|Winchester House (1884-1922), Sarah Winchester. All images contained herein are presumed to be in the public domain.|
We often think our thoughts in the format of human language because that's the way we're accustomed to communicating. Other types of abstract thought have to be translated into language by a more roundabout route, some may even defy verbal description. In a similar way, a built environment can be seen as an architect's manifestation of her/his concepts about human behavior and interrelationships. What language s/he chooses to employ is akin to the difference between, say, Deconstructivism versus Neoclassicism, merely a matter of style. This could be explored further where it concerns the architecture of western colonialism, or Albert Speer and Marcello Piacentini.
A much clearer example, however, is found in a subject at which I've hinted in previous writings, the evolution in the design of public restrooms. In America, these were numbered four for a long time: black women, black men, white women, white men, and along this spectrum could be discerned an obvious hierarchy of privilege. Gradually this was made just two, still divided by gender, but not race. Within these areas would normally be two rooms, one containing semi-private commodes, with a semi-public washroom/ lounge. Today, we're seeing another stage of spacial development that abandons our adherence to traditional binary gender roles: fully private, gender-neutral commode cubicles and fully public, gender-neutral washroom (the lounge is now almost all but obsolete). These changes through time make manifest the cultural baggage and real attitudes surrounding race, gender, sex, privacy, physical mobility, autonomy, and so much else that can be permanently built into our environment.
I've identified a number of structures pertinent to this discussion, most of them related in some way or another to Mental Health. Some of them were built, others are fictional structures. The perception of them is no less potent when fictional, I maintain. And in a couple of cases, the way our perception of a fictional structure is guided or forced can exacerbate what is most disorienting about it. But I'd like to encourage a discussion of architectural psychology, and the influence it may have over mental states, particularly as it relates to the marginalization of specific groups of people, not just the claustrophobic, agoraphobic, or paranoid schizophrenic.
"Hill House," Clue (1985)
They become something else altogether in the genius, cult classic film. Hill House, to which the characters named for the colors of their corresponding board-game pieces--Mrs. White, Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlett, etc.--were invited, was a composite of real exteriors and mostly studio-constructed interiors. The exterior location was the Max Busch House at 160 South San Rafael Street in Pasadena, California, which was sadly destroyed by a fire in 2005.
|Max Busch House (1929), Paul Williams|
The layout of Hill House for the majority of the film is entirely rational. The Ballroom was shot at the Busch House and is disconnected from the rest of the environment, as are the second floor and the attic. The locations for the rest of the rooms of the house surrounding the entrance hall are made mostly clear and logical. The problems arise when the cinematic movements attempt to connect the Conservatory to the Lounge and the Kitchen to the Study, at diagonally opposite corners of the plan.
|"Hill House," floor plan|
Here the incongruities are not psychotic, they're not even terribly clandestine, they're merely absurdist. The confusion produced by these programmatic discontinuities serve merely to deconstruct the story arc and make it more comical, in much the same way as the madcap humor of the script and particularly its three alternate endings serve to disorient and thereby amuse the audience. The disorientation produced by this device, comic though it may be, is what is most interesting to me in this discussion, however.
Majestic Towers (1924), Schwartz & Gross
|Majestic, G-Line floor plan|
Regardless, the idea that a massive, sixteen-story building would be commissioned and built solely for the purposes of housing a brothel is equally difficult to accept. It's also possible that Schwartz & Gross chose to conceal their adherence to the new fire safety ordinances into the principal design of the building, concealing them within the apartments and making their doorways as inconspicuous as possible for the sake of beauty. So let's assume the building was merely safe for fire egress.
The fact remains that this kind of construction lent itself perfectly to the clandestine, illegal behavior of a speakeasy and a brothel. Secret rendezvous could freely take place in its apartments, and patrons could easily escape out those back bedroom closets during a raid, although the skeptics claim raiding police would have been posted at their street-level exits, anyway.
Priest Hides (1588-1606), Nicholas Owen
|Harvington Hall (1580)|
|Harvington, Priest Hide|
A large number of them can be found at Harvington Hall in
|Harvington, Priest Hide|
As a matter of fact, the agents entrusted to smoke out (or, literally, starve out) hiding priests would generally comb over every square centimeter of a suspect house, taking measurements, tapping carefully on walls, and ripping up floorboards. Very possibly it was more than merely a tip-off that the family may be harboring rogue priests, but a subconscious sense that the arrangement of interior space somehow did not add up properly and rationally.
