The Fourth Wall

Chris Ceravolo and Jessica Hauffe


Architecture entices by controlling vision—or, rather, by framing vision.  When either side of the frame encourages a watcher/watched relationship, it suggests an invisible plane known in the theatre and the cinema as the “fourth wall.”  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the fourth wall as “an imaginary wall (as at the opening of a modern stage proscenium) that keeps performers from recognizing or directly addressing their audience.”  It is the boundary between reality and fiction.  More abstractly, it is the boundary between voyeur and spectacle.  The video accompanying this essay exhibits various media in which actors violate the fourth wall by acknowledging the viewer, thereby confusing the power dynamic between watcher and watched.  By analyzing three very different spectacles (The Palace of Versailles, Le Palais Garnier, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial/Museum) we will discuss how architecture has timelessly engaged the fourth wall to foster various modes of seeing and/or being seen.


The Palace of Versailles

The Palace of Versailles, Versailles, 1682, Louis Le Vau


The Palace of Versailles is a perfect example of how “the ruling order discourses endlessly upon itself in an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise” by means of the spectacle.  The king’s bedroom served as a theatre for passively observing the extravagance of the monarchy—the balustrade separating the king’s bed from the spectators formed a fourth wall that encouraged a kind of voyeuristic gaze, disengaging onlookers from the ethics of the extravagant display. The progression through all the grandes appartements was also a kind of cinematic spectacle, a barrage of magnificent images and grandeur that led you to the king’s chamber—the climax of all the sumptuousness.  The emphasis on this room as the center of the palace (and therefore the entire city) further blurred the ethics of the monarchy—it was a titillating honor to enter le chambre du roi to watch the king rise and retire, like gazing upon a sunrise and sunset prepared especially for you.  We can see how the lavish lifestyle epitomized at Versailles was codified in the monarchy by means of the spectacle; all the precious ornament and luscious textures and burnished golden intricacies of palaces were almost seen as functional signifiers of power—objectively necessary—and it was only sensible to exhibit them in such tantalizing ways.

Site Plan Versailles Diagram

Palace of Versailles Plan

King XIV's Bedroom



Le Opêra

Palais Garnier, Paris, 1875, Charles Garnier

Palais Garnier Theatre

In the late 19th century, the burgeoning middle class wanted to express their newly developing economic (and political) influence, so individuals began producing extravagant spectacles of their own by ostentatiously purchasing expensive goods—a behavior labeled as “conspicuous consumption” by Thorstein Veblen in his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899).  Positioned at the head of a long boulevard newly carved from the city fabric, the “new cathedral of bourgeois…Paris” known as Le Palais Garnier (an opera house) was a space for people to observe and display signifiers of social status.  The opera house offered a series of balconies, together forming a fourth wall that framed the activity below.  It was exciting that one could interact with both sides of this imaginary plane; one could either watch on the balcony or be watched on the ground floor.  The grand staircase made very apparent the capability to transition from either space, and served as a stage itself.  In the theatre, this viewing condition was flipped.  The fourth wall of the stage extended laterally to encompass the balcony seating space; rather than serving as vantage points, the balconies served as frames for the elites within, gazed upon by the mass of spectators in the central seating area.  As citizens living in a similar consumer society today, we can confirm that people viewing the extravagance on the other side of that fourth wall would have often been disengaged from the ethics of the behavior and would have felt pressured to act in a similar way.


Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial

Aushcwitz-Birkenau, Poland, 1947


To analyze a darker architecture, the barbed wire fences of the Auschwitz 1 memorial formed a sort of fourth wall as soon as the site was opened to the public in 1947.  To be sure, the external boundary in just about any architectural project bears some kind of significance, but for the boundary to become a fourth wall there must be a watcher/watched relationship; we analyze this boundary because of the heinous “drama” that occurred within, and the powerful desire to traverse the “stage” upon which it took place.  Visitors are intended to break the fourth wall by passing under the iconic fence that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will set you free).  The dominant discourse surrounding the Holocaust is that we are not capable of representing it.  Dissolving the boundary between reality and fiction and enduring the emotional hardship is seen as necessary in order to understand the event (which postmodern society knows we can never truly understand)—indeed, many visitors consider the trip to Auschwitz a pilgrimage.


Gate Aschwitz-Birkeneau

Auschwitz Map



These are three rather distinct examples of three politically provocative spectacles.  Architecture in each case encourages a kind of relationship with the thing on display by engaging with the fourth wall.  Traditionally the fourth wall is the element in theatre and cinema that allows viewers to suspend disbelief by shielding interaction between actor and audience.  Certainly our analysis does not suggest that people did not believe the extravagance of Louis XIV or the consumptive behavior of their fellow elites or the events of the holocaust (though a surprisingly large number of people actually deny the holocaust).  Rather, we have emphasized the fourth wall as an imaginary plane in front of which voyeurs are disengaged from something happening on the other side.  Really, it occurs anytime there is a frame (whether in section as a vertical opening, or in plan as a fenced area) that encourages a watcher/watched relationship.  Our analysis is useful in understanding how architecture mediates power.





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N/A, . “Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum .” Wikipedia (blog), July 6, 2013. (accessed October 13, 2013).


N/A, . “Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau.” (accessed October 13, 2013).


“Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum .” trip advisor (blog), (accessed October 27, 2013).


N/A, . “Presentation.” Opera National de Paris (blog), (accessed October 13, 2013).


N/A, . “Palais Garnier.” Wikipedia (blog), (accessed October 13, 2013).


“Opéra de Paris Garnier.” A View on Cities (blog), (accessed October 13, 2013).


N/A, . “Palace of Versailles.” Wikipedia (blog), (accessed October 13, 2013).


Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s. v. “Palace of Versailles,” (accessed October 13, 2013).


Jarus, Owen. “Palace of Versailles: Fact and History.” Live Science (blog), August 14, 2013. (accessed October 13, 2013).


N/A, . “The Palace.” Chateau De Versailles (blog), (accessed October 13, 2013).


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