Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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In the Labyrinth: Substations

posted on 2022-07-31, 22:52 authored by Adam John Rex Alexander

Alain Robbe-Grillet (French author, filmmaker and leader of the mid-Twentieth Century Nouveau Roman, ‘New Novel’ movement) argued that ambiguity, disjunction and chance, rather than order, identity and significance, are the principal characteristics of the experience of modern life, which is in fact discontinuous, defined by repetitive detail, and aleatory by nature. This thesis examines freestanding electrical substations as a unique architectural example of Robbe-Grillet’s view of the modern experience of reality. Substations represent a specific and unusual architectural typology within the contemporary urban environment; each structure is anomalous when perceived alone yet, by design, anonymous when viewed within their surrounding urban context. The repeated subliminal experience of these structures is capable of galvanising the potential interplay of individual human perception and the hard and real, architectural elements of the contemporary urban environment as manifested phenomenally through the experience of substations, resulting in a fragmented and distorted, experience of reality through the modulation of time factor and identity by the subliminal processes of memory and imagination. During the same period as Robbe-Grillet’s development of the New Novel, Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden examined explicit parallels between the perception of multiple art forms – including literature and architecture – within his seminal text, The Ontology of the Work of Art. Ingarden’s findings shall be used as a point of reference to establish a theoretical foundation for the analysis of the devices and methods employed by Robbe-Grillet to engage the reader as creative participant through subliminal literary means. Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth and Last Year at Marienbad are used to establish a contextual framework for the illustration of parallels between the ‘reality’ defined by the New Novel and the fragmented and distorted, surreal experience of substations as a unique architectural typology. Correlations are drawn between Robbe-Grillet’s use of discreet literary devices (such as the repetition of descriptive motifs, fragmentation and non-linear chronology) and the subliminal experience of substations within the urban context (as a fragmented and distorted experience of reality through the modulation of time and identity), both defined by ambiguity and the disjunction of time and space through continuous reinterpretation. This thesis illustrates how these urban substations represent Robbe-Grillet’s image of the ‘true’ underlying reality of the contemporary urban experience. By combining excerpts from Robbe-Grillet’s two works, In the Labyrinth and Last Year at Marienbad with photomontage to synthesize the narrative experience of substations within their urban context, this thesis shall demonstrate how substations can be viewed not only as an array of discrete structures, but in fact, as a greater unified work; a work that is not only a created work but a work which creates as it enters our consciousness through the repeated experience of the spectator. In this way, the network of urban substations can be critiqued as adhering to Roman Ingarden’s definition of an architectural ‘work of art’.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains All Rights

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Architecture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Architecture


Brown, Daniel K.