Babylon turns the spotlight on 1920s Los Angeles architecture

Production designer Florencia Martin on the real-life locations in Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood epic

After cutting her teeth on TV’s Mad Men, Florencia Martin earned her first production designer credit on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, recreating the San Fernando Valley of the 1970s. That was followed by Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, which takes place in Los Angeles and New York from the late ’40s to the early ’60s. Turning back the clock even further, Martin’s most recent gig was on Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, a three-hour odyssey through Hollywood’s most decadent era. Here, she takes us through some of the luxury locations featured in the film.

Shea’s Castle (Castle Ranch), Antelope Valley

Photography: Wikimedia

‘Damien and I wanted to show the contrast between these decadent homes, which were being built by people immigrating to the city, and the natural setting of Los Angeles, which is a barren desert. For the home of Don Wallach [played by Jeff Garlin], we initially looked at mansions that were built by people like Howard Hughes and [William Randolph] Hearst.

‘Then I came across this Spanish Gothic castle built by the Hancock Park developer Richard Peter Shea on a hill an hour or so outside Los Angeles. It was built in 1926 on 150 acres of land, and it’s still sitting there, exactly as it was almost 100 years ago. It was a party pad. They had an air landing strip and they would pick you up by donkey and bring you up to the house to spend the weekend.’

United Artists Theater (Ace Hotel), Los Angeles

Photography: Stephen Kent Johnson courtesy Ace Hotel

‘The ballroom in Wallach’s house was shot on location in the old United Artists Theater, which was built by a group of independent filmmakers in the 1920s to showcase their films. It was unbelievable to see the original wooden garages that held all the cars back in the day. We used that structure to hold up a set wall extension and integrated the architecture of the house and the architecture of the theater to create the ballroom entrance you see in the film.’

Castle Green, Pasadena

Photography: Castle Green

‘The house we found for Elinor St John [Jean Smart], the gossip columnist, is called Castle Green. It was built in the late 1890s, so pre-Hollywood. Damien and I discussed the idea that Elinor was part of the old guard, and we wanted to root her character in an even earlier period.

‘Castle Green is currently an apartment complex, but the original ground-floor hotel lobby is pretty much preserved exactly as it was before. We redressed one side as Elinor’s office, with Victorian furnishings. Then we built a dividing wall and turned the other side of the lobby into the bar where Jack has a drink with Li Jun Li’s character [Lady Fay Zhu] near the end of the film.’

Hummingbird Nest Ranch, Simi Valley

Photography: Hummingbird Nest Ranch

‘A big part of the location scouting for this film was looking for architectural styles that matched the story and characters, and also coming up with a plan for how to restore them back to the era. We were pretty fortunate in the things that we found, especially Jack Conrad’s [Brad Pitt] house. Although the main house was actually built in 2020, the pool house where we filmed a lot of Jack’s interior scenes was built in the 1920s.

‘We chose this location because it’s set against the Santa Susana Mountains – we have this big moment where Jack is standing on top of a table, professing his thoughts about the movies, and he steps from his living room out onto the deck with the mountains in view. It gave us the scale of a big, brand new mansion that Jack had built for himself, in the same way that Don Wallach has his castle at the top of a hill.’

Guasti Villa, Los Angeles

Photography: Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens

‘The Guasti Villa was built between 1910 and 1914, and it’s a wonderful example of Italian Renaissance architecture – hand-painted murals, marble floors, wood columns – much of which is in its original state. It was later owned by Busby Berkeley, and while we were shooting we found out that the mansion next door belonged to Fatty Arbuckle, who had had some pretty wild parties back in the day.

‘It’s small, relative to some other locations in the film, but it’s still very decorative, very glamorous. We filled it with a lot of custom furniture made in the style of Julia Morgan, who was one of Hearst’s go-to architects. If you’re setting a film in the 1920s, you don’t necessarily want furniture that would have been brand new at the time. So we put a big emphasis on earlier European antiques, things wealthy people would have brought with them when they emigrated to America.’

Photography: Scott Garfield, courtesy Paramount Pictures.
Photography: Scott Garfield, courtesy Paramount Pictures.
Photography: Scott Garfield, courtesy Paramount Pictures.
Photography: Scott Garfield, courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Read next: Los Angeles’ storied ‘castle’ has hit the market for $9.8m

Explore Stanley Kubrick’s most iconic film sets



Share Tweet