“There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again.”
Lewis Carroll knew the power of the corridor.
And in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ we are invited to take part in his private joke: mucking about with perspective.
For every corridor should, by rights, be predictable. It should, to our eyes, start as big as we are where we stand, and dwindle, using comfortable mathematics used for millennia, to a vanishing point. The Renaissance artists got it all sorted out: around 1400, Leon Battista Alberti wrote down what others had begun experimenting with. You get a horizontal line where the sky meets the ground. There’s a ‘vanishing point’ near the centre of the horizontal line. And then you get these beckoning ‘visual rays’ which lead you from the edges of the canvas to the vanishing point.
What more elevated buffoonery could there be than messing about with that ordered by the Renaissance men?
So in her corridor, Alice has very big doors but also a very small door. And she herself gets bigger and smaller, observing the changes along the way. “What a curious feeling!” said Alice “I must be shutting up like a telescope!”
Messing with perspective is funny. Cut to Father Ted, the Irish priest stranded in a God-awful house on Craggy Island with his challenged sidekick, Dougal. They are sitting, in a tiny holiday caravan, contemplating some plastic toy cows on the table. “Now concentrate this time, Dougal,” Father Ted admonishes, sternly to the eternally vacant curate, “these…” – gesturing to the plastic cows- “are very small, and those…” -pointing to the cows outside in the field – “are far away.”
And trust William Hogarth to lampoon perspective within the four wooden sides of a frame.
Playing with perspective is hilarious. Which makes one wonder if perspective itself can be used to do the polar opposite. Perhaps perspective can be used to oppress.
I’ll tell you what set me thinking. Every weekend Side View sets a theme, and this weekend the theme was a visual one.
Now, tell me, does that empower or cower? Perhaps I have seen too many places like it: for many of our prisons and mental hospitals were built in a similar style, though with hard, unforgiving floors.
In the Victorian years, institutions such as these were made to instil values from outside: iron-spined Christian values, paternalistic judgement enshrined in bricks and mortar:
And the architecture is now inextricably linked with the tales that went hand in hand with these places. Tales of human cruelty and terror; of blood-letting, purging and physical restraints, of patients at the mercy of the theories of the time. Of brutality in the name of discipline. Which came first, I wonder: unease induced by the unforgiving perspective, or fear begotten of what happened in the rooms which opened off these corridors?
And so I am on a new hunt, now: for corridor architecture which does not aim to awe, nor cow, nor to subdue; but to make people happy.
Let us see what transpires.
You can find Side View’s Theme for the week here