Corridors: Passages of Modernity

Corridors: Passages of Modernity

By Roger Luckhurst. Reaktion Books, 2019, ISBN: 9781789140538

Sherry MacKay (UBC School of Architecture and Landscape) reviews this book which explores the architectural history of the corridor, and how this essential part of a building has featured in literature, film and TV programmes.

The title, Corridors: Passages of Modernity, conjures a topic larger than any single, inert architectural element might convey. Corridors in this account is meant to reference the connective tissue of buildings, neighbourhoods and infrastructures: grand public colonnades and intimate private passages, arcades and malls: the interstitial conduits of public and private life. As concrete spaces that both connect and separate, they are useful tools of categorizing and distributing, revealing and occluding people and actions.  While in the 14th century a corridor referred to an activity, the running of messengers between places, by the Enlightenment it meant a space rather than an activity and assumed different uses and connotations. This is the more straightforward history of the corridor read through architectural form. But Corridors here is also meant to refer to such spaces in the fictive as well as the real world.

Luckhurst proposes to address the general disregard given to the corridor, or corridor-like spaces, in architectural histories by enlisting the more voluble forms of cultural history to articulate the, often, mute reality of its architectural form.  This results in a more extended plotting of the historical development of this one specific, and often overlooked, spatial typology and a mapping of its appearance across various cultural forms—literature, film, TV programs and computer games—and the exchanges between them and built form. In these other media we encounter the uncanny resemblances, miss-identifications, and metaphoric appropriations of what Luckhurst terms “corridic” spaces of architecture.

While roughly chronological in development, the narrative is intercut with thematic expositions. The opening chapter, Origins, serves to introduce the corridor etymologically and in its earliest architectural form as well as the pre-corridor world of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. With this historical expansion is smuggled in transversal pathways, roofed walkways, sacred labyrinths, symbolic paths, domestic peristyles, cloisters and galleries. And so the scene is set for the progression through a number of interlinking thematic explorations: Utopias of public disciplinary and commercial institutions as they evolved across  the 19th and 20th centuries: housing, commerce and reform establishments like prisons, asylums and schools; the private house and its expressive use in literature; Dystopia as experienced in bureaucratic corridic spaces in buildings, literature, film and art work and in the corridic spaces evocative of gothic inspired dread and anxiety. The common thread through the essays is that of modernity, from the symbolic world of the ancients, through the institutional spaces of the Enlightenment to the disabling tensions within modernist critique and capitalist development. 

This is clear in the book’s timeframe and sites of appearance:  where the corridor was once “a device for the possibility of social and personal transformation it has now become an anxious and dystopian site” (p. 102). This is the trajectory of modernism infused by the thinking of major 20th century philosophers: Theodor Adorno and Louis Althusser, Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault, Gaston Bachelard and Roland Barthes, among others. It is a history told in episodes, each with insightful revelations about the corridor, among them: John Vanbrugh’s comments on Castle Howard, circa 1700; Samuel van Hoogstraten’s painting View of a Corridor, 1662; Sartre’s philosophic text Being and Nothingness, 1943; Godard’s film Alphaville, 1965; Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794.

As an architectural device, the corridor is demonstrated to be intimately connected to conscious and subconscious desires and fears, expressions and repressions. It is pragmatic and celebratory, abetting and disabling. The functioning and significance of the corridor hinges on it being both public and private, open and closed, fantastic and banal. As spaces they are, as French philosopher Henri Lefebvre argues, socially constructed and so the corridor in use and in imagination is compliant with the society that constructs or inherits it. Corridors and its cognates (labyrinths, galleries, hallways, passages), we are shown, are not only constructions of desire and illusory ideals, but also harbour fear and visions of insufficiency in both their afterlife in other media and the future their remnant forms bequeath. The author proposes that it is only through an attentive reading, or experience, of the corridor and its mutability of social, psychic and capital investments that we in fact understand the full extent of its modernity.

While there have been at least two architectural studies devoted to the corridor specifically, they are closely framed by their disciplinary interests. Robin Evans’ essay, “Figures, Doors and Passages” in Translations from Drawings to Buildings and Other Essays (1997), focused on the appearance of the corridor in 19th century English domestic architecture as the harbinger of a more private and segregated life, one that was less social and less sensual.  Mark Jarzombek ‘s “Corridor Spaces” in Critical Inquiry (2010) was a rebuttal of Evans’ attribution of a privatizing function to the corridor, arguing that it was in fact a space of public life with a socially defined meaning as demonstrated in its specific etymology and provenance. If Evans does reference the wider cultural milieu of literature and painting to make his point, it is an architectural audience he addresses, as does Jarzombek. And while Thomas Markus’s Buildings and Power (1993) comes to mind as a similarly Foucauldian history of the same Enlightenment institutional buildings as explored In Corridors: Passages of Modernity, the corridor is only occasionally marked on plans and it is the disciplinary roles and social relations that such connecting spaces perform in regimenting bodies and minds and empowering reason and enforcers that is his focus.

