May 21, 2008
A Developer’s Unusual Plan for Bright Lights, Inspired by a Dark Film
By REBECCA CATHCART
LOS ANGELES — The year is 2019. The illuminated windows of the city’s densely packed towers sparkle like stars in the night, and their facades are covered with bright, animated billboards. A flying car glides past the enormous eye of a smiling geisha hundreds of stories above the wet urban streets.
That is the world of “Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott’s 1982 film set in a futuristic dystopia. It is also an obsession of a real estate developer, Sonny Astani, who hopes to evoke those atmospherics by affixing rows of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, to the facades of his two newest condominium towers in downtown Los Angeles.
“That movie really hit a chord with me,” Mr. Astani, 55, said with a broad smile. “It was beautiful.”
On a recent afternoon in his Beverly Hills office, he held up digital renderings of the two buildings, the geisha’s face from “Blade Runner” superimposed on their facades.
“I saw ‘Blade Runner’ at a time when L.A. was feeling like that,” he said. “I was feeling like that.”
In 1982 Mr. Astani was a struggling real estate broker here. He had come to Los Angeles from Tehran six years earlier to study engineering at the University of Southern California, with plans to return home after graduation. The Iranian revolution changed that. He never went back.
The dark mood of “Blade Runner” matched his own melancholy at the time, Mr. Astani said, and he was gripped by the notion of looming skyscrapers covered with moving images and graphics, and the layering of old and new structures. Today Mr. Astani is a successful businessman, with two million square feet of downtown real estate built or in development, including six tall residential buildings. His projects are part of a wave of development in the area that began around 2001 and gained momentum in 2003, when Los Angeles expanded adaptive reuse policies similar to those of New York.
“Everyone wants downtown to happen,” he said. “This could create some excitement and conversation,” he said of his “Blade Runner”-inspired facades.
His 30-story residential towers, scheduled to be completed in 2009, sit at the north end of an evolving entertainment district anchored by the Stapes Center and L.A. Live, a sports and entertainment complex sometimes described as Times Square West.
The area already has plenty of loud billboards and klieg lights that have drawn complaints from some neighborhood groups, so the city is concerned about anything billboardesque. Mr. Astani’s application to build the LED panels is undergoing an environmental review by city planning officials.
He has taken pains to distinguish his project from typical LED billboards with bright, fast-paced graphics. His panels would shine with one-sixth the intensity of ordinary models; adjust their brightness at different times of the day; and project slower-moving images, according to the ordinance application. They would cover about 10 stories on just one side of each building.
The panels would appear solid from a distance, although they consist of horizontal blades spaced six inches apart, like large blinds. Only a half-inch thick and three inches wide, each one carries a single row of diodes.
The blades were designed by Frederic Opsomer, who is also known for creating spectacular video, light and stage designs for pop-music acts. The only other building clad in similar LED blades is the T-Mobile headquarters in Bonn, Mr. Astani said. The screens would feature mostly paid advertisements but would include work by local artists and ads for nonprofit groups 20 percent of the time. The technology and content have sowed some confusion among the city officials weighing Mr. Astani’s application.
“The issue of it potentially being viewed as art has complicated it,” said Patricia Diefenderfer, of the Los Angeles Planning Department.
“We’re treating it like a sign,” she said. “Signs are a stimulus. They clutter our environment and can assault us, in a sense. This is something very large. What is the impact? What does that mean?”
Yet Eric Lynxwiler, a downtown resident and author who leads nighttime tours of the city’s neon signs for the Museum of Neon Art, favors the project.
“I think he scared far too many people when he compared it to ‘Blade Runner,’ ” Mr. Lynxwiler said of Mr. Astani. “But I remember L.A. as it was — dark, more like ‘Blade Runner’ before the development,” he said, describing streets that were mostly empty after 6 p.m. “I think downtown definitely has the vibe to support something that large, that new and that bold and daring.”
Syd Mead, a visual-effects artist who worked on “Blade Runner,” said that the city’s once-haunted look is what inspired Mr. Scott to film there. The director was also taken with the eclectic downtown mix of newer structures and historic buildings, he said.
That the movie could inspire innovation is not a surprise, Mr. Mead said, adding, “I’ve called science fiction ‘reality ahead of schedule.’ ”