Exploring the city of the “Ghost in the Shell”

The architecture of a futuristic megalopolis as seen in the new blockbuster.

Film frame from "Ghost in the Shell" directed by Ruper Sanders

A new sci-fi blockbuster entitled “Ghost in the Shell”, based on a 1992 manga and its famous 1995 anime adaptation and starring Scarlett Johansson, hit the screens last month. In the film, humans are shown as being obsessed with high-tech prosthetics and spending vast amounts of money on “self-improvement”. The story goes on to show that the next step for humanity is going to be complete robotization, and this new generation of human machines is represented by the main heroine — a female cyborg with an organic brain and a synthetic body. The action takes place in a futuristic city where almost every surface is covered in advertising holograms the size of a skyscraper. Strelka Magazine asked architect Julia Ardabyevskaya to break down and analyse the urban environment that the film’s characters inhabit.

The following extract is a quote from Julia.

Skyscrapers

Film frame from "Ghost in the Shell" directed by Ruper Sanders

The characters of  “Ghost in the Shell” evidently inhabit an overpopulated and wealthy megalopolis that chooses to solve its land shortage problem by constructing more and more tall buildings. While this does seem like an appropriate solution in the contemporary world, in the future that the film aims to portray, skyscrapers will by no means be the only possibility. What if an advanced type of high-speed public transport emerges, allowing for a decrease in population density and resulting in cities dissolving into nature? But it’s quite unlikely that we would ever witness this on-screen: filmmakers of the sci-fi genre are not interested in depicting a happier future.

Architecture adapted to the needs of advertising

Film frame from "Ghost in the Shell" directed by Ruper Sanders

This city covered in huge holographic images reminds me of contemporary Hong Kong — a place unimaginable without billboards: they are almost like its second skin. In architectural theory, this relationship between the built form and advertising hasn’t been studied enough: the only famous example that comes to my mind is the theory of Robert Venturi’— the founding figure of post-modernist architecture — which was expressed in his 1972 book, “Learning from Las Vegas”. Before starting writing, Venturi and his students made a trip to Las Vegas to study the phenomenon of architectural communication. There the group analysed casino and hotel signs, many of which turned out to be larger than the casinos and hotels themselves.     

In his book, Venturi argues that modernist “boxes” made of glass and concrete are ill-suited for displaying messages such as advertisements and signs. In his opinion, modernist architecture can work only in lifeless, sterile environments. One large logo mounted on the roof of a skyscraper, such as Mies Van de Rohe’s Seagram-building, may look grand and stately, but ordinary advertising does no favours to modernist architecture. Venturi himself aspired to create buildings that signs, antennas and air conditioning couldn’t spoil. The city in “Ghost in the Shell” was created with the same goal in mind: advertisements do not taint the buildings; they contribute to their individuality. Those gigantic holograms are almost like gods overlooking the city from above, not unlike the Asian Buddha statues.

Social stratification and ghetto-buildings

Film frame from "Ghost in the Shell" directed by Ruper Sanders

Judging by the apartments that “Ghost in the Shell” characters live in, social stratification remains an issue: wealthy citizens live in futuristic boxes, while the lodgings of the poor have seen little change since the beginning of the 21st century. But it’s hard to say who is happier: the modest houses have laundry drying and cats running around — compared to them those luxury houses look lifeless. The obvious references here are Jacques Tati’s comedy films “Mon Oncle” (“My uncle”, 1958) and  “Playtime”, 1967 — important architectural statements that demonstrate the artificiality of life amidst modernist decorations.

But if we ignore its run-down state, the well-house that the poor citizens inhabit in the film can be considered decent, at least as far as its form goes: it’s the kind of structure that architecture students often come up with. But there's something threatening about it, too: it’s reminiscent of the panopticon as described by Michel Foucault — an ideal prison that creates a sense of permanent surveillance for its inhabitants. We could compare this building to the social modernist residential projects that were popular several decades ago: later many of these districts had to be demolished following their ghettoization.

Residential units

Film frame from "Ghost in the Shell" directed by Ruper Sanders

Two types of apartments are present in the film. One of them is more familiar: an empty box that can later be filled with everything you need. The other is more futuristic (although considered traditional in Japan), where all the necessities are already incorporated into the architecture: surfaces merge into each other, forming beds, benches, and window sills. I’m not sure that this is comfortable housing, but it’s a popular fantasy. The word “apartment” doesn’t exactly describe the place where the main heroine lives — “residential unit” seems more fitting here. It’s not the kind of space that we are used to; some of its functions, for example, the kitchen, have almost certainly been moved outside and located elsewhere, just like in the Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin house.

A new kind of cemetery

Film frame from "Ghost in the Shell" directed by Ruper Sanders

The film also briefly touches on the subject of architecture for the dead: at one point the main heroine visits an unusual-looking cemetery, built in the shape of a huge amphitheatre. Judging by our planet’s demographic situation, a cemetery is a type of form that will inevitably go through transformations in the future. And the Japanese are probably going to be pioneers in this sphere, considering that they have only a limited amount of land and quite a flexible attitude to the concept of death. There has already been a design competition in Japan dedicated to new types of cemeteries built in the contemporary environment. However, the cemetery that we see in the film does not economise land: its levels are not stacked on top of each other; instead they are descending like a staircase. It seems that the makers of this film wanted to include an original and futuristic structure in this scene, but not necessarily a functional one.

And this is the main reason why the future as depicted in “Ghost in the Shell” presents little interest from the architect’s point of view. Any traditional institution — be it an apartment or a cemetery — can be reviewed and reevaluated, and that is what is going to happen in the future. But the film doesn’t reflect on this, offering only a slightly more advanced version of the familiar order of things.

Text: Anton Khitrov

Translation: Alexandra Tumarkina