On the other hand, it would therefore appear that a "sane" arrangement of space allows all its various components to be seen by unencumbered sight-lines and accessed directly by obvious routes. The very opposite of the labyrinth.
Winchester House (1884-1922), Sarah Winchester
|Winchester House, doorway to nowhere|
One of the most deranged of all actually constructed buildings, the Winchester House was complete architectural chaos in practically every sense. Sarah Winchester was the heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune. Legend has it that she was convinced she would be haunted by all the people killed by her deceased husband's repeating rifle, and consulted mediums and other oracles to fend off these troubled spirits. Allegedly one of the mediums instructed her to travel west from New Haven, Connecticut, and build a house for herself. The medium told her that construction on the house must never stop. She did travel west, eventually finding herself in San Jose, California, and bought an eight-room Queen Anne house. Construction on it began promptly in 1884 and continued twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until she died in 1922.
The house was probably intended to confuse and frustrate ghosts. Other accounts claim that it was meant to appease them by providing luxurious accommodations for them to enjoy in their afterlife. Other sources, still, would claim that all this was sensational nonsense created by the operators of a tourist site, and that the house was inspired by Winchester's Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, in what begins to sound like an Illuminati-style conspiracy theory. Not that curses and revenge hauntings are any more plausible, of course.
|Winchester House, stairway to nowhere|
|Winchester House, maddeningly shallow staircase|
There were evidently no (or very few) working drawings for the building while it was under construction. Allegedly Winchester drew guidelines for the workmen on napkins. I suspect it's more likely that most of the directions were conveyed verbally and left for the workers to use to their best judgement in executing them. If the ongoing work on the house were meant principally to confound spirits or whoever, then having it proceed in a largely unplanned manner would have helped achieve that goal.
|Winchester House, bird's-eye view|
Many houses in this period can be characterized by their
|Winchester House, Music Room|
|Winchester House, elaborate hardware|
|Winchester House, Tiffany window|
"The Overlook Hotel," The Shining (1980)
|Timberline Lodge (1938), Gilbert Underwood|
|Stanley Hotel (1909), Robert Weiger and Henry Rogers|
The Stanley was built in 1909 as a result of Freelan Stanley being miraculously cured of tuberculosis and living to the age of ninety-one due in part to the clean, restorative Colorado air, a treatment which coincidentally was central to the design of insane asylums in the preceding century, as well. The architecture of the building employs clerestory windows that capitalize on breezes to naturally ventilate the building. Stanley built his hotel in this scenic spot because he wanted a more sophisticated retreat than the rural hunting area had previously offered. The grounds of the Stanley now include a hedge maze inspired by Kubrick's film, although the maze doesn't appear in King's novel. The Stanley has gained a reputation for mysterious occurrences, but suspiciously only after the novel was published in 1977.
|Ahwahnee Hotel (1927), Gilbert Underwood; Lounge|
|Ahwahnee Hotel, Reception|
Danny first rides his Big Wheel through the Colorado Lounge over carpets intermittent with wooden floors. The wheels of his vehicle audibly, rhythmically bump against the bare surface of the floor, while the movement of the camera remains smooth. Meanwhile, the viewer can see that there are no tracks laid for dollying in order to achieve this. The camera appears to float eerily, impossibly behind him, never jarred by the uneven floor surfaces. The viewer identifies with the Danny character, matching his point of view, and simultaneously observes him as a disembodied, floating, ghostly presence. Most importantly, though, Kubrick's use of this camera technology allowed him to design and photograph a set that was utterly disorienting and psychotic, if only subconsciously so.
|"Overlook Hotel," diagram|
All of the windows in the Torrance's apartment are impossible as well, except for the small one in their bathroom. The Gold Ballroom, the Games Room, and the hallway with the ghosts of the twin girls all appear to have no connection with the rest of the interior layout whatsoever. They're mysteriously disembodied from the rest of the environment. Wendy Torrance coming from the kitchen into the Colorado Lounge is shown coming first from one direction and later another. The location of the kitchen is thereby made confused and disorienting.
|"Overlook Hotel," diagram|
The sets of Kubrick's The Shining are riddled with this impossible architecture. I'd watched the film probably a hundred times and was never aware of it before looking into it in depth. Its effect is subconscious but quite unsettling. The best analysis I've uncovered is a series of YouTube videos by Collative Learning, which I highly recommend. But undoubtedly these incongruities produce a sense of unidentifiable discomfort and spacial disharmony that adds immeasurably to the genius and horrifying effect of this film.
