In this article, originally published by Strelka Magazine and translated into English by Alexandra Tumarkina, Anton Khitrov sits down with Julia Ardabyevskaya to analyse the urban environment and spectacular world that the blockbuster movie Ghost in the Shell creates.
Ghost in the Shell, a new sci-fi blockbuster starring Scarlett Johansson, is based on a 1992 manga comic and a more famous 1995 anime adaptation. In the film, humans are presented as obsessed with high-tech prosthetics, spending vast amounts of money on “self-improvement”. The story proceeds to show that the next step for humanity will be complete robotization; this new generation of human machines is represented by the movie’s heroine – a female cyborg with an organic brain but a synthetic body. The action takes place in a futuristic city in which almost every surface is covered in holograms the size of a skyscraper, each and every one an advertisement.
The characters of Ghost in the Shell inhabit an overpopulated and wealthy megalopolis that chooses to solve the problem of land shortage by constructing ever more tall buildings. While this does seem like an appropriate solution in the contemporary world, in the future that the film is set in, skyscrapers will by no means be the only possibility for hyper-densification. What if an advanced type of high-speed public transport emerges, allowing for a decrease in population density? What if cities dissolve into nature?
Architecture Adapted to the Needs of Advertising
Julia Ardabyevskaya: This city covered in huge holographic images reminds me of contemporary Hong Kong – a place unimaginable without billboards: they are almost like it’s 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 – one of the founding figures in Postmodern architecture. Before writing Learning From Las Vegas, 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 der 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
JA: 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.
JA: 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 Cemetary
JA: 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.
This article was copy-edited from the translation by ArchDaily’s Editorial Team.