Invisible Architecture: Ideologies of Space in the Nineteenth-Century City

  • Ben Moore

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis proposes and explores the concept of 'invisible architecture' as a means of interpreting the city in the nineteenth century. Invisible architecture is understood as the unseen structure which holds together the modern city, allowing it to exist as a concept despite the impossibility of gaining full knowledge of it. It has two sides, the first repressive and stabilising, the second fluctuating and utopian. In this way, the thesis is interested in the material and spatial basis of ideology, as well as the ways ideology can be disrupted or distorted. It is also interested in developing a link between invisible architecture and two forms of the unconscious: the psychoanalytic unconscious, which is read through Freud and Lacan, and Walter Benjamin's 'optical unconscious'. More broadly, the thesis explores the ongoing significance of Benjamin's Arcades Project (1927-40) for nineteenth-century city literature. Invisible architecture is explored by analysing how it operates as an object of interest and concern for a selection of writers whose work engages with the modern city between approximately 1830 and 1885. Chapter One focuses on Nikolai Gogol, whose essay 'On Present-Day Architecture' (1835) is read in relation to Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948). This text expresses the desire to bring into visibility the submerged history of architecture and to produce a modern urban architecture that is monolithic and controlling. At the same time, it imagines a city built from suspended structures made of iron, a form of architecture that is speculative and destabilising. Gogol's use of the term 'arabesque' (as in his 1835 volume, Arabesques) is also investigated, with reference to 'The Overcoat' (1842), as a means of thinking about how the city both disrupts and evokes totality. Chapter Two looks at James Kay, Friedrich Engels and Elizabeth Gaskell's writing on industrial Manchester, especially Mary Barton (1848). It argues that the trope of the underground, which is associated particularly with the working class, operates as a form of invisible architecture, and considers the ways Kay's 1832 pamphlet on Manchester cotton-workers seeks to bring the city into greater visibility. Chapters Three and Four focus on Dickens's London in Dombey and Son (1848) and Our Mutual Friend (1865) respectively. Chapter Three looks at the hidden, but unstable, connections between the domestic and financial 'houses' of Dombey, and reads the railway as a force which both breaks apart and connects the city of London. Chapter Four focuses on the river as indicating the presence of that which cannot be integrated into the city because it is fundamentally unknowable, drawing on Lacan's work on vision and the unconscious. This chapter also suggests that city space in Our Mutual Friend is frequently uncanny, referring to Freud's essay on the topic. Chapter 5 examines Zola's Paris in The Kill (1872) and The Ladies' Paradise (1883) in relation to Debord's Society of the Spectacle (1967), arguing that Haussmann's boulevards and the new department stores of Second Empire Paris seem to open up the city with new vistas of space and glass, offering absolute visibility, but at the same time suppressing and destroying parts of the city. The conclusion looks at whiteness within city space, basing its discussion on texts covered in the preceding chapters. It proposes the contradictory combination of visibility and invisibility which whiteness signifies as a final example of invisible architecture, and argues for a dialectical connection between nineteenth-century whiteness and the whiteness of modernism.
Date of Award31 Dec 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorDaniela Caselli (Supervisor)


  • Zola
  • Modernity
  • Gogol
  • Walter Benjamin
  • Gaskell
  • City
  • Nineteenth Century
  • Space
  • Architecture
  • Dickens

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