"The Murder Castle" (1891, destroyed by fire 1895), H. H. Holmes
|"The Murder Castle" (1891), H. H. Holmes|
H. H. Holmes, an alias for Herman Mudgett (a serial killer name if I ever heard one), was a physician and professional con-man who was hailed as Chicago's Jack the Ripper. He admitted to killing around twenty-five people, most of them young women living alone in his hotel, a few of them his own wives, and many others were women under his employ. Some estimates claim it was as many as two-hundred, the true count is likely somewhere in between.
He constructed his building at West 63rd Street and South Wallace Avenue in Chicago as a sort of rooming house with a restaurant, his drug store, and other retail space on the ground floor, and rooms to rent on the two floors above. Thousands of construction workers had descended upon Chicago hoping for work building the Columbian Exposition of 1892 (and most of them got it, at least for a brief time). Before the fair got under way, workers were in large numbers and in very low demand, so Holmes was at an advantage to exploit them.
He would hire construction workers to complete individual tasks, claim their work to be shoddy, dismiss them without pay as a result, then hire new workers to replace them. This way, he was able to construct the building while paying for practically no labor, but more importantly, no one individual worker would have more than isolated knowledge of the building's true, sinister nature. One gas line run to a strange location in the wall might seem oddly eccentric, but not terribly suspicious, for instance. As soon as Chicago won the bid for the World's Fair, he set to work making minor alterations to convert the building into a proper hotel.
The architecture included many of the features common to these types of spaces of insanity and also some novel ones. Corridors that would wind through the floors and veer off at odd angles, void of any windows, were lit by gas lamps at irregular intervals leaving dark, forbidding corners. The second floor had six hallways leading to fifty-one doors. Mazes of rooms in the center of the layout, again with no windows, were made almost air-tight, with exposed gas lines, controlled of course by Holmes from valves in his private office.
He had an air-tight vault--also with an exposed gas line--which was also mostly soundproofed. Only a slight background noise would cover the screams of someone trapped inside it. Rooms were built with trap doors, and a chute the perfect size for a human corpse--which he planned to coat with lard--led from the third floor down to the basement. He had an operating room in which to remove all the flesh from a human body, and a human-body-sized kiln in the basement for the cremation of others. This structure was not a machine for living, but a machine for killing.
|"Murder Castle," diagram|
The dynamics of vision and sight appear to be a central facet of these kind of spaces. Darkness, blindness, the inability to see, and lack of agency over what is seen and from what vantage is associated with victimhood, helplessness, and disorientation. The position of the active observer, especially when undetected, is associated with power, control, and mental health (windows opening onto natural vistas were considered pacifying and restorative for the mentally ill). Significantly, the denial of sight would seem to exacerbate psychosis, while the psychotic individual seems to revel in unencumbered observational control as much as traditionally does the overseer of a criminal detention facility.
[As a side note, this is one of the very interesting things about the set design for another horror film, Thir13en Ghosts (2001), which takes place in a house made almost entirely of glass. The "victims" are constantly objects to be observed by unseen gazes, including the film's cinema audience. But the empowerment they might gain by freely observing their threats is thwarted by the visible ghoulishness of the demons held captive in the structure. More on that below.]
Holmes worked with another man expert in cleaning the flesh and muscle off of cadavers and preparing them for display as articulated skeletons. Evidently medical schools were so desperate for educational skeletons at the time, they were willing to acquire them by just about any means possible and not ask any questions about their source. Medical schools were even known to raid recent grave sites for "material" for their curricula. Holmes had decided to never keep "trophies" as many serial killers do, but when he was finally investigated by the police, they found many body parts in various states of decomposition in the basement. Presumably he just intended to sell them.
