Discover more from The Elysian
Inside the utopian cities of Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power
A discussion with the production designer Ramsey Avery.
When I watched Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power, I was mesmerized. The story takes place when the world was still perfect, and it somehow captures that stillness, that reverence visually—the result is that the viewer is left transfixed by a moving meditation through beautiful worlds.
After watching several episodes, I fell down an internet rabbit hole looking for who created them. This, in my mind, was a true artist; this was a visionary who could imagine what the world looked like if the world was beautiful; this was someone who had created a masterpiece, a sensory utopia that somehow walks the tenuous between a perfect world and all that might topple it; this, as it turns out, was Ramsey Avery.
Avery is the production designer responsible for bringing to life the Tolkein cities of Valinor, Lindon, Númenor, Eregion. But he’s also the designer behind the worlds found in Minority Report, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, even Disney’s Tomorrowland. If he knows what makes a world utopian, he also very much knows what makes a world dystopian. And I wanted to know about how he designs for both.
I reached out to Avery last year hoping he would tell me more about the cities he created and the state of harmony they elicit, and I literally jumped for joy when he responded early this year and agreed to meet with me for an interview. We spoke about technology for a podcast episode for, and I highly recommend listening to that. But I also wanted to share our complete conversation here. Edited for clarity.
I’m writing a utopian novel & researching it in public. Join us? ✨
Elle Griffin: How do you design for a utopian world like Rings of Power?
Ramsey Avery: When you're designing for utopia you want this sense of living things, and the easiest way to do that is to introduce greenery. Certainly in Rings of Power that was keystone. You wanted to have the elves live entirely engaged in nature. So working with the idea of beautiful plants, the architecture is built either literally out of trees that are rising to the sky or it emulates a forest and the trees have interlocking branches that go out into the sky. That's how you make that elven world feel engaged. And utopian.
Even in Khazad-dûm we've got gardens and hanging plants and we're figuring out how to use mirrors to get sunlight into Khazad-dûm so that there can be greenery. If you look at Peter Jackson's movies, in Barad-dûr or Minus Morgul, there's no greenery. But in Minas Tirith, there are small planted bits of greenery. So in our version of Númenor, which is what came before (the people who build Minas Tirith came from Númenor), it was important to have plants everywhere we went so there was this sense of life and growth and greenery.
Another clue for making you feel good is water. As long as water is soft and flowing and rippling, then it introduces a sense of comfort and feels utopian because water is also life, in metaphor. In Rings of Power, water was everywhere. There's water in the Court of Númenor, there's water in Durin’s house underneath the mountain—he's actually got that waterfall on the back of his wall where a tree is growing and there's water flowing out his door just to make sure that there was this feeling of the water of life infusing every second.
My goal for Rings of Power, were I to have continued on with the series, was to, as time went on, subtract water from the environment as a signposting for utopia becoming dystopia. When something's dry and cracked, it's dystopian.
Elle: If we know this, why isn’t modern architecture like this? Can’t we fill our cities with greenery and water and make them feel alive and beautiful and utopian?
Ramsey: The problem is politics. In a democracy where everybody has the chance to say something, moving forward with any real intentionality is difficult. Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, where one person can essentially dictate what will be done, something like Neom could actually happen.
I've only done some tangential work for some Emirati theme park design a couple of years ago, but those types of environments are subject to the whims of a very small cadre of people and what they think is important or what they want to express. Now, those created worlds in Saudi Arabia might be imprinted with the wrong thinking underneath of all of it—the idea of a futuristic city filled with waterfalls and gardens inside two long mirrored walls actually feels like a pretty strict, straightforward metaphor for a world that I wouldn't want to live in. I'm being gifted this garden of Eden, but I'm being kept in by these mirrors? But maybe I'm being very metaphorical about that.
