You know, the nineteenth century reformers had very positive ideas about corridor spaces as fundamentally changing people. So, When did that change? was the kind of question that became really interesting for me. When did it happen that it's not a space of reform but a space where Danny in The Shining is going to find horrible monsters; or Michael Myers is going to leap out from a door and stab you to death in a hospital?
I'm Roger Luckhurst. I'm a writer, a cultural historian, critic, and also, most recently, the author of Corridors: Passages of Modernity.
And actually it came out of a couple of other commissions. So I’d been asked by the British Film Institute here in London to write a short book about The Shining. Obviously it’s famous for its corridor or tracking shots. And I got quite interested in why that was such a seminal, unnerving, weird kind of moment in cinema. And then they asked me to write another one about Alien. And Alien is also a film that is basically about corridors, as are the video games that follow. So I was thinking about those sorts of spaces and why they were so particularly disturbing for a particular context—a Gothic or horror kind of film context. And like most things I needed to push backwards further and further to find out where this space came from. And on the one hand it was quite surprising to find how old is was, but also how recent it was. You know, particularly in the British context, really this is a space that’s not more than 300 years old for us. And, you know, wow, where did that come from? Why did it arrive? Who was using it? Why do we think of it as such an unnerving space now when it was thought of very differently at the time?
So there was kind of a starting point in film, but actually it soon spread out to other things. So hopefully it’s not one of those crazy books that thinks it’s found the key to all mythologies, but actually a sense of, yes, this is just the spine through modernity that I’m going to follow, and no one else has really done it that sort of way. So let’s see what happens when you focus on that.
The corridor comes in in grand country houses in England. So Vanbrugh is thought to use it first in Blenheim Palace, and his clients were very upset about this new spatial structure and he had to explain to them that “corridor” is really a foreign word that means passage. That’s about the 1690s/1700s. It was not used in the English language until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Before that if you lived in a stately home, for example, rooms opened into rooms and you could get doors aligned and have a wonderful perspective. And that was very different from our kind of corridor space. The corridor would then be very cramped, small, and for servants. So you would have narrow passageways, but they weren't public; they weren’t kind of ceremonial. And that's a very distinctly English class-based obsession.
So the corridor that is purely there to distribute space—like a long hotel corridor that has no other function other than to have rooms off it—that's a very, very modern idea, I think. So that sense of something that is not a transverse corridor—i.e., taking you like a tunnel from point A to point B—but is tangential, with lots of rooms off it. That's quite a modern idea and it’s quite an institutional idea. They’re nineteenth century spaces. And that’s what really surprised me, I think—a sense in which fundamentally it’s the modern space.
The story that I wanted to tell was a move from this as a new space, which has utopian potential. So it's about distributing space in a new kind of way. It's also about bringing people together in a new kind of way. So I got really interested in the fact that many utopias that describe the architecture, as they so often do—it's so much easier to be utopian about space than it is about people, because people misbehave, architecture you can design [laughter]. So lots and lots of utopias are built around corridors, whether it’s Fourier, whether it’s Associationists in America in the 1840s who built these long kind of corridor-based structures, all the way through to the Soviet revolution and architecture in the 1920s, to social housing in England in the 1940s.
Multiple things happen to the idea of the corridor in the 1960s, and I think that’s a kind of key change point. One is that it’s really decided around the world that the asylum structure, for example, is something that is not working; and we’ve got to pull down these monstrous, horrible, vast spaces that have actually created mental illness rather than cured it. That’s when the open plan office begins to emerge, and particularly a kind of sense of wanting to get rid of what was seen as dead space. And then you also get the coining of “corridors of power” in 1962-63 by C.P. Snow, who wrote a very dull novel about Westminster called Corridors of Power. But nevertheless, that’s kind of a key idea there. There’s a whole kind of cluster of these sort of shifts that are happening. The strongest one would be social housing. So the famous discussion of the Pruitt-Igoe estate. But also Oscar Newman’s idea of communal corridor spaces being an awful, crime-ridden, dangerous space; and there’s no, as he called it, there’s no “defensible space,” there’s no individualized space. So no one cares about these communal spaces. And that became such a huge influence on how people really turned very profoundly, and very quickly, against social housing.
If you’re of a kind of mythical frame of mind, of course the corridor is a perfect symbol of both birth and the birth canal, but also death. So that idea of, you know, heading towards the light. The way that people talk about “near-death experiences,” which is a term that was coined in the ’70s, is explicitly about moving down a corridor towards the kind of light at the end of the tunnel. And you see that repeated in films as a terminal point at that kind of far end. There's a receding perspective. Everyone must have that experience of being in a monster hotel where you kind of come out of your room and you kind of look down a corridor both ways, and you could go either way because they’re identical. And there’s something about realizing that you’re just a—like an atom in a system.
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Roger Luckhurst lives in a post-war utopian social housing estate in inner London and teaches at Birkbeck College, where he is Professor of Modern Literature in the School of Arts. He is the author of Zombies (Reaktion, 2015), and wrote the BFI Classics on Alien and The Shining.
It turns out—sorry to ruin it—that all hotel corridors in the world are secretly connected together, and you can walk all the way around the world just by turning certain directions. Wiles’s expert commentary on the transnational space of the chain is a culmination of the sense of unease that always hovered around the communal corridors of hotels.
Stephan Trüby, et al
One of the things that was very important in the genesis of this project was the Venice Biennale organized by Rem Koolhaas. He actually had a whole section on the corridor as an idea, and the person Koolhaas relied on for this was a German scholar named Stephan Trüby. He’s now written a Geschichte des Korridors. It’s a proper architecture history.