Visual Futurist: The Art and Life of Syd Mead

For legendary illustrator Syd Mead, science fiction is “reality ahead of schedule.”

That should give architects pause. Mead is responsible for the intense settings of the 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner. His brilliant, disturbing vision of Los Angeles, circa 2019 (above), defined for a generation the look and feel of civilization's imminent collapse.

Mead didn't conjure his future L.A. from scratch. He blew up a Manhattan skyline by 300 percent and made a few modifications. He figured that stretching the skyscrapers to 3,000 feet would mean accommodating many more people, so he redesigned the bases as pyramids to provide more entryways. He mixed a stew of historical styles into what he calls “retro deco.” The darkly glorious results are preserved in the book Oblagon: Concepts of Syd Mead. A quarter-century later, we're still not there. But the fantasy looks strangely plausible.

Credit: Syd Mead, Oblagon Inc., www.sydmead.com

At 73, Mead is in his element. His work was recognized in October with a special jury commendation from the Smithsonian's National Design Awards. A director's cut of Blade Runner is due for release next year, on the film's 25th anniversary. And a documentary, Visual Futurist: The Art and Life of Syd Mead, is making the rounds. Writer/director Joaquin Montalvan captures Mead as a bespectacled genius at the drawing table, tweaking elements of industrial engineering into the stuff of dreams.

Mead, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., began making his mark on Hollywood with the V'ger spaceship for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). He created the electronic netherworld of Tron (1982), the Sulaco spacecraft for Aliens (1986), the Leonov ship in 2010 (1984), and a mask-making machine for this year's Mission: Impossible III.

Mead has designed superyachts, nightclubs, theme parks, hotels, video games, snowboard graphics, and an $87-million flying palace for the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. Current projects include a tower for a client in the Middle East, which springs from a base that looks suspiciously like a flying saucer.

Mead describes himself as “disturbingly rational,” but is willing to concede that others might see him as “carefully crazy.”

He sees little mystery in his method, which involves painting meticulous scenarios that bring scripts to life and provide the basis for prop and set construction. The scale is inevitably larger than life, the silence deafening, the scenes—trucks marching across a moonscape on robotic legs—bizarre

“The premise is based more on science than on fiction,” Mead says. “You can't imagine something you can't imagine.”

Blade Runner remains his monument. Unlike Metropolis (1927), which portrayed the city of the future as clean and smoothly functional, Mead made Blade Runner chaotic and technical “in an almost punitive way.”

Mead personally doesn't subscribe to that bleak view, and as proof he points to an illustration in Oblagon showing a utopian city in full sun. That's his way of saying the future might yet bring “Elysian gardens, at least in pockets,” if we get our act together. (107 minutes; www.withoutabox.com)


Sketches of Frank Gehry

  • Credit: Sony

The world's best-known architect comes across as cheery, if complicated, in director Sydney Pollack's warmly appealing bio-documentary. But the plot never twists far enough to explain where Gehry's radical vision comes from or how he persuades clients to test the limits of probability, as his masterworks such as the Guggenheim Bilbao do. For illumination on that talent, seek out Jeffrey Kipnis' 2003 film, A Constructive Madness: Wherein Frank Gehry & Peter Lewis Spend a Fortune and a Decade, End Up With Nothing and Change the World. (83 minutes; www.amazon.com)


Building for Democracy: The Small Town Banks of Louis Sullivan

  • Credit: Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota

Louis Sullivan (1856–1924) was past his peak when he accepted commissions for eight banks across the Midwest. The buildings remembered in this Siena Workshop documentary would never steal the limelight from his skyscrapers, but they prove that originality never eluded the architect. (35 minutes; www.fedvid.com/siena)