Meanwhile, I did some work many years ago creating Christmas decorations for the City of Santa Monica and the people that were engaged in that process spanned from people who cared deeply about the Christian idea of Christmas to people who wanted nothing to do with the Christian idea of Christmas. It’s just Christmas decorations, right? And people had such divergent opinions about what should represent their city. It became a big deal just trying to get all those players at the table—to even have the same conversation was an effort in itself, let alone actually moving the conversation forward.
In a movie, every choice we make is to convey that particular story. It's authoritarian in that we are servants to the story. So we make those deliberate choices and that gives us a guiding principle that we can all agree on. And we don't always all agree on it—everybody will still have differences of opinion about what the story is and how to represent that story. But you do, in the long run, actually have a person at the top who says yes or no. You have a showrunner or director who is the final authority on that vision within the context of a budget and the schedule and all those other things that deeply affect the process of art in film and television.
Trying to do that in a place where all of us live together, we all have our own story, and we can’t agree on that story? It’s a different environment. The autocratic system within China or within Saudi Arabia is focused on a particular story that they want to tell, and they can make all the choices to tell them. But Santa Monica has 50 different stories they want to tell—how do you make choices within that context?
Elle: What in your mind are some of the utopian cities and dystopian cities in the world?
Ramsey: I'm in Atlanta right now and downtown Atlanta was more or less revitalized in the 70s and 80s by John Portman—when you go into his spaces you have these spectacular soaring volumes with layers of concentric circles and glass elevators that rise up and down within these spaces, and it's just a remarkable, visceral experience. But when you stand outside those buildings it's very dystopian, because there are walls that are surrounding those beautiful interior atriums and they go right up to the edge of the street. While he's done some interesting textures on those surfaces, and in some cases, there are some really interesting bridges or staircases, as a whole, it's not a very attractive environment. And that's a place where the city was able to convince the city of Atlanta that this is what they wanted to do. And so there was a coherent vision for this eight- or nine-block area of downtown where Atlanta represents the idea of one person who was able to put his imprint on that for better and for worse.
Montreal, in many ways, is an example of a utopian city. Because the winters are so brutal it's been built so that when the summer finally comes, there are all these staircases and balconies on the outsides of buildings, and there are pocket parks everywhere and there are trees. When the weather finally turns, everybody lives on the streets and there are festivals going on every weekend with music and art and sports. The town comes to life and the architecture supports that. The Old Town has all this great stone French architecture that is somewhat monolithic, but it has this wonderful plasticity and ornament that feels very humanist.
When you move into the suburbs, modernity takes over. But the houses were built in a street-facing and community-facing way which has always felt like a remarkable way to build a city. It's about expressing the community—you get outside the building. That’s the utopian ideal, that we're connected together as humans and we live together within a city so we make our architecture in a way that actually supports us getting together. As opposed to a dystopian city which, in some ways I'm describing downtown Atlanta, where it’s very unpleasant to be on those streets because it's all concrete and roads. It's gray. It's monolithic. There's no human context and that makes that part of the city feel very dystopian to me.
Elle: Is there a wealth element to it?
Ramsey: There’s definitely a wealth element to it. Certainly, Neom wouldn't be built without the wealth of the Saudi oil reserves. And Montreal was a very powerful city for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was one of the main cities in North America in terms of commerce and trade. In Georgia, Savannah was laid out on a very kind of formal grid that was based on parks, and Savannah was a very wealthy port. It funneled a lot of trade that came through Atlanta and the Southeast, out into Savannah and out to Europe. So there was a lot of money running through Savannah which allowed them to not have to build on top of themselves. Each grid that the city was built had gracious buildings with interior courtyards and surrounded parks because they had the wealth to not have to put people on top of each other. So money definitely affects the layout and the growth of a city.
Elle: It seems like a lot of utopian cities are also pastoral. Is it possible to have a high-tech utopia?
