Chandigarh’s citizens have been fighting to activate the space, notably Humlog, a health activism organization. In 2010, the government officially lifted the ban on gatherings at the site, giving the public access to this publicly-owned space from 10:30­­–3:30 daily.[3]

The iconic Open Hand serves as the official logo of both the Fondation Corbusier and the City of Chandigarh.

 

– Reya Sehgal, Curatorial Assistant

 

[1] Hilton Kramer, “Looking at Le Corbusier the Painter,” New York Times January 29, 1972, p. 25.

[2] Jan Birksted, Le Corbusier and the Occult (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 57.

[3] Ashish Nangia, “The Town That Corbusier Built,” Design Observer, August 16, 2010, http://designobserver.com/feature/the-town-that-corbusier-built/15028/.

 

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