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Corridors of uncertainty: Modernist utopia and cinematic menace


Whether an oppressive tool of state power or unsettling locus of supernatural disquiet, the corridor has come to embody a unique form of experiential desolation

When the Middlesex County Pauper Lunatic Asylum opened in 1851 at Colney Hatch north of London, it was the largest institution of its kind in the world, with 1,250 beds and more than six miles of corridors. Its architect, Samuel Whitfield Daukes, was advised by John Conolly, England’s Asylum Superintendent, an influential figure who initiated the ambitious expansion of asylum provision during the mid 19th century. Motivated by the example of French reformers, it was Conolly who advanced the idea of a more humane treatment for those afflicted by mental disorders. Rather than perpetuate existing barbaric regimes of restraint and confinement, Connolly saw the architecture of the asylum itself as a ‘persuasive institution’ in helping to heal wounded minds. 

Specifically, he favoured long, linear plans and the notion of the corridor as a key therapeutic device, social space and means of coercive control. Those who were ‘noisy, refractory and dirty’ were exiled to the corridor’s furthest ends, with the inmates moving along the corridor as their treatment progressed and their moods stabilised. At Colney Hatch, wards were designed as elongated corridic spaces, eliminating the need for day rooms and facilitating supervision. To prevent disruption of calmer wards, patients were moved around a further series of link corridors set on the outside of the building underneath the windows.



In Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a story of psychosis starring Catherine Deneuve, 1965, the corridor turns on the hapless woman

Extolled as a paradigm of progressive social engineering, Colney Hatch’s corridor layout was replicated in other large asylums across the country. But over time, problems with overcrowding, lack of funding and changes in therapeutic techniques served to compromise reformist ambitions and transform the Victorian corridic asylum into a house of horrors, both real and imaginary. Colney Hatch finally closed in the early 1990s, in the wake of the Community Care Act. Photographs of its decaying precincts and interminable corridors gave the building a creepy afterlife as a nascent ruin porn star, and the mythical spectre of the abandoned asylum still provides grisly grist to the mill of pulp films, novels and video games.

Yet Colney Hatch was brought back from the brink, its muscular Victorian structures converted into flats and soothingly rebadged as Princess Park Manor. Though you wonder how its new inmates sleep at night. Whether manifest as a grimly oppressive tool of state authority, signifier of corporate tedium, or unsettling locus of supernatural disquiet, the corridor has a reputation for spatial and experiential dystopia. More often than not, it is, literally, a ‘bad place’. Nasty, brutish and long, the corridor has become the malignly familiar preserve of the institutional, inculcating an irrational yet palpable sense of dread. In the 19th century this came to characterise asylums, prisons and workhouses; more latterly, the corridor’s dead hand has extended to hotels, offices, shopping malls and the modern airport’s interminable trudge. 



The Great Corridor at 12th-century Rameswaram Temple, Tamil Nadu, India

Oscillating between banality and unease, intended to channel and control, the corridor is architecture’s leaden thread, stitching together cellular spaces of confinement and despair, populated by lunatics, prisoners, bureaucrats, travelling salesmen, evil nurses and worse. Tapping into hard-wired, primordial fears, the nightmare of the monster in the maze historically haunts all corridors. ‘Beneath the corridor lie the mythic resonances of the labyrinth’, writes Roger Luckhurst, whose cultural history of this most marginalised and disregarded of spaces was published last year.

As Luckhurst argues, in the traditional narrative of the cursed or haunted house, vertical stratification was a metaphor for the unspeakable – the staircase leading down to the basement or up to the attic – mirroring Freudian ideas of the unconscious. Yet the corridor’s insistent, claustrophobic horizontality has become an equally resonant portent of the uncanny. In Gothic literature, ruins of monastic cloisters regularly feature as sites of paranormal activity, stubborn traces of the past that return to haunt these interstitial spaces, sowing the seeds of the corridor’s dystopian reputation. In The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, a canonical Gothic tract, corridors and passageways riddle the eponymous castle with a fearful porosity.



Source: Historic England Archive

Vanbrugh’s 1722 Blenheim Palace in Woodstock

In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the first Mrs Rochester vengefully roams the corridors of Thornfield Hall after dark, seeking retribution. And in innumerable detective novels set in grand hotels, bourgeois residents are perpetually in peril, as Walter Benjamin observes, ‘tremulously awaiting the nameless murderer’, who skulks in corridors and lobbies.

