For his new LA projects, Wright developed a system to mold the concrete with metal and knit it around a steel lattice—literally making it into a textile—at the construction site. The blocks were 16-inches square and about four inches deep. They were faced with a Mayan-influenced geometric pattern, and buff-colored, like sandstone. In each of his California houses, from Hollyhock to La Miniatura to Storer to Samuel Freeman, Wright refined the technique. But the first time Wright used the blocks to full effect was in the Ennis House.
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In Blade Runner, Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, returns to his apartment, which is clad in Ennis-style textile blocks. The interior set was created by production designers who made a foam mold of the Ennis blocks, then built the walls and ceiling of Deckard’s cramped and dark apartment using the dummy blocks. The effect is impersonal, near-alienating; it’s the perfect futuristic interpretation of a Chandlerian noir detective’s office. (The only footage actually shot on location at the Ennis House is an exterior shot that sees Ford wrapped in a blanket, staring out at a sci-fi Los Angeles, circa 2019.)
Wright’s bold vision may have worked well for Blade Runner, but ultimately Ennis fails at its primary real-life function: being a home. It’s just not suited to everyday living. The house’s unusual windows, inset between rows of blocks, diffuse the bright California light and accentuate the interior’s eerie quality. Some ceilings are as high as 13 feet, making for rooms that can feel cavernous.
Kenneth Breisch, an architecture professor at the University of Southern California, says Ennis is in line with Wright’s other textile-block homes in LA, including the Samuel Freeman House (which Breich is responsible for the restoration of). “I’ve spent a lot of time up there with students,” he notes of Freeman. “It’s cold and damp in the winter. It’s not well heated. And it’s hot in the summer. They’re not very comfortable houses, really, in the end. You’re living in a concrete box, basically.”
According to Schleier, even Wright, an architect who unabashedly iterated on the same idea from project to project, acknowledged that he might have missed the mark with Ennis, saying in a 1954 oral history:
I built the Storer house up on a hill—it’s a little palace. It looks like a little Venetian palazzo. Then I built the Freeman house, and then there was finally the Ennis house, which was way out of concrete-block size. I think that was carrying it too far—that’s what you do, you know, after you get going, and get going so far, that you get out of bounds. And I think the Ennis house was out of bounds for a concrete-block house.
It’s hard to know exactly what Wright meant by “out of bounds.” For living in? For widespread public adoption? But decades later, a way in which Ennis was definitely in bounds was as a dynamic set for film and television. In Blade Runner, the house—and the facsimile version of it built for interior shots—is an ideal fit. It feels both futuristic and like it’s from an ancient civilization, a sensibility that Schleier, at the University of the Pacific, calls “archeological.” The geometric patterns on the textile blocks could be seen as Central American, or as reminiscent of circuitry. The blocks look both earth-wrought and machine-made, which they are. Through its specificity, the Ennis House has acted as a pop-cultural cipher: It blends into the multiracial future depicted in Blade Runner and as a lair for the undead in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.