Holmes was trained as a physician and was likely acquainted with the typical plan of a hospital in the nineteenth century. By extension, he may even have been aware of how a typical insane asylum was typically designed, an architecture intended to foster sanity. Whatever his background knowledge in this regard, it's still interesting to note how the architecture of his building is the direct antithesis of the common asylum. The lack of windows or direct light and air to many of the interior spaces, the disorienting indirectness of routes, the unlit pockets along corridors, rooms where they should not be, secret rooms with no obvious access, all very clearly describe an Architecture of Psychosis.
This is another building that I wish someone would attempt to accurately recreate using CAD. Aside from the floor plans published in newspaper articles at the time, the only real reconstruction I could uncover is a bit cartoonish, however well researched. The "Murder Castle" was destroyed by fire four years after it was built, possibly by someone appalled by what had occurred inside, possibly by someone involved in the atrocities who was afraid of what evidence it might reveal. Notably, this structure partially inspired the Cortez Hotel in the fifth season of American Horror Story.
Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, Grave Encounters (2011)
|Riverview Hospital (1913), abandoned buildings|
Grave Encounters was mostly capitalizing on the verite style and success of films like Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. A fabricated interview at the start of the film grossly mischaracterizes the nature of mental hospitals at the end of the nineteenth-century. But the film still identifies some of the defining qualities of the architecture of insanity. It may even be proposed, in Jacob's Ladder fashion, that its characters are not documentary filmmakers at all, but rather patients in this hospital who are periodically coming in and out of their own psychotic states. If taken at face value, disbelief can be suspended because the supernatural is an unknown variable.
The use of architecture here differs from that in The Shining in that the building wasn't designed to be disorienting, likely quite the contrary. The hospital's layouts appear to more or less follow the trend of asylum architecture of the period. Rather, the ordinarily rational structure is filmed and edited in such a way that it appears to be unpredictable for the characters attempting to navigate it. Kubrick does a bit of this, like when Halloran shows Wendy the walk-in freezer, and Kubrick probably changed the configuration of the hedge-maze without informing everyone on the cast and crew as a kind of practical joke. But for the most part, the Overlook is a static structure.
Collingwood displays many things that will sound familiar: stairs leading to nowhere, sinister underground tunnels, labyrinthine corridors, misleading routes and signage, and doorways masquerading as exits that lead instead to another part of the interior. It achieves the claustrophobia of a windowless room or Holmes' air-tight vault with a more otherworldly device, the suspension of the passage of time. The characters have time pieces, but upon observing it to be six, then seven, then eight in the morning, they discover the sun has still not risen, that they are trapped in perpetual pitch-black night.
Encounters introduces something novel, an inconsistent, unexpectedly changing environment. By showing fixtures and objects to be definitively built into one location and later, showing them in another, the architecture essentially gaslights the characters (and by extension, the audience) by challenging their perception of physical continuity.
|Thir13en Ghosts (2001); Sean Hargreaves, production designer|
Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center (1971), Paul Rudolph
|Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center|
|Lindemann, site plan|
|Lindemann, winding staircases|
|Lindemann, demon frog|
The attitudes toward mental hospital architecture have changed considerably even over the past half a century. But the psychological issues with Lindemann's architecture can probably best be illuminated by contrasting it with the accepted model for asylums in the nineteenth century which, in theory at least, were generally regarded as being beneficial for patients inhabiting them, for the most part.
American Asylums (ca. 1848-95), Thomas Kirkbride
|Buffalo State Hospital for the Insane (1872), H. H. Richardson|
In counterpoint, they also believed strongly in the restorative capabilities of architecture and landscaping. Their institutions were almost universally located in rural locales. This was perfectly in line with the ideals of the Romantic Age, and saw its full flowering in the figure of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed landscaping for quite a few mental institutions. In many ways, the structures they built were the antithesis of life in the cities. The master of these types of buildings was Thomas Story Kirkbride, who built dozens of mental health facilities all over the country and was hugely influential in the field of psychology until his principles began to lose favor at the turn of the twentieth century. The arrangement was so widespread and ubiquitous that it became known as the "Kirkbride Plan." The National Building Museum in Washington, DC, just recently had an exhibit dedicated to the nearby St. Elizabeth's Hospital, which is a Kirkbride design.
