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An Architectural Space of Resistance

Vic Mantha-Blythe

The tunnel is a long narrow passage, characteristically dark, cold, and underground, that moves people from one place to another. While not always strictly secretive or hidden, the tunnel typically evokes a sense of something cryptic occurring; it is tied to themes of movement and passage where people, ideas, and objects are exchanged, often illegally. The tunnel, as an architectural space, is leveraged in contemporary films, television shows, and artwork to portray the undercover complex organisation of agitators and resistors and their collective, but hidden, power. The more rigid and structured an environment is, the more powerful and disruptive role the tunnel plays. 

Our conception of these sites as passages of resistance is rooted in the English lexicon. “Underground,” while defined by Oxford Dictionary as “beneath the surface of the ground,” has additional and specific meanings which denote not a literal underground presence, but rather a metaphorical one, where forbidden ideas, information, weapons, news, or people are transmitted and transacted. One such metaphorical application describes the organised and covert operations of a group who intend to disrupt an oppressor, namely the French Underground, a network of resistance groups active during World War II who fought the German Nazi occupation through sub rosa communications and espionage. Another usage of the term implies a specific counter-culture movement: the United States Sixties Underground Press syndicate. This was a grassroots collective of alternative papers who worked with the intention of sharing resources, contacts, and reprinting rights to ensure wide publication of local events, including the 1967 Detroit Riots. Lastly, ‘underground’ also describes a network which facilitates escape or shelter to protect those at risk of persecution or exploitation by an existing regime. One example of this is the Underground Railroad, a system of safehouses and concealed routes established to transport enslaved African Americans to freedom in neighbouring countries and states in the early to mid-1800s. 


The tunnel, a metaphor adopted by underground movements which subvert the existing structures of control in various ways, holds the potential to inform the creation of an emancipatory space. I hereby explore the use of the tunnel as a setting for this kind of opposition through three films: Girl, Interrupted (1999), The Favourite (2018), and Us (2019).  The interaction of architecture and film is inseparable.[1] Placemaking that occurs via cinema involves both a tracing of our corporeal life and a real, productive space of its own; intertwining collective narratives, events, sounds, memories, and leaving room for personal interpretation and response. Where architecture often considers itself to be objective, the creation and watching of film is a highly subjective and personal experience. Cinema can illuminate the connection between identity and architecture, both of which act as a backdrop–or set–for our lived experiences. 


In many instances the tunnel can simply be a setting of terror or covert operations; a dark and disturbing event. But in films with an anti-oppression lens this visual of the underground tunnel reappears as a cinematic space of the moment-just-before-liberation. Such films utilise the tunnel as a metaphor for a repressed world; a site the marginalized inhabit, and the cast-off members of society retreat to. While the tunnel is full of shadows, murky, and hauntingly mysterious, for those who are not safe in the brightly lit public spaces of society, the underground world offers refuge.  

In Girl, Interrupted, Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Brittany Murphy, and Elizabeth Moss star as lead characters who are admitted to an institution. Each is medicalised with a mental health condition including borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, bulimia, sociopathy, anorexia, and depression; their pain and discomfort a result of misfitting in an inhospitable environment. For example, Lisa’s (Angelina Jolie) seemingly charming, aggressive, and disconnected personality informs her diagnoses as a sociopath. However, beneath the rigid institution in which these characters are imprisoned lies an underground tunnel system which Lisa leads them all to explore and escape to. It is through this inhabitation of a parallel, subterranean environment where the women can express their authentic selves. Here, all the characters’ disorders seemingly disappear, illustrating how their experience of mis-fitting arises not from their mental health conditions but the result of a body in a hostile environment. In a charged and traumatic climax scene in the tunnel, Lisa becomes emotionally distraught by the harsh words of fellow patient Susanna (Winona Ryder), revealing a lapse in her coldness, lack of empathy and so-called sociopathy.

Similar to Girl, Interrupted, a tunnel in The Favourite serves as a site for intimacy hidden from the watchful eye of society's judgement. This secret passage allows the Queen of England (Oliva Coleman) accompanied by her servants Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) to move between one another’s bedrooms as they conduct taboo queer love affairs. The passage affords these women an ability to secretly move between spaces that they would otherwise be denied access to. It is pertinent to note that these aristocratic characters successfully utilise the ‘back-of-house’ passages originally intended for servants to remain unseen. Both servants–Sarah and Abigail–are granted greater mobility as a result, accessing not only the Queen’s bedchamber but gaining her political ear and consequently a power deemed well above their social class. 

In psychological horror film Us, tunnels are positioned as part of an underground network that is inhabited by forgotten people, or ‘clones’ of those above the surface. When character Adelaide Wilson confronts her double Red (both played by Lupita Nyong'o) in the tunnels below the city, Red reveals the stark reality that Adelaide’s peaceful world was built on the backs of the unseen, unheard, marginalised (underground) voices called the ‘tethered’. After an arduous fight, Adelaide exits the tunnel victorious, and it is revealed that she is in fact Red: the two have switched places and the audience’s allegiance has thus changed. This is the moment of liberation; Us emphasizes how those who inhabit the underground and behind-the-scenes spaces are not extras, but rather they are the ones who carry the literal foundation for our privileged upper-middle class communities. 

In each of these films the subversive network of tunnels creates a space–or set–for the films’ characters to unfold and flourish. In these gloomy and obscure passageways, characters become fully realised, expanding into the fullness of their particular embodiments. The tunnel serves as a site where experiences of mental illness, suppression of queer love, and class inequity can be illuminated as direct symptoms of the oppressive systems which attempt to contain, suppress and categorise these experiences. 


Film, as an affective avenue for speculative fiction and imagined futures, has the agency to foreground areas of resistance as primary sites of investigation. Serving as an intimate portrayal of subjective experiences, film can inform the role of architecture in creating spaces of freedom and expression. While the typology of the tunnel is associated with discrete and forbidden activities, there is potential for it to become more than a sequestered space for submerged and clandestine dissidents, but rather an empowering place that enables liberation and celebration. In this possibility the tunnel ultimately is not a temporary and transient alternative to existing structures, but is an entire world unto itself–similar to the way film embodies an imagined yet equally real alternative to our corporeal world. A speculative and hopeful architectural exploration of the tunnel as a pathway towards a more just reality would do well to adopt the intimate and subjective cinematic lens.  


[1] Juhani Pallasmaa talks about the role of cinema in architecture extensively, but I draw particularly on his introductory chapter. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema (Helsinki, Finland: Rakennustieto Oy, 2001).

[2] Rosemary Garland-Thomson speaks to the theory of ‘misfits’ through a feminist material lens to further explore the lived experience of disability. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, "Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept," Hypatia 26, no. 3 (2011).

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