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Open the door to the secrets of the corridor

Pamela Buxton

Roger Luckhurst’s book travels through time and type via horror films, history and architectural fashion

This book goes off in all directions. At first glance a study of the corridor, seemingly that most mundane of places, this is actually a romp through the history of many different building types, all seen through the lens of the corridor, in its various manifestations from humble service passage to toffs’ promenade.

It is unexpectedly fascinating and informative, even if at times it feels like several books in one, from architectural treatise to readings of the portrayal of corridors in film and literature.

Perhaps it’s this multiplicity that makes it such a good read. The author Roger Luckhurst is a professor of modern literature at Birkbeck College and author of books on films and zombies, and is clearly at home tackling the corridor as a source of unease in popular culture. He also gets stuck into architectural history and unearths all sorts of oddities. We hear about the Duke of Portland, who built miles of underground corridors around his Welbeck Abbey estate so he could get about without ever being seen and Joseph Paxton’s outlandish proposal for a Great Victorian Way arcade to link all major London stations. There’s discussion of the corridor as both a means of open socialization and closed privacy, and as a source of efficiency but also alienation. He discusses the negative feelings of unease that corridors have generated in popular culture. There’s even a look at perhaps the final corridor – the journey to death – through the testimonies of near death experience survivors.

According to Luckhurst, we are living in an ‘anti-corridic world’ with most recent trends in building types eliminating corridors, which are often seen as ‘un-architecture’. But it hasn’t always been this way. He takes us way back to consider the role of passages in temples, labyrinths, the classical stoa, cloisters, fortifications, before considering the role that corridors have played in the evolution of building types such as prisons, shopping malls, housing and workplaces.

Luckhurst concludes that corridors open into ‘some of the major experiences of modernity itself’ and certainly the corridor proves to be a rewarding focus for an analysis of these various building types over time. We learn about Charles Fourier’s utopian concept for a phalanstery in the 19th century, a mega-structure that could house 1620 people organised around a street-corridor. A broad look at housing takes in Soviet communal housing and the role of the corridor as a place for social and personal transformation in this new collectivism before moving onto Corbusier, drawing attention to the use of corridors at l’Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles as a counterpoint to the lightness of the apartments. Luckhurst looks at the ‘streets in the sky’ of post-war British housing, taking in Robin Hood Gardens, Park Hill, and the Barbican before considering the backlash to large housing estates. Far from the utopian corridors of Fourier and post-war planners, these internalized spaces became seen as ‘dark passages of menace and threat’.

The retail chapter is fascinating, taking in 19th century British arcades and grander versions in Brussels, St Petersburg and Milan. The latter, a four-storey Galleria Vittoria Emmanuele II (1877) was to inspire the American mall of the next century. This is a good yarn. Architect Victor Gruen designed the first, Northland Shopping Center in Detroit in 1954, a development praised by Jane Jacobs with buildings and landscaped squares tied together by long colonnades and traffic banished to the peripheries. Two years later, he designed the first fully enclosed air-conditioned mall in America, described by Frank Lloyd Wright as ‘repulsive’. Gruen incorporated art, fountains, and public spaces for events, even lectures. As well as effective retail spaces he ‘seemed genuinely to believe that he could create a cultured agora in the new social spaces,’ says Luckhurst. A new mall was built in America every year until 2008, but Gruen hated the legacy of malls which deviated from his vision and in 1978 disclaimed his role in creating the building type, which he said had ‘destroyed our cities’. I enjoyed the consideration of the ‘Zombie Effect’ – the semi-trance state that shoppers can find themselves in within shopping malls. Now, one third of the 1200 malls in America are dead or dying, another sign of how a corridor once associated with utopian ideals has developed what Luckhurst calls a ‘darker, dystopian flavour’.

The hotel corridor gets full consideration, including the extraordinary mega expo hotels of EM Statler around the turn of the 20th century in America – at the St Louis hotel, some corridors were almost half a mile long. There’s an account of the curious story of Peacock Alley, a promenade for wealthy guests built between the Waldorf and the Astoria in New York that attracted thousands of gawpers a day in the early 20th century. Luckhurst enjoys exploring the idea of corridor ‘dread’ ­– the sense of unease that long hotel corridors create in films such as The Shining.

The private home typology is also rich territory, with corridors used variously as grand processional spaces or to achieve privacy by by-passing enfilade series of public rooms. Circulation in grand houses could become highly complex, with separate family, servant and public routes that were challenging to keep apart.

It’s all hugely disparate and stimulating stuff, with the architectural narrative greatly enlivened by the cultural references and analysis. But I’m surprised that the author didn’t make more of what has in recent years been something of a resurgence of the corridor as a social space, whether in the widening of school corridors into learning areas, re-shaping of some hospital corridors to include places to sit and chat and in today’s workspaces, a determined effort to design circulation spaces as areas for serendipitous encounters where people have space to pause and converse.

Corridors – Passages of Modernity by Roger Luckhurst, Reaktion Books, HB, £25