The Aerium, a mile-high skyscraper, dominates the plot of the first season of Altered Carbon, the Netflix series (2018- ) adapting the novel of the same name. For the uninitiated, the series follows a detective, Takeshi Kovacs, whose consciousness has been resurrected into a new body, a “sleeve,” now quite far into a future he doesn’t know, to solve the murder of Laurens Bancroft, the ultra-wealthy scion of the Bancroft family, who lives atop the Aerium in a tower called Suntouch House.
The Aerium appears as one of a few towers that rise above the cloud layer of Bay City (a future San Francisco megalopolis). Uniquely it seems, this massive tower’s exterior supports bend and weave around a central blue column, bounding a series of layers on which the ultra-wealthy live. The design, seemingly based on current artificial intelligence/generative design principles, creating a distinctive, almost hard-to-understand structure.
At the top of The Aerium is the Bancroft estate, Suntouch House, which is the setting for the core mystery of the first season—how and why was Laurens Bancroft murdered? This detective story compels Kovacs to not only be resurrected in a new body but also to traverse the future’s hard boundary between poor and rich, the slums below the clouds to the tops of the mega-skyscrapers above.
Kovacs arrives at Suntouch House in a hovercar driven by his partner, Kristin Ortega, which rises from the slums and smaller skyscrapers below the cloud layer into the bright, serene sky where only a handful of mega-skyscrapers appear. The Aerium appears as almost unfathomable, especially when compared to the slums below the clouds. Ortega and Kovacs’ hovercar, a human-scale mode of transportation, barely even registers as it climbs past the bone-like exterior of the structure whose precise function is unclear (habitation? mechanicals? structural? made from some future tech?).
Though we only see The Aerium in full a few times, it dominates an untroubled sky, whether day or night.
Atop The Aerium, on its uppermost level, is the Bancroft estate, Suntouch House, with a small garden and courtyard surrounding the House itself, a multi-story, stone building with smaller towers on either side.
This bucolic estate, filmed in part of one of the most lovely areas of Vancouver, atop the surreal spire of The Aerium, is a visual departure from show’s source material.
In the original novel, Suntouch is described as outside the city, near sea-level:
Suntouch House was aptly named. From Bay City we flew south down the coast for about half an hour before the change in engine pitch warned me that we were approaching our destination. By that time the light through the right side windows was turning warm gold with the sun’s decline towards the sea. I peered out as we started to descend and saw how the waves below were molten copper and the air above pure amber. [...]
The transport sideslipped and banked, giving me a view of the Bancroft estate. It edged in from the sea in neatly manicured tones of green and gravel around a sprawling tile-roofed mansion big enough to house a small army. The walls were white, the roofing coral and the army, if it existed, was out of sight. Any security systems Bancroft had installed were very low-key. As we came lower I made out the discreet haze of a power fence along one border of the grounds. Barely enough to distort the view from the house. Nice.
Less than a dozen metres up over one of the immaculate lawns the pilot kicked in the landing brake with what seemed like unnecessary violence. The transport shuddered from end to end and we came down hard amidst flying clods of turf.
Further, there is "a field two kilometres from the perimeter of Suntouch House," implying a large expanse of land surrounding the estate, surely a luxury in and of itself.
The interiors of the show’s version of Suntouch contain only a few, rarified spaces, including a mysterious growing tree and an austere library/meeting room (in which Laurens Bancroft was murdered).
The latter is where Kovacs learns the parameters of the case, including that he is beholden to the Bancrofts in many ways. At one end, a glassed space contains a powerful telescope introduced in the first episode, which allows Kovacs to pinpoint a key location later in the season, the Head in the Clouds floating pleasure palace.
The convoluted plot ties together the Head in the Clouds, where sexual pleasures, technology, and violence mix, with plots below the clouds, in the cityscape below. The world of Bay City below the clouds is a well-realized, if clichéd, megalopolis.
Complete with hovercars, permanent smog, neon and hologram advertising, crisscrossing wires, a mix of languages, and more—a hodgepodge of Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982), The Fifth Element (dir. Luc Besson, 1997), and Coruscant from Star Wars, Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith (dir. George Lucas, 2005).
Kovacs frequently looks on the infinite city with awe, the city that undergirds the plot.
And from which The Aerium rises through the clouds.
Finally, the show’s version of the Golden Gate Bridge, building up both ends with skyscrapers and slums, while building into the bridge itself as a support for favela-style housing.
All of this is juxtaposed against a backstory of the original (or is he?) Kovacs, in some unnamed off-world city in the far past, already inured to the dense cities of the future.
While the nascent resistance occupies the forest, offering a visual ecological counterpoint to the world of Bay City.