Famously, the corridor’s potential to conjure a particularly modern kind of unheimlich was exploited in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, a Grand Guignol fable of familial unravelling in a deserted, remote hotel. Scenes featuring the protagonist’s young son barrelling around the hotel’s empty corridors on a tricycle, the camera gliding behind him like an malignant, invisible presence, set the disturbing tone. Now a cinematic cliché, this effect was achieved by Kubrick inverting a Steadicam, at the time a new invention, so that it was close to the floor, distorting the sense of space and emphasising his favourite single-point perspective. The corridor walls loom and close in, and the geometry of the carpet pattern is grotesquely exaggerated, infusing the blandly anonymous with a preternatural sense of the uncanny.



Source: Hemis / Alamy

The Thorvaldsens Museum, 1848, in Copenhagen by Michael Gottlieb Bindesbøll

Before it became a trope of horror movies, the corridor had a hazy yet tantalising history. During the medieval era, elongated ranges of cenobitic cloisters effectively mediated between the realms of the sacred and the profane. Going further back to antiquity, transversal pathways structured interactions with the gods in Greek and Roman temples. Etymologically, ‘corridor’ derives from the Italian verb currere, to run, sharing the same root as courier. A speeding messenger, whether or not pursued by a demon, was a corridore. The term corridoio was used to describe the secret passageways leading in and out of palaces, such as the 16th-century Vasari Corridor connecting Florence’s Palazzo Pitti and Palazzo Vecchio, constructed by the omnipotent Medicis. In England, the ‘corridoor’ began to appear as a technical term on architectural drawings around 1715, and at both Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, Vanbrugh made highly effective use of long, lateral corridors off which saloons and public rooms were distributed.

Within the less palatial domestic sphere, the corridor begat the notion of personal privacy, allowing rooms to be entered without passing through them, catalysing new kinds of spatial and social relationships. Crucially, it enabled the cultivation of the private self, increasing the possibility of retreat through differentiation, separation and division. But simultaneously, and equally unnervingly for the established order, it made connection much easier, with genders and classes, family and strangers, able to mix more freely. In this, the corridor is a distinctly modern architectural space, as Luckhurst hypothesises. ‘We are led to a promise of modernity by a utopia of corridors’, he writes.



Narkomfin in Moscow by Moisei Ginzburg, 1930



Source: Azoor Photo Collection / Alamy

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, Marseille, of 1952

In the early 19th century, the idea of a corridic utopia was energetically proselytised by French philosopher Charles Fourier, whose theories of a new kind of communality coalesced in the Phalanstère or Phalanstery, a monumental complex for living and working organised around long, corridor-like ‘street galleries’ designed to foment radical social re-assemblage. During his lifetime, Fourier built nothing and was regarded as an idealistic crank – he was convinced that cosmic forces would change the chemical composition of the world’s oceans making them taste like lemonade – but his theories ultimately percolated through to the social condensers of the Modern Movement, the Unités d’Habitation, Narkomfins and Park Hills, that bestrode and shaped 20th-century housing.

With the exception of hotels and prisons, whose operational model still relies on contrasting regimes of cellular confinement, it does seem that the Corridic Era is being consigned to history. Offices are now largely open plan, stoking different kinds of tensions, while the monstrous Victorian asylums have either been destroyed or repurposed. The demise of Fourier’s street galleries was hastened by the stigmatising, defensible space theories of now discredited architectural anthropologists such as Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman. ‘The turning of the utopian corridors of Fourier, the Soviets and the postwar planners into dark passages of menace and threat is one of the principal means by which our imagination about the corridor has changed’, argues Luckhurst.



Source: Patti McConville / Alamy

Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at JFK Airport, New York, 1962

Memorable for the wrong reasons, the image of architecture critic Paul Goldberger playing a modern Minotaur in a corridor at London’s Robin Hood Gardens was employed by Charles Jencks as part of his strategy to decisively épater the Modernist social project. The fraying and curdling of these utopian ambitions, whether concerned with housing ordinary people, rehabilitating prisoners or caring for the mentally ill, has had a fatally corrosive impact on the corridor, reducing it to maligned infrastructure and the stuff of bad dreams. But perhaps it always did have something of the night about it.

Lead image: captured at an angle by the newly developed Steadicam, the sense of space is distorted in the interminable corridor in Kubrick’s The Shining, the stuff of nightmares. Courtesy of Landmark Media / Alamy

This piece is featured in the AR June 2020 issue on Inside – click here to buy your copy today