In the original film noir, John Huston’s Maltese Falcon (1941), private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) visits criminal mastermind Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) in his San Francisco hotel room to discuss the delivery of a mysterious ornament. The elevator attendant points him in the direction of Room 12c. After some cagey preliminaries, Spade delivers a ferocious ultimatum. Once out in the corridor again, he unlocks a wolfish grin. He’s got Gutman where he wants him. Or so he thinks. As he enters one elevator in order to descend to the lobby, Gutman’s accomplice, Joel Cairo, whom Spade already has grounds to distrust, exits from another. His failure to spot Cairo will very nearly prove fatal. Since Cairo is Peter Lorre at his most flamboyant, you would have to be quite far gone in self-congratulation not to notice him. Spade has failed to understand that a corridor is less a space than a channel of communication through which people, things and messages pass in both directions. Mind the traffic.
Roger Luckhurst’s ambitious and consistently informative cultural history of the corridor makes brief mention of The Maltese Falcon in accounting for film noir’s preoccupation with bleakly anonymous lobbies, passages and hallways. But it’s not the skills and attitudes required to negotiate these spaces that interest Luckhurst. In his view, corridors have a meaning rather than a function. Film noir, he says, set out to ‘interpret’ lobbies, passages and hallways as an index to modern alienation. This is emphatically a cultural rather than an architectural history. Literature, film, TV and other media are called on to elucidate meaning. One touchstone is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), in which the camera stalks young Danny at just above ground level as he pedals his tricycle down the interminable featureless passageways of the Overlook Hotel. ‘The Shining,’ Luckhurst concludes, ‘revealed something about the emotional latency of corridors: a simple lesson in the social construction of space.’
The point of a corridor has always been to make it possible to get from one part of a building to another without having to pass through a succession of intervening rooms. Emerging into prominence in 17th-century Italy, corridors found an early champion in John Vanbrugh, whose designs for Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard modelled the new arrangement of a series of rooms opening off a long central axis. The idea gained wide currency during the Enlightenment, Luckhurst notes, as a ‘rational proposal’ for the redistribution of public and private space. Where domestic interiors were concerned, the proposal’s aim was in large measure defensive: a reinforcement of privacy. Luckhurst proves an excellent guide to the distinctly mixed bag of ‘utopian conceptions’ and ‘dystopian results’ that was the outcome of this Enlightenment project.
The first flower of the ‘utopia of corridors’ was the phalanstère (from the Greek phalanx, a body of soldiers in tight formation), dreamed up by the philosopher Charles Fourier and his disciple Victor Considerant as a solution to the social and economic instabilities of post-revolutionary France: a settlement house or estate for 1620 people organised around a street gallery that ran the full length of the second floor. This public thoroughfare was the only way to get from one domestic interior to another, or to gain access to an array of facilities including canteens, nurseries and workshops. Fourier had it in mind to dismantle the bourgeois family. ‘In utopia,’ Luckhurst notes, ‘the corridor always promises radical social reassemblage.’ No phalansteries were ever built. But the idea lived on in experiments ranging from the Oneida Community, founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1834 to promote the practice of ‘complex marriage’, through the Soviet dom kommuna (communal house) of the 1920s and 1930s to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation or Cité radieuse, a housing block in Marseille designed around lengthy ‘rues intérieures’ on every third floor. Luckhurst’s trenchant survey of social engineering by means of ‘corridic horizontality’ reaches its conclusion in the City of London, which boasts the Golden Lane Estate, constructed in the late 1950s with the Cité radieuse very much in mind; and, of course, the Barbican. Community – ‘universal linkage’, in Fourier’s phrase – has long been the corridor’s most charismatic meaning, its noblest latent emotion.
The modern state has also invested heavily in other less charismatic if not necessarily ignoble ways to make or remake the citizen-subject. By far the longest chapter in the book merits the longest title: ‘Corridors of Reform: Prison, Workhouse, Asylum, Hospital, School and University’. And then there are the passageways threading capitalism’s ‘immersive dream worlds’, from the Parisian arcade through the vast iron and glass enclosures of 19th and 20th-century Great Exhibitions and World’s Fairs to the postwar shopping mall. The latest incitement to active consumption is surely the serpentine path that seeks to detain us for as long as possible in the duty-free zone of an international airport. Luckhurst remains as alert to the dystopian failure of many such modernising projects as he is to the powerful allure they once cast. ‘Dystopia,’ he writes, ‘does not come after but inhabits the utopian impulse from the beginning.’ Two final chapters aim to get to grips with the ‘windowless and oppressive’ corporate or bureaucratic corridor-system, and with the nameless existential dread attributed by Gothic fiction and film to that or any other proliferating, maze-like structure.