Luckhurst’s complimentary cultural histories complicate his fairly orderly architectural chronology with temporal misalignments; cultural expressions sometimes co-exist, occasionally circle back, or alternatively project forward the corridor’s affect. However, they also offer a more inclusive understanding of the corridor than following a strictly architectural nomenclature or history with its careful parsing of the differences between a corridor or passage, for example, might allow. Although, bereft of these fine gradations something of the distinctions of class and purpose that such terminology upheld is lost.  Luckhurst greatly amplifies the insights of these earlier accounts, providing a more comprehensive, if more diffuse, history. In doing so he expands our cultural understanding of the psychic power and uncanny aspects bequeathed and inspired by corridic spaces.

But what makes these corridors Passages of Modernity? Why is the corridor, as the author declares in his introduction, “that quintessentially modern space”? (p. 7). Modernity refers to the experience of modernizing forces, the replacement of tradition, religion and myth with changeable codes, science and reason; it is a consciousness of what Charles Baudelaire termed, in his 1863 The Painters of Modern Life, “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent” and with it the sense of a void, an absence, and the unknown (p. 13).  In The Condition of Postmodernity (1990), cultural geographer David Harvey proposes that there is a dilemma at the heart of modernist aesthetic responses to modernity: on the one hand there is the “flux and change, ephemerality and fragmentation of the material bases of modern life” and on the other the quest for some claim to the eternal and immutable” (p. 20). The corridor as “quintessentially a modern space” seems to encapsulate this tension between progress and some kind of stability in the instability of the modern world. Hence the fear of the dehumanizing process embedded in the improving impulses of institutionalization, the waning fashionableness of the Astoria Hotel’s Peacock Alley, the failure of the ‘streets in the air’ of post-war social housing schemes, or the potency of the angst-ridden corridor in films such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) or Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

While the profligate or disciplined liaisons of architectural (and urban) spaces and their imaginaries in literature, film and video games offer insight on the potent cultural force of architectural corridic space, what is also relevant is the attention Corridors: Passages of Modernity gives to infrastructure and its molding of not only actions but also thought. Although we are, the author claims, living in an “anti-corridic world” where the corridor is reduced to a repressed existence in open plan offices or infrastructure, it is still a potent feature of our built and imagined world, a part of both lived and psychic space. Corridic space influences not only culture but also the substrata of productive, political and economic life. And while the corridor as enlightenment device may be as passé as the modernity it facilitated, as quintessentially modern, corridic space would necessarily be transitory, superseded. As infrastructure, however, it can perhaps offer some insight into our present-day conduits of post-modernity.

In his introduction, Luckhurst concludes that “corridors are now regarded as infrastructure, the underpinning service elements of the world that are too big, or buried, or boring, to deserve comment. Quoting  Marc Angélil and Cary Siress in Infrastructure Space (2017), Luckhurst remarks, infrastructure “seldom sustains mindful attention, manifesting instead the stuff of an unremarked substrate simply serving the basics of everyday life” (p.10). It has become un-architecture he concludes.  The architectural corridor, with its role of “protecting or remaking social habits, cultural values, economies and technology” while harbouring fears, anxieties and the unknown, is superseded by new information and electronic technologies with their specific codes and protocols.  Now, as he suggests, when we pass through these architectural corridic spaces, we experience merely an afterglow, like Walter Benjamin’s Paris Arcades, they seem to be mementos of a past social order. Corridors: Passages of Modernity demonstrates that the, often overlooked, corridor, uncelebrated by architectural history, was in fact a social, political, economic as well as aesthetic matter which should encourage us to look at our current infrastructure with equal discernment.

Sherry McKay is an architectural historian and as of 2019 Professor Emerita of the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape (SALA) and College Unit Representative of the Emeritus College. She was the recipient of a Killam Teaching Award and inaugural Chair of the architecture program in SALA (2006-09). Her research on west coast architecture and French architecture of the modern colonial era appears in North American and French publications, including books, chapters and essays.


Angélil, M. and  Siress, C. (2017) Infrastructure Takes Command: Coming out of the Background. In: Infrastructure Space. [eds. Ilka and Andreas Ruby], 11-23.  Berlin: Ruby Press.

Baudelaire, C. (1863/ 1964) The Painters of Modern Life. [Translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne] London: Phaidon Press.

Evans, R .(1997) Figures, Doors and Passages. Translations from Drawings to Buildings and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Harvey, D. (1990) The Conditions of Post Modernity. Malden MA and Oxford UK: Blackwell.

Jarzombek, M. (2010) Corridor Spaces. Critical Inquiry 36, 728-770.

Markus, T. (1993) Buildings and Power. London and New York: Routledge.

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