We visit the Bradbury Building, where the past and future collide in Blade Runner

We visit the Bradbury Building, where the past and future collide in Blade Runner

Pop Pilgrims
Season 3

When Ridley Scott needed a place to stage the climax of Blade Runner—his sci-fi noir set in a future Los Angeles that’s also a graveyard of its past—he found it, and the film’s conceptual epicenter, in the Bradbury Building. The architectural marvel has been around since 1893, its elaborate wrought-iron railings, cage elevators propelled by exposed gears and pulleys, and enormous peaked skylight all straddling several centuries of design past and yet-to-be. Like the world depicted in the film, it’s a clash that makes the Bradbury feel completely divorced from time. And like a Replicant, it’s a thing of power and beauty, crafted from cold mechanics. 

As pointed out by our guest, film locations expert Harry Medved, it’s also a really great place to stage a detective story. Over the years, the Bradbury has played host to numerous cat-and-mouse games, long before Harrison Ford prowled it looking for Rutger Hauer, including classic noirs like D.O.A. (and some not-so-classics like I, The Jury). The wide, facing sets of staircases and long, parallel landings provide the perfect environment for stalking and chasing. All five floors look down upon an open court that practically begs for a shootout scene or someone plummeting to their death. It’s even got genuine detective bona fides, seeing as the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Department currently calls it home. 

Likewise, the Bradbury’s connection to tales of the strange and fantastic also goes back for decades—way before Blade Runner, or its appearance in The Outer Limits episode “Demon With A Glass Hand”—to its very inception. According to legend, the building’s architect, George Wyman, initially refused to take on the project, but relented after a conversation he says he had with his dead brother through a Ouija board. Wyman claims he received a message from beyond reading, “Take the Bradbury building and you will be successful” (with the word “successful” written upside down). For years, that message resided in the possession of Wyman’s grandson—the late author, collector, and all-around science-fiction enthusiast Forrest J. Ackerman. 

Even Wyman’s design had its roots in sci-fi, inspired as it was by Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, an 1887 novel that envisioned a utopian society in the far-off year 2000. In Bellamy’s future, the average commercial building was a “vast hall of light” flooded by an overhead dome—a description Wyman made a reality in the Bradbury, which glows from its center with a heart of pure sunshine. The surrounding railings, gnarled to create the illusion of growing vegetation, complete the impression of life emanating from so much dead marble and iron.

Of course, by the time Ridley Scott sought the Bradbury out in 1981, it wasn’t life he was looking for. By then the building had fallen into disrepair, its once-grand interior dilapidated and thus easily transformed into the sort of murky, neglected corner that William Sanderson’s J.F. Sebastian could hole up in and similarly age before his time. As glimpsed in the movie, across the street there was also the Million Dollar Theater—once the lavish playground of film’s most famous stars, now mostly a memorial to that golden era. The Bradbury and its section of South Broadway was thus the perfect setting for a future Los Angeles that seemed to be suffocating on the broken reminders of itself.

It’s gotten better. A massive restoration of the Bradbury was undertaken in 1991, and as the real world nears the dystopian 2019 seen in the film, the 2013 Bradbury gleams and bustles with both tenants and visiting cinema buffs. Its depiction in more modern movies reflects that rebirth: It’s the place where Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes, full of optimism, to seek new opportunities professional and otherwise at the end of (500) Days Of Summer. It’s where Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo symbolically meet on the stairs in The Artist, what’s behind and what’s to come once more crossing trajectories in the Bradbury’s halls. And even if, let’s say, Los Angeles does become an unlivable wasteland prompting its citizens to seek new lives in off-world colonies, it seems likely that the Bradbury will still be standing, a lasting monument to dreams of the future.