The Virtual Hallway
If you search on the internet for the term spatial privacy, or even privacy, it turns out there are no globally agreed-upon definitions. The complex of related issues is mostly discussed legally — as the right to privacy; and in articles like law professor Anita L. Allen-Castellitto’s “Understanding Privacy: The Basics,” spatial privacy in particular falls into one of four large categories; informational, physical, decisional, and proprietary.1Anita L. Allen-Castellitto, “Understanding Privacy: The Basics,” Patents, Copyrights, Trademarks, and Literary Property Course Handbook Series (June 2006).
Legally, the question of spatial privacy is raised when we are confronted by search orders or geolocation technologies — e.g., by law enforcement obtaining permission to trespass, or phone apps asking for electronic consent to store data. But outside the legal frames, the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted our sense of privacy as it relates to the spaces in our homes and to the ways they are being invaded by the demands of work, school, and play, now that so much of our lives, even weddings and funerals, is conducted via Zoom.
In “Figures, Walls, and Passages” (1978), Robin Evans traces the first use of the modern hallway to late 16th-century England. The introduction of spatial passages served to remove “traffic from rooms,” meaning that services could be delivered without the servants being fully present.2Robin Evans, “Figures, Doors and Passages.” Architectural Design (April 1978): 267–278. This form of circulation, initially a marker of social class in grand homes, eventually became common in many types of dwellings; by the mid 20th century, Richard Neutra was addressing the desire for flexible spatial privacy in an Los Angeles Times article headlined “The Changing House” (1947). In the article, Neutra describes his concept for a home that would adapts to changing life circumstances through interlocking rooms.3Richard J. Neutra, “The Changing House,” Los Angeles Times (June 22, 1947). Neutra’s famous Kaufmann House, in Palm Springs, based loosely on “The Changing House,” provides multiple passages and portals from inside to outside, yet offers the opportunities for greater privacy, even seclusion, in the rooms at the end of each pathway.
My Brooklyn apartment, built in 1907, is gritty and charming, with a simple layout: a single hallway runs perpendicular to four rooms. In some sense, the hallway is the backbone of the whole space — on one side stands a load-bearing wall dividing me from the landing; on the other are my options: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room. I can pass freely through the door frames of the kitchen and living room, and find privacy in the bathroom and bedroom by shutting the doors. When stay-at-home orders went into effect this spring, my living room became my full-time studio space. It’s also where I eat my meals, FaceTime my family, and read; and where I spend every day with my partner, who is engaged in the same activities.
What happens when our homes cannot readily be adapted to changing needs for domestic privacies? At least one hurdle in NYC is the sheer variety of dwelling spaces. My partner and I reside in 600 sq. ft.; meanwhile others are living in penthouses, row houses, and high-rise apartment buildings, all varying in size and layout, ruling out any easily templated physical solution.
Instead, like you, I’ve latched onto Zoom. All work and socializing now commence when we open a “door” to the Virtual Hallway — the intangible non-space we occupy when we go somewhere on our devices. As we’re aware by now, whatever is within sight of the Zoom “doorway” is displayed for the viewer(s) at the other end of the “hall.” And though the architectural metaphor that we normally use to describe screens and video chats is the “window,” windows allow us passive roles as inhabitants. The irony of Zoom in our private worlds is that we have to authorize its intrusion, like answering a knock at the door. In Elements of Architecture, Rem Koolhaas uses a gradient diagram to show the “dematerialization of the door.” The opaque side of the gradient starts with “solid doors,” progressing toward “thinning doors” like those on elevators, and on the almost transparent side of the gradient presenting not “doors” but “zones,” such as airport security and smart homes.4Rem Koolhaas, “Doors,” Elements of Architecture (Cologne: Taschen Books, 2018), 546–7.
In an office building, we walk through hallways to conference rooms or take elevators (vertical hallways) to different floors. What are we doing in those in-between spaces? I distinctly recall my first corporate gig; the elevator ride to the 15th floor was a zone for awkwardly smiling at (or avoiding) other employees in the four-by-six-foot box. It was a space for getting from here to there. A Virtual Hallway is the same; it’s where we wait — whether for 60 seconds or one — to be let in from the invisible corridor or off the invisible elevator and into our digital meetings.
Door, 11 rue Larrey, a 1927 readymade by Marcel Duchamp, was made as a joke to challenge the French saying that il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée, “a door must be open or shut.” Constructed by a local carpenter to the artist’s instructions, Duchamp’s door is hinged between two frames, leaving one frame open whenever the other is closed. Presumably, Duchamp would have to decide between the bedroom and the bathroom. How do we decide which room to close? When I shut the door to my apartment for relief from the COVID risk outside, Zoom soon opens, and suddenly a dozen people are welcomed into my living room. Under the cover of work and education, Zoom engages us in real time, where our participation is increasingly compulsory. In the Virtual Hallway, we seem to be always in this third ambiguous option, shifting between isolation and exposure.
In Are We Human? Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley repeatedly emphasize that design is not static; it redesigns us, enticing us to design again, and the pattern continues.5Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, Are We Human?: Notes on an Archaeology of Design (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2016), 9–10. In office corridors, we physically move through one space. In the Virtual Hallway, we “enter” many spaces at once, while simultaneously not “being in” any of them at all. As we contend with our figurative Duchamp Doors and Virtual Hallways, I predict that we will attempt to redesign our spaces, and ourselves, to address the duality of our intensified privacy and intensified exposure. In a sense, we maintained more privacy when the literal sight of us, in the outside world, was the only exposure we endured. Our agency in regard to self-presentation has gotten more complicated.
- Anita L. Allen-Castellitto, “Understanding Privacy: The Basics,” Patents, Copyrights, Trademarks, and Literary Property Course Handbook Series (June 2006).
- Robin Evans, “Figures, Doors and Passages.” Architectural Design (April 1978): 267–278.
- Richard J. Neutra, “The Changing House,” Los Angeles Times (June 22, 1947).
- Rem Koolhaas, “Doors,” Elements of Architecture (Cologne: Taschen Books, 2018), 546–7.
- Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, Are We Human?: Notes on an Archaeology of Design (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2016), 9–10.