There’s a striking similarity between Douglas Trumbull and Ridley Scott’s pyramidal design for the “Tyrell Corporation” headquarters in Blade Runner (1982) and the photos I’ve seen of Michael Heizer’s monumental plaza, Complex City, which has been under construction in Garden Valley, Nevada since 1972. I’ve not seen any evidence that Trumbull & Scott would’ve been influenced by Heizer. I think the resemblance is probably nothing more than some shared archaeological interests. Still, I love the fact of the resemblance, because it really opens up a web of thinking about art and architecture’s relationship to the future. Both works explicitly and implicitly imagine futures, and both works have monumental properties: they commemorate the present for a viewer in distant time.
I want to start by outlining the web of connections, here:
- Both City and Tyrell Corporation are obviously pyramid structures, and the structures really are similar—it’s as if Heizer’s massive sculpture had been discovered by a future civilization and somehow wired up and inhabited (although, Blade Runner's only set in 2019, so it’s not looking good for that prognostication).
- Heizer’s original
drawings for the “Anaconda Project” are almost even more similar to Tyrell Corporation. Both have
the high shield wall that protect the inner pyramids. The drawing is compellingly dated, too (1981—just as Blade Runner was going into production), although, again, I see no evidence that Trumbull or Scott were aware of Heizer. Interestingly, Heizer never built the piece drawn here—he seems to have replaced it with “Effigy Tumuli” for his engagement with the Anaconda Mining Company.
- Heizer’s relationship to architecture and anthropology goes way back. His father, Robert Heizer, was an anthropologist. The “perforated object” he found in a Nevada cave was the inspiration for Michael’s sculpture of the same name.
- Heizer has specifically discussed the influence of The Burial Vault of Djoser, or Zoser, on his thinking about City. Saqqara, Egypt. 27th Century BC (!!!). “The first pyramid and the first big architecture” (Heizer).
- In Blade Runner, the Tyrell Corporation pyramids actually become the burial vault for the genius Tyrell himself. Not only does replicant Roy Batty kill Tyrell in his luxurious suite, atop the pyramid, but there’s a strange isolation surrounding Tyrell. Though the pyramid complex he occupies is massive, there’s no evidence of anyone else ever being there—perhaps we’re meant to imply that it’s a busy industrial center, but, other than his mysterious replicant servant, Rachel, there’s never anyone else around. Since Rachel’s fled, I can almost imagine Tyrell’s body simply decaying there, undiscovered for ages.
- Trumbull’s influences are a little harder to uncover than Heizer’s, though his work history has some interesting connections to architecture and archaeology. Before Blade Runner, Trumbull was working on a studio movie called Pyramid, which was canceled. After Blade Runner, Trumbull worked on several features for the Luxor Hotel Casino in Las Vegas.
- Both works project primitive futures. In Blade Runner, the future is in decline, and although it’s set in Los Angeles, it’s easy to recall Heizer’s description of living in New York. “It looked like it was decaying.” “The future is old,” says Ridley Scott, himself, in the documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner.
- Heizer explicitly imagined a post-nuclear future. He positioned Complex One in such a way that it reads as a blast shield. Garden Valley is just north of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, where aboveground tests took place from 1951-1962 (and belowground tests continued until 1992). Complex One is like a massive berm, a horizontal face toward the test site.
- Blade Runner’s future is more post-industrial than post-nuclear, it seems to me, but it’s similarly bleak.
- Heizer’s City complex is something like a mile
long. Tyrell Corp, literally, were two miniatures, 8 ft tall, lit
- In his interview with Julia Brown, Heizer is very compelling in discussing the relationship of his art to the future. “There’s very little point in making modern art for the ‘contemporary’ audience. Obviously these works are pointed to the future…. In our times there’s a real question about modernity and how far it stretches…. we have returned to a primitive stage…. I work with primordial materials—they’re modern if you agree with the idea that we are not really progressing…. We’re living in a world that’s technological and primordial simultaneously…. the insecurity of society, the frailty of its systems, the dependence upon interdependence.” Heizer sees us “nearing the end of civilization” and is clearly speaking to someone, something beyond us.