Ramsey: Being a gentleman of a certain age, I grew up reading Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, even Heinlein—although I was never really a fan of Heinlein—the future they represented in terms of the wonders of technology was certainly a future that I wanted to live in at that time. But by the time you're getting to William Gibson and you're seeing what technology could start to turn into? What we’re experiencing now is that technology, is not in every case, opening our horizons. In many cases, technology is closing it down. It doesn't feel like technology is doing the stuff that Asimov promised me it would. I, from my 60s sci-fi upbringing, tend to be an optimist but I'm a little worried these days about how all of that is beginning away from us.
When I worked on Minority Report, Steven Spielberg hired a futurist from MIT, John Underwood, to be the consultant full-time. He was constantly developing these white papers about what the appropriate technology 80 years in the future could be. And what we can see now, 24 years later, is that technology is really disappearing. The most effective technology is the technology we can't see. Now when you're making a movie or a TV show, that’s bloody boring, right? You want to see the tech. That's one of the tricky things with movie making.
I was actually working on a project for Walt Disney Imagineering where they were trying to reconceive Tomorrowland—the trick with Tomorrowland in the parks is, by the time you build it, it's already obsolete. You cannot, in a world that takes four to five years to build something, make something that is going to constantly stay ahead of what technology really hits. So that was one of the things that we actually were exploring was if we could embed the technology and make Tomorrowland look more like it's about nature than it is about architecture.
But the way that we're approaching technology currently in the Western world is that it is disappearing into the world around us. And toward that end, I think yes, it's very conceivable to make a high-tech future where you don't see the technology because it's embedded in the world around us. I think that if I were to open up my wishful thinking as much as I could, that's the world that I think we would want to move toward—where we eliminate the cumbersome nature of technological interfaces, which is all about keyboards or switches or buttons, and it becomes about using our voice to interact with embedded technologies. In that case, then you can live in a forest because you can adjust the settings within the forest to provide the appropriate environment that you need.
I think it's eminently possible to have a high-tech future. I think it's not as possible to have a high-tech future that feels utopian.
Elle: How would you picture the ideal future, 100 years from now, if everything went well?
Ramsey: We would be connected with people both close and far away—we’d have the technological means to stay in touch with our friends or our family that live continents away, but we've got enough density of people near us that we can go have a cup of coffee or go sit and read a book or go watch a dance. There are enough people to create a sense of vibrancy and interconnectivity, flesh-to-flesh, face-to-face, while still maintaining connectivity with the rest of the world because the rest of the world is a deeply interesting place. I wouldn't want to be stuck on a beautiful island with beautiful sunsets and the same 400 people for the rest of my life. I'd want to be able to get to other people and to experience how other people are living, so my sense of a utopian world would have those two levels of connectivity in it.
It's kind of funny because I laid out the city of Tomorrowland in the shape of an oxytocin molecule, which is the empathy molecule. It's what opens us up to allowing other people into our lives. I thought it'd be fun to lay out a city that actually had that molecule as its literal underpinnings—the idea of empathy being built into the footprint of the city. And each of the hubs of the molecule represent a different sort of community, whether it was agriculture or arts or engineering or science. So people of like mind could gather together in a hub.
This goes back to the idea of how Disneyland was built from a hub and spoke in terms of a planning layout. Each community could have what we've done online in terms of siloing ourselves in with the people that we only want to hear from, but within a web of interconnectivity and with connecting lines between roads and high efficiency, mass transit, that allow you to get from one hub to another in a very short period of time. And through all of that nature is interwoven with—there's greenery and parks and water—we built Tomorrowland on a river that wrapped around itself.
The idea that we engage ourselves in a community that shares our interests, but doesn't wall us off from other communities that we could also easily engage with both physically and digitally, that what I imagine if everything goes well.
Elle: Doesn’t that already exist in Europe?
Ramsey: I think you are right. I lived in Amsterdam for a year and a half and I would say that, of all the cities I've lived in, that is my favorite city because it’s small enough that you can walk across it in 45 minutes. It has very distinct neighborhoods, where different people experience different things. You can ride a bike, and then there’s mass transit. You can get out of it on a fantastic train system and a fantastic plane system and you very quickly connected to the rest of Europe.
