Anton Furst – Hell’s Architect

AntonFurst-2The Gotham City of Burton’s Batman was a very ominous place to be. Each tower on the broken horizon seemed to resemble an arm reaching out to the heavens for some form of redemption, each street seemed to lead to avenues of peril, and each sidewalk had gusts of smoke emanating from it like souls leaving their bodies. While Burton generally gets the credit for the look of the film and the dark feeling of it in most circles, the real architect of this dystopian nightmare was Anton Furst.

Furst’s career was brief, but his impact was enormous. He made fairy tales terrifying in A Company of Wolves and somehow managed to bring Vietnam to London for Full Metal Jacket. With Batman Furst wanted something that would be remembered forever. “It has to be unique, like no other film” he told his friends when he got the job. He talked of the Futurists, of Fritz Lang, of holograms and ‘cosmic reality’. Furst was excited and he really enjoyed working with Burton. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so naturally in tune with a director”, he said; “Conceptually, spiritually, visually, or artistically. There was never any problem because we never fought over anything. Texture, attitude and feelings are what Burton is a master at. We imagined what New York City might have become without a planning commission. A city run by crime, with a riot of architectural styles. An essay in ugliness. As if hell erupted through the pavement and kept on going

What Furst designed and created was a set that was the biggest since Cleopatra in 1963, and undoubtably the last time that much money would be spent on a set. The set took five months to build with a team of 200 people working on it. Furst spoke about the set in the 1989 Batman: Official Book of the Movie: “There were four stages of construction. The buildings were supported by scaffolding and clad in plywood. A plaster, or sometimes fibreglass, covering was added and then finally painted“.

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Furst regarded the design of The Flugelheim Museum as his most successful. “I wanted the museum to be a surprise, a new, radical edifice which concealed an older building underneath. The radical broad stroke of the exterior conceals a style which borrows from Otto Wagner as well as brownstone housing. The locomotive look of the outside is intentionally balanced by a roof light on top, through which Batman jumps in to save Vicki Vale. Having soft light inside was quite deliberate. I wanted to reverse the notion of a conventional building where you are normally happy to walk back outside into the light. Here it’s just the opposite“.

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Furst’s opus however, aside from the weeping grim angels standing aside City Hall, is the Cathedral which serves as the scene for the climax to the film and he declared it the “establishing part of the city“. “The problem here was to create a cathedral which was taller than the tallest skyscraper and still make it credible. It had to be over 1,000 feet (330 metres) high. I then remembered that some of the 1930s  skyscrapers in New York produced a cathedral effect at the top by means of interesting gothic detail. I began to solve the puzzle.” Furst was primalarily influenced by Gaudi, the now-feted Spanish architect who is best known for his cone-shaped cathedral in Barcelona, the Sagrada Família . “I basically stretched Gaudi into a skyscraper and added a castle feel which was especially influenced by the look of a Japanese fortress.

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As well as the buildings and cityscape, Furst also designed the incredible looking car, plane and he re-jigged the Bat symbol for the marketing campaign.  Yet despite all of the work and time he put into the film, Furst was not paid a great deal of money. In fact, at his house he had a one dollar bill stuck to the wall, and underneath it he had written: ‘My residuals on Batman‘.

But his career was doing well. He won an Oscar for his work on Batman and while this would usually mean the start of a upward trajectory for most creative artists, for Furst this was the beginning of the end. After Batman he moved to New York to design the Robert De Niro film Awakenings, and at the beginning of 1990 he was firmly established in Hollywood and was enjoying life. However things soon began to slow down and go wrong. Projects that he was involved with were either taking too long to arrive or not happening at all and Furst became depressed with the Hollywood machine. Eventually he was asked by Planet Hollywood to design their first restaurant, a project that seemed to be an odd fit for such a complex and eloquent mind. Around this time Furst’s private life was also unravelling and his second marriage had just collapsed. So he began taking Halcion, a sleeping drug that had been banned in Britain due to its possible side effects of amnesia, paranoia and depression. His drinking also became more of a problem, and he began talking to a friend about his father for the first time (who died when Furst was 21). Then word of a Batman sequel surfaced, and Furst was very keen to do it. However, Batman Returns was a Warner Bros film, and Furst was now signed to Columbia. He was still annoyed about the lack of residuals on the first film and saw this as an opportunity to get more money, but he was locked in at Columbia and there was no way he could get involved. Another piece of bad news.

Towards the end of November 1991, Furst announced his intention to kick drugs and drink and he cut his long hair as a symbol of his clean-up. He went to a hospital to check in to rehab, but the whole process took a while, and Furst wandered outside, saying he was going to get his cigarettes from his car. He walked across the street, up eight floors of the parking garage and jumped from the top.

He left behind a real legacy of unique, iconic, and in some cases impossible, design that smother the built up horizon of filmmaking like one of his dark skyscrapers.

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