I'm sure there are more connections that could be drawn, here. I'm just an enthusiast who enjoys this constellation of thinking, spanning from 27 BC through the end of humanity, as projected by Heizer—a spiraling kind of DNA of influence and imagination and human capability and mortal longing.
I love the world Blade Runner creates—it’s beautiful, gritty, sensual, elegant. The socio-economics of it seem plausible, and Tyrell Industries (“more human than human is our motto”) is fascinating. Maybe our artificial intelligence isn’t quite up to Nexus Six standards, but how has our actual technology re-shaped the meaning of mortality? And Blade Runner’s philosophical / theological questioning of the maker and the made, the nature of life, consciousness as an engineered thing—I love seeing these interests abide in Scott’s work, and I’m hopeful that a sequel to Promtheus will inspire Scott to a signature moment in his career.
And then there’s the bleakness of the future that City imagines: it’s entwined with the explicit post-nuclear content, its remoteness, its primordial vocabulary—it reminds me of the system of warning signs and instructions that linguists and engineers have worked to design for a nuclear storage facility. How does one communicate to a possible future explorer who, millennia after all traces of our time have been obliterated, stumbles upon the remnants of our industry, still poisonous after 50,000 years?
To me, the temporality of City extends beyond the projections of all our science fiction toward an essential, elemental absence of sentience: a place and time where only forms remain. Even in the vacant, geological future, 20th century formalism will have a proponent. Of course, there are deeper currents than the aesthetic, aren’t there? We were here. Weren’t we? Is there a little bit of desperation in the gesture? Imagine feeling that you needed to make something that would out-live humanity. Imagine feeling you needed to shout down time itself. Maybe Michael Heizer is simply the most ambitious, persistent formalist ever.
Writing about Heizer in 1974, New York Magazine’s Thomas B. Hess draws some history forward that applies both to the artist in the desert and the fictional Tyrell (who, I think, had been “born” by then through the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—the basis for Blade Runner): “Giantism is a familiar architectural symptom, usually indicating the presence of a powerful ruler who dreams of leaving a mark on eternity (Ozymandian, Hadrian, Hitler)…. Heizer’s ambitions rival theirs…. Complex One crystallizes the arbitrary will of a mad emperor who has everything at his command—except an empire” (from page 102 of Sculpture in Reverse).
The Hitler comparison may apply to Tyrell, but it seems a little cheap, in its application to Heizer. Although it’s true that the artist’s ambitions—the scale and the impact and the cost of his work—have been criticized throughout his career, I’m not sure it’s fair to associate him with the murder of six million people.
Call me Romantic, but I can’t help but believe there’s something more than ego involved. To think of Complex City and the fictional Tyrell Corporatioon merely as monuments to the genius maker, the great ego, seems simplistic. I think of City as a voice into the future, that projects a swath of humanity—some of our ideas and forms, a primal vocabulary. I imagine that, from Heizer’s perepsective, it feels more like a calling that claims his life than it does a gesture of dominance. That’s pure speculation, though, I guess. And Tyrell? Look at the creatures he made—Roy Batty’s incredible poetic consciousness, and his tragic limitations. He gave life, really. He made them: Batty, Pris, Rachel, and, as I read the film, even the Blade Runner, Deckard himself. Their lives were beautiful and burdened. In all of this thinking, it’s the character of Roy Batty—a replicant in a 20th century novel and movie—that gives me the most hope. We have consciousness, will, a sense of our own power and powerlessness. Batty’s final soliloquy argues for the tragic beauty of our fleeting consciousness in a way that makes poetic witness seem both essential and achingly doomed:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched c-beams glitter in the dark
near the Tannhauser Gate.
All those moments will be lost in time
like tears in rain.”
Brown, Julia, ed. Michael Heizer: Sculpture in Reverse. Los Angeles: MOCA, 1984.