|Greystone in Morristown, NJ (1872), Samuel Sloan|
It would have a formal front parlor for the welcoming and entertaining of guests, furnished luxuriously and kept immaculately clean. This was more for show than for the comfort of patients, as we will see. One may be tempted to suggest it served to alleviate the guilt of a family member having their relative committed more than anything else. The Central Main would have a formal dining room, offices for administration, head nurses, and so on. There would quite often be a chapel on the top floor of the main structure or through a passage behind it.
Most interesting to me here, the Central Main would have a residence on the second floor for the hospital overseer and his family, who would live on site. The overseer's wife often had the same responsibilities to the women's wards as her husband had to the men's. The perfect size for this type of institution was said to be one in which the overseer and his wife could reasonably visit face-to-face for five minutes or so with every patient over the course of a typical day.
The best-behaved patients would have the most (controlled) access to the Central Main. A special reward would be an invitation to dine with the overseer and his family. The family was enacting a performance of functional, "healthy" domesticity for the benefit of the patients and sometimes their visitors. The alienists' appraisal of the upper-middle-class home of the nineteenth century was so glorifying that its environment, its segregations (both neutral and problematic), its decorum, mores, values, regularity, and social constructs were believed to have no less than medically curative effects. This was the Architecture of Normality; restraining metal bars would even be disguised as normal window mullions to downplay the appearance of incarceration.
In much the same way that the sciences were beginning the process of categorizing the natural world, architecture was attempting to find the proper place for every activity and the proper style for the various functions of buildings and human interactions. In domestic architecture, reaching a pinnacle in the Victorian era, everything had its proper place. They saw this as utterly rational, reflecting order and propriety that guided civilized society. The problem remains that these divisions and categorizations all too often carry with them the biases, prejudices, and inequalities of the society demarcating them.
|Greystone, site plan|
Each ward would have a row of rooms, facilities for bathing and laundry, toilets, staff offices, a recreation room and a medium sized dining hall. Whenever budget allowed, the opposite side of a single-loaded hall would feature large windows admitting sunlight and fresh air. These wide corridors could then be used for exercise and socializing when weather prohibited traversing the grounds outside. During the daytime, many institutions would forbid patients from retreating to the solitude of private rooms, to discourage sullen or anti-social behavior. More often than not, the corridors would be double-loaded in these central wings. When conditions worsened, hospitals were often forced to line generous hallways with beds for additional patients, as well, defeating their purpose, to a degree.
At the far end of each ward, a small corridor through locked doors would access the next ward, recessed back from the previous one. The stepping back of the wards, forming a V-shaped plan for the building as a whole, was the principle feature of a Kirkbride building, and served four functions. First, it meant that patients could be rationally divided by sex and strictly categorized by the severity of their illnesses. Second, these divisions could be used as a system of reward and punishment to control behavior. Third, because each ward was open at both ends, usually with large windows at each end of its corridor, the cross-ventilation of fresh air could be maximized. And lastly, the arrangement could in theory be expanded indefinitely in both directions based on demand.
As the wards extended further out from the Central Main, the more severe the mental condition of the patients housed in them. The end of the line, the ward furthest out, housed the most deranged, violent, screaming, obscene, profane, dangerous, and suicidal of all the patients in the hospital. These corridors were almost always single-loaded, so an attendant would not have to turn his or her back on any patient while on daily rounds. These environments were certainly some of the most disturbing and appalling ever witnessed by a human being.
Corridors lined with large windows are obviously the antithesis of the dark, windowless, claustrophobic spaces described in some of the examples above. Whether or not urban lifestyles were exacerbating mental illness is up for debate, but alienists believed that ready access to the sights, sounds, and fragrances of nature were tantamount to recovery. Fresh air was widely believed to be hugely important in traditional medical hospitals as well as mental ones. As noted above, it was considered to be the sole or at least most effective cure for a number of ailments like tuberculosis. But mental hospitals were long renowned to be plagued by offensive human-borne odors of a most