Given his interest in social and political utopia, it’s curious that Luckhurst has nothing at all to say about The West Wing, perhaps the most influential, and certainly the most uplifting, recent exploration of ‘corridors of power’. The show’s signature idea was the walk-and-talk: an elaborately choreographed tracking shot which follows several characters at a time as they navigate the corridors of the White House while engaged in multiple, overlapping conversations. These quick-fire exchanges, a tribute to screwball comedy, reveal the protagonists as perfectly matched in charm, bloody-mindedness and fingertip command of breaking world news, as well as exemplary sangfroid concerning personal mishap. There’s quite a lot of utopianism in the thought that the government of the most powerful nation on earth might run on articulacy and grace under pressure (George W. Bush entered the White House during the show’s second season).
A more serious problem with Luckhurst’s account concerns the crudity of meanings he attributes to the less appealing aspects of corridors. He is certainly not alone in describing the ‘annihilation of the self’ engendered by the modern institutional labyrinth as ‘Kafkaesque’. His main example is a scene towards the end of The Castle. Land-surveyor K., whose sole ambition has been to establish the connection (Verbindung) with the castle that would secure his status, presents himself for interview at the inn used by its emissaries whenever they have business to conduct in the village. The summons to a meeting with an official called Erlanger looks like his last chance to ingratiate himself with those in power. He makes his way down to a basement corridor lined on both sides with cubicles in which the emissaries work and sleep. Whatever ‘clear purpose’ he might possess is ‘confounded and confused’, Luckhurst remarks, by the unintelligibility of the space confronting him. It is true that K. is confused enough to enter the wrong cubicle. The confusion, however, owes more to tiredness, and the contents of a carafe of rum, than it does to nameless existential dread. Far from confounding him, the mistake further reinforces the ‘clear purpose’ that has absorbed all his energies since his arrival in the village, since the cubicle’s occupant, Bürgel, describes himself as a ‘communications secretary’ (Verbindungssekretär), and thus the ‘main line of communication’ (stärkster Verbindung) with the castle. The wrong destination may, after all, be the right one; and in another sense, too, since K. falls asleep and dreams that he is wrestling with a naked castle official who resembles a Greek god. It’s all to no avail. The next morning, Bürgel can’t wait to get rid of him, and he is subsequently brushed off by Erlanger too. But he decides to stick around anyway, for Kafka’s interest in the corridor as a channel of communication has only just been ignited. There follows a lengthy description of the work done by two servants who distribute files from a trolley to the secretaries in their cubicles, with varying degrees of success. The corridor Kafka has imagined is not in the least Kafkaesque. K., indeed, feels ‘almost happy’ amid the stir and bustle. A role amid stir and bustle is all he’s ever wanted. He has to learn not to want it; and since the novel remains incomplete, we don’t know if he will.
The corridor that so absorbs K. has nothing in common with the one Sam Spade ignores except that each has been conceived in terms of its function rather than its meaning. That should not debar them, and the many others like them, from attention. Luckhurst acknowledges, but does not engage with, Kate Marshall’s Corridor: Media Architectures in American Fiction (2013), which shares his emphasis on modernity, as well as specific points of reference such as Bruce Nauman’s Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970) and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000). Both draw substantially on a seminal essay by the architectural historian Mark Jarzombek which demonstrates, from the 17th century onwards, the way the corridor became the ‘organising structure’ of the modern large-scale edifice, public or private. Jarzombek points out that in 14th-century Spain and Italy, the term referred ‘not to a space but to a courier, someone who, as the word’s Latin root suggests, could run fast’. A ‘corridor’ was a messenger, a scout, a carrier of money, a negotiator: a person in a hurry. The West Wing’s walk-and-talks are a hymn to speed without haste. While Marshall develops this line of inquiry into a compelling account of a variety of fictional corridors in which information flows either too freely or not at all, Luckhurst shies away from it. Neither seems to want to take on Jarzombek’s further intriguing suggestion that the corridor should be regarded as a program rather than a structure, since it ‘encodes’ the building which contains it with the ‘terminology of couriered messages’. We might say that each opening off it constitutes an address, or even a URL. The sequence of numbered rooms thus creates both the channel and the procedures by means of which a person, thing or message is able to reach its destination. (K. notices that the servants wheeling the trolley laden with files seem to negotiate as much with the rooms along the corridor as with the officials who occupy them.) We use these sequences in order to courier the things or messages we have been charged with conveying as swiftly and securely as possible to a destination; or, more often, we just courier ourselves. Corridors can be made to harbour uncanniness, disclosing the unfamiliar within the familiar. But they’re canny enough when they need to be, as writers have long understood.
