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Goodbye Syd Mead: A conversation with the artist who illustrated the urban future

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In 2015, we spoke with the visionary designer behind the look of Blade Runner and other sci-fi classics

An illustration of a futuristic city with dark, pyramidal buildings.
Gouache rendering titled “San Angeles,” a cityscape for Blade Runner (1981). The original painting was lost on tour when exhibited in 1991.
All images courtesy Syd Mead

Editor’s note: Due to complications of lymphoma cancer, Syd Mead passed away this morning at 4:30am in Pasadena, California, according to Roger Servick, his partner and business manager.

“We don’t go into the future from zero, we drag the whole past in with us.” Many of us have predictions or pictures in our heads of what the future might look like. Syd Mead—a noted illustrator, concept artist, and visual futurist—is one of the rare few who was asked to put those images onto paper and out into the world.

For decades, his groundbreaking designs and artwork for a variety of corporations, creative firms, and cinematic projects have become synonymous with looking forward. His film work alone, which includes Blade Runner (he worked on the original and consulted on Blade Runner 2049), Aliens, and TRON, gave a generation a glimpse into what technology and design may have in store. Mead says that he would use architecture as a sort of “magical background” in his work. Curbed spoke with him in 2015 about his architectural influences and his views on the future of urban design.

Artist Syd Mead’s drawing of hydroponic agriculture in outer space depicts the inside of a massive curved space station that includes a lake, landscaped terraces, and in the foreground, a man in a scientific lab building among plants growing in rows like crops.
Gouache rendering for National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe (1980) depicting hydroponic agriculture in space. This rendering was the inspiration for Elysium.

Are there any particular architectural influences, either buildings or architects, that really stick out to you when you think of your work?

Not in that way. I appreciate architecture with function, Greek and Roman classics. Contemporary architecture is architecture as object, as structure. I liked Johnson's AT&T building in New York, which was really controversial at the time, and Yamasaki's Twin Towers. It was 110 stories all with the same floor plan. It had never been done before. Buildings now, like the Shard, Sir Norman Foster's Gherkin, even Bilbao, can be spectacular, but this isn't architecture in the classic sense. We're doing it because we can. For example, those mile-high buildings, the occupiable floors at the top become minuscule because you can't support a full floor up there. Occupiable floors, not just height, make a skyscraper. You can build a radio tower thousands of feet high and support it with guide wire. But to me that's not the point.

What were your influences for Blade Runner?

For a city in 2019, which isn't that far from now, I used the model of Western cities like New York or Chicago that were laid out after the invention of mass transit and automobiles, with grids and linear transport. I thought, we're at 2,500 feet now, let's boost it to 3,000 feet, and then pretend the city has an upper city and lower city. The street level becomes the basement, and decent people just don't want to go there. In my mind, all the tall buildings have a sky lobby, and nobody goes below the 30th floor, and that's the way life would be organized.

An illustration of a futuristic streetscape with robotic cabs and yellowish lighting.
Gouache preliminary rendering for Blade Runner featuring the design of the Taxi Cab vehicle and a suggestion for a re-dress of existing buildings on the Warner Brothers’ backlot.

It seems like with the race for super-tall structures today, that vision of the future is looming.

It's coming. With modern materials, you're not as limited with building height; even something like electromagnetic elevators helps, since you don't need cables, which get too heavy in tall buildings.

Were there specific buildings or architects who may have informed the design of the Tyrell Building?

Angkor Wat, the Mayans … old societies built these massive, mostly ceremonial structures, mostly to a deity's ego. So it's been done before.

Blade Runner showcased futuristic technology, such as hovering vehicles. If someone asked you to look at today's technology—smart phones, smart homes, driverless cars and screens everywhere—and design buildings and cities for 30 years in the future, what would they look like?

We can go taller, but that's not the point. Let's face it; nobody needs a 2,500-foot-tall building. I think we're going to start building rural environments over existing city plans. You'll eventually have large, enclosed buildings. It started with shopping malls, and China just built the single largest building in the world with a wave machine and a beach. It's an ugly building, a huge, ugly accomplishment. If I was painting a picture of a future urban city, I'd have a few tall buildings, which are fashionable right now, but I'd also have floating rural areas over some of the existing architecture.

A rendering of a futuristic Los Angeles streetscape featuring Japanese lettering and next-generation vehicles.
Gouache preliminary rendering for Blade Runner featuring Sebastian’s truck, nicknamed “the Armadillo,” and the subway entrance which was created on the Warner Bros. backlot.

You spent years making architectural renderings as a job; who did you work for and what kind of buildings did you draw?

I worked for 3D International in Houston, Gresham & Smith, so I've done a lot, exterior and interior. This was before computer rendering, so I was the only one who could do this precise, artistic painting of a nonexistent building. The bankers, they don't know what they're looking at unless it's a balance sheet. We needed to assure them this is going to be a fantastic place they can rent. There's a point where afternoon ends and night hasn't started yet, right after sundown. That's a magic time of day. It's after the Kurosawa golden sunset. I painted architecture as a visual romance, and I was kept very, very busy at a pretty good price point.

Artist’s illustration of a futuristic cityscape featuring elaborate, curved towers that look like ship’s sails.
Composite placeholder art Syd created in 2014 for Tomorrowland to be used for early promotions on the website and in print. There were a limited number of prints made and awarded to 200 attendees at the New York Comic Con, which Brad Bird and Mead signed.

Have you ever heard of architects who have drawn influence from your work?

Architects love Blade Runner, they just go bonkers. When I was working on the film, it was all about, let's jam together Byzantine and Mayan and Post-Modern and even a little bit of Memphis, just mash it all together. We called it retro deco, or trash chic.

Do you ever get approached by people doing urban planning or designers asking for ideas?

I do. I have a big project now that I can't tell you about. I've worked on a handful of billion dollar, first-phase theme parks designs that didn't work out; one was going to be in Singapore and one was going to be in Japan, near Kobe. The more money that's involved, the more fragile the project becomes. I was even working with Michael Jackson on a possible Jackson World park. I'm 82; my dream would be to have a superyacht on the water, and a Syd Mead-type theme world or park.

So much of you work has an optimistic view of the future. It seems like not as many people are drawing that anymore. Why do you think that is?

I think it's cathartic to do that, to design a dark future, sort of a "glad it didn't happen to me" situation. To design a nice future is a lot more difficult.

An artist’s illustration of a modernist home, with glass walls and a futuristic white car parked in the front.
One of a series of Gouache renderings for U.S. Steel from 1966 depicting new and inventive uses of steel as in the vehicles and modular housing.