The Fence

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words Edwin Heathcote

From Double Indemnity to Blade Runner, LA's Bradbury Building forms the quintessential film noir backdrop.

There used to be a sign on the blank wall neighbouring Los Angeles' Bradbury Building that read "CANADA". When it appeared in Blade Runner in 1981, the CA had been removed leaving the word NADA. Very dark. Very noir. Very existential.

The Bradbury Building has become the home of a certain kind of doomed detective, the amateur up against it, against time. "What seems to be the problem?" asks corporate megalomaniac Tyrell in Blade Ranner. "Death" answers Batty, Rutger Hauer's deranged killer cyborg.

Death is always the problem in film noir. One of its most distinctive tropes is the hero who reveals at the beginning that he is dying. The 80 minutes of succinct darkness that follow is all suspense, but the fatal outcome is never in doubt. And the Bradbury Building is its architectural cipher.

But it doesn't feel like death. Well-lit, airy, clean, walking around it today it's hard to believe it became quite such a noir icon. None of the trash strewn around for Blade Runner, lacking the low-lifes or sleazes who populated Marlowe or Chinatown (both of which used the building) and somehow more beige, more bright than it ever was in black and white.

The Bradbury was probably designed by a draftsman, George Wyman, who only took the commission in 1893 after his boss had been thrown off it (for lack of vision) and a ouija board suggested it would be the making of his career. It wasn't.

It did, however, produce one of the most memorable and enduring buildings in Hollywood history, a visionary landmark which has survived to become the oldest remaining commercial building in the centre of an LA downtown that Norman M Klein has called the "most photographed and least remembered city in the world".

Raymond Chandler renamed the Bradbury the Belfont in The High Window, calling it "eight storeys of nothing in particular", although he liked the cage lifts which are so central to its appeal. Outside there's little to remember, but inside it reveals itself. Wyman had been influenced by Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1887) a gloopy cocktail of William Morris' saccharine News from Nowhere and Rip van Winkle, in which the hero wakes up and finds himself, in 2000, in a socialist, syndicalist utopia. Bellamy described one of the buildings of the brave new world as vast halls full of light.

The atrium - here enclosed in filigree wrought iron and glazed brick and punctured by those attenuated lift cages and a wrought iron internal mail distribution system - is an extraordinary piece of work. It exists somewhere between retro sci-fi and Walter Benjamin's dissection of the Parisian arcades. It is a building, like the Parisian passages, about the animation of the dead, dark space at the heart of the engorged city block, about shutting out the city but creating a microcosmic metropolis of iron galleries and towers. It contains within it the memory of the prison walkways and the cells leading off, the surreal cities within cities of the seductive shopping arcade and the germ of their successors, that ultimate Los Angeles typology, the mall.

It was these multiple memories that made it so evocative, so powerful, a background capable of suggesting myriad dreams and nightmares yet avoiding the specifics of place. Perhaps the CA that went missing from the neighbouring sign stood for "California", because this is a building that seems not of its city, always ready for a deracinated future world. Its theatrical, disembodied essence made it the default setting for noir denouement.

In DOA (1950), the protagonist begins by walking into a police station to report his own murder. His quest is to find the man who poisoned him and, with only hours to live, he finds him in the Bradbury and pumps a full magazine into him on the stairwell. The implications are clear, the paths up and down, heaven and hell, Bradbury as limbo. It appears again as the office into which Walter Neff, insurance salesmen and seduced murderer, staggers bleeding to tell his story onto dictaphone in Double Indemnity (1944). Neff never makes the stairs.

Is Deckard, the Blade Runner, going up? The garbage-strewn interior of the Bradbury plays home to JF Sebastian, master robot-maker, the house of the creator. Deckard ascends in the cage lifts and ends up fighting rogue replicant Batty on the roof and cornice, so it looks that way.

The most famous sliver of celluloid downtown is now home to the LAPD Department of Internal Affairs. Cleaned up, sanitised, a cornerstone of the stuttering attempt to give the most famous centreless city its old centre back, the building seems to have found its perfect role, the embodiment of the noir city. The Bradbury proves that building can be protagonist. Icons all want to be stars; this is character-actor architecture, and it's still around and as cool as hell.

Edwin Heathcote is the Financial Times' architecture critic and a regular icon contributor

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