Luckhurst finds much to support his argument in 18th-century Gothic fiction, the genre that, according to him, most fully articulates the ‘distinctly modern feeling’ of ‘spatial dread’. But there was no shortage of canny corridors in the literature of the period. Novels of high-toned seduction such as Les Liaisons dangereuses could scarcely have got by without them. My favourite corridor is the one which simultaneously structures and programs the house of assignation in the anonymous Memoirs of a Man of Pleasure (1751). ‘All the rooms were in a corridor, or gallery, pretty like that of a convent, and all numbered.’ On arrival, each couple is conducted to one of these rooms. ‘At the side of every door there was a turning machine, by means whereof servant-maids, very intelligent, served their guests with supper, if they thought proper.’ Anyone who wants to leave their room for any reason must summon a maid, who then rings a ‘great bell’ heard all over the house, which is ‘the signal for everyone to keep in close quarters’. ‘The same formalities were observed on the arrival of new guests, and thus people could go in and come out without being seen by one another, though there was a continual flux and reflux in this palace of pleasure.’ Mind the traffic.
The Gothic persisted, and Luckhurst wrings plenty of ‘spatial dread’ from the corridor of Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), where Bertha Mason is held captive behind a small black door. More frightening, I’d say, because a lot cannier, is the one on the upper floor of a village inn in Mary E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). The scheming protagonist ventures along it in search of the room occupied by her husband’s nephew, Robert, who is hot on her (bigamous) trail. ‘She stopped and looked at the number on the door. The key was in the lock, and her hand dropped upon it as if unconsciously.’ She stands for a few moments trembling, ‘then a horrible expression came over her face, and she turned the key in the lock; she turned it twice, double locking the door.’ No prizes for guessing that she’s about to set fire to the place. The number on the door of Robert’s room has targeted him as unerringly as the GPS lock that launches a drone strike.
Since poetry turns as much on what words do, under particular circumstances, as on what they mean, it’s not surprising that poets should have done a fair amount to illuminate the functionality of corridors. Tennyson’s Merlin, for example, defends a Knight of the Round Table, Sir Sagramore, from malicious gossip by laying the ultimate blame for his indiscretion on a bug in the Camelot room-booking system. One night, Sagramore stumbles in the dark into the suite occupied by a complete stranger, and promptly falls asleep in the only available bed. The next day he proposes marriage in order to avoid a scandal. It was all an honest mistake, Merlin explains.
An angry gust of wind
Puffed out his torch among the myriad- roomed
And many corridor’d complexities
Of Arthur’s palace: then he found a door,
And darkling felt the sculptured ornament
That wreathen round it made it seem his own;
And wearied out made for the couch and slept,
A stainless man beside a stainless maid
Tennyson has had to work on the word ‘corridor’, buttressing its final syllable in order to fit it smoothly into Merlin’s laconic account of a structure complex enough to have earned Vanbrugh’s approval. But even the grandest of designs contains the odd flaw. The ‘sculptured ornament’, which could indicate either of two rooms equally (or several), fails as a URL. Like Kafka’s K., Sagramore has mailed himself to the wrong destination, which turns out to be the right one after all – or as good a one as any.
Browning, like Tennyson, felt no qualms in supposing that modernity was nothing new. His closet drama In a Balcony, set during the lifetime of Rubens (1577-1640), associates the traffic in a palace corridor with an entire media ecology. Norbert has served his queen faithfully for a year, while conducting a clandestine affair with her young cousin, Constance. He wants to ask her for Constance’s hand in marriage. Constance is not so sure, fearing the queen’s jealousy, but also, it emerges, reluctant to abandon the thrill of the clandestine. Married respectability – ‘To live like our five hundred happy friends’ – would be scant recompense for the loss of what they now have. Does he not recall the sharpness of the feeling that prompted him to abandon a political assembly simply in order to ‘bring about/One minute’s meeting in the corridor’? Mention of the corridor provokes a radiant description of the absurdly intoxicating manoeuvres, at once public and private, shameless and hermetic, which have sustained the affair:
And then the sudden sleights, long secrecies,
The plots inscrutable, deep telegraphs,
Long-planned chance meetings, hazards of a look,
‘Does she know? does she not know? saved or lost?’
A year of this compression’s ecstasy
All goes for nothing?
The signalling does not require a corridor. But corridors are a constant reminder of just how much of life is spent in the transmission and reception of ‘deep telegraphs’ of one kind or another; or, just how much of life at its most engrossing. Constance’s term for the excitement of deep telegraphing – ‘compression’s ecstasy’ – is as good a definition of the romance of connectivity as anything that media theory has since come up with. We shouldn’t overlook the fun Tennyson and Browning had with corridors. In literature as in life, what a corridor does may in the end count for more than what it means.