So, in many ways, a kind of mythologized European city, with its whole sense of history and humanity and the way that those are built on a human scale—unlike Los Angeles, which is not built on a human scale—that is a utopian city. And if you have a concentration of a million people in the nearby neighborhoods of Amsterdam, and you could distribute that population out over an interconnected network so that you're not just on top of each other, you could achieve the sweet point between siloing and connectivity.
But what I would want from Minority Report or Tomorrowland is my jetpack—they promised me jetpacks! To have that freedom of transportation so that I can just go anywhere. Or maybe a teleporter? I think it was an Asimov story where there was a door and that door was a teleporter before there were teleporters—you stepped into the door and you stepped out into other places as far away as the moon. The idea that you could get to wherever you want—to get to that level of technology beyond the comfort of a community is something that I would love for us to do right away.
Elle: Are there other technologies you would want in the future?
Ramsey: Do I want people predicting what I'm going to do in the future? No, I don't want any of that. Do I want people tracking my every move through my biometrics? No, I don't want that either. I mean, the idea that we fantasized in the 70s and 80—being able to look on a computer screen and be able to put on clothing and have that custom-made for us and shipped to us—that's a beautiful idea, but then you realize all the data about yourself that you're giving up to anybody who has access to that data. That's not something I’m comfortable with.
But there are certainly places technology could help. I'd love robots to be making food for us, right? So we don't have to have people bending over in 100-degree weather picking strawberries—I’d much rather have a robot doing that, and let that person have a chance to express themselves whatever that may be, whether that person wants to make beautiful tapestries or whether they want to stay home and raise kids, whatever allows people to do what it is that they really truly want to do, using technology to drive the commerce enough that there's still enough money in the ecosystem and the economics of it all to actually maintain all of all of this.
And then how do we take all these things that are coming at us now from the AI world? With various forms of interactive technologies that help us express our stories? How do we blend all that together? It'd be very exciting to be part of helping that be a force for good and not a force for evil.
Elle: Can you tell me anything about your current project?
Ramsey: The one I’m working on right now is a project that is trying to bring humanism into the superhero story. We’re connecting the experience of living in a world where there are superheroes with how that feels to a superhero or to the people around them. I'm very excited about that. I think it’s an interesting bit of storytelling that we haven't always done. It strips away the science fiction—because science fiction has become such a trope in terms of its mechanical nature which means it doesn't feel human anymore. For example, Tony Stark, as a person vs. Ironman is very different. There's interesting stuff going on there if you really dig down into the metaphors of it, but creating these worlds that have this humanistic character or an aspirational quality to it are the things that I'm interested in this project and the type of projects that I want to take on in the future.
Elle: That makes me think of Wakonda, because in the Black Panther series, it is still a superhero movie, and you have this world that is very high-tech, and yet there is also a lot of water, and they try to keep those utopian elements.
Ramsey: Absolutely. If you look at the skyscrapers in Wakanda, they have a tactile nature to them. They're not just glass towers, they keep those textures in those buildings so they have a very organic and humanistic feel to them. And once you get down to the street level, that complete conglomeration of the various African cultures that they pile on top of each other is just exciting. It's a place where you want to get out there and explore that. And because you want to see how all those different cultures have come together. That's exactly what I am saying—there's a sense of there's individuality, there's an expression of a specific culture, but it's in relationship with other cultures.
Elle: You’ve mentioned retirement to me, what would you do?
Ramsey: I constantly joke when a project gets maddening that I'm just going to throw it all away and go dig wells in Namibia. Just because I want to do something that I know for a fact is helping people. There’s a certain amount of creativity that isn't necessarily about art per se, but about how to use creativity to be force for encouraging appropriate change.
Thanks for reading,
If you appreciate me figuring out how to spell all the Lord of the Rings references, consider supporting my work as a paid subscriber ✨