Architectures of Hiding

Louise Pelletier

Hiding in the Wings; A Culture of the Onlooker in the Eighteen Century

In 1769, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) wrote about the apparent opposition between two spaces of representation: the salon and the stage. Up until then, the salon was a place governed by sensitivity, where every conversation aimed at expressing the cleverness and refinement of those involved, whereas the stage demanded and often amplified exaggerated performance to attain a desired dramatic effect. The Paradox of the Actor not only inverted these two modes of social interaction, it theorized a form of social acting that had become omnipresent throughout Europe. Pretending in a theatrical performance that the audience was absent, or as in Diderot’s Le Fils naturel (1757) a sole spectator hidden in a corner of the room, this new paradigm played on the increasing importance given to the private realm and domestic architecture in the eighteenth century. Other authors such as Montesquieu (1689-1755) in his Lettres persanes (1721), Chevalier de la Morlière in Angola (1746), Laclos in Liaisons dangeureuses (1782), or even Diderot’s own boudoir novels all confirmed this social transformation taking root in France at the time.

The architectural world embraced this new social reality in the design of public theatres with all sorts of devices that allowed spectators to witness the action without being seen or recognized. It also infiltrated the private realm with peepholes and trap doors being introduced in private residences to observe without being seen the movements of one’s guests, the choreographed needs of a patron or even the secret life of a neighbor. Nowadays, one may look at such instances as a case of intrusion, a violation of one’s private life, but has the culture of voyeurism that became even more pervasive in the century that followed ever gone away, or has it only changed form? The present essay will look at eighteenth century apparatuses for hiding in an attempt to identify what has or has not changed in our desire to dissimulate our gaze, and the role of architecture in framing it.

Keywords: theatre, fiction, peephole, spectator

DR. LOUISE PELLETIER was trained as an architect. She received her PhD in the history and theory of architecture from McGill University in 2000. She has been teaching at the UQAM School of Design in Montreal since 2006, where she is also Director of the UQAM Design Centre. She is the author of Architecture in Words; Theatre, Language and the Sensuous Space of Architecture (Routledge 2006), and co-author of Architectural Representation and the Perspective Hinge (MIT Press, 1997) and Theatrical Space as a Model for Architecture (McGill Libraries, 2003). She is also the author of Downfall: The Architecture of Excess (2014), a novel that ref|ects on issues of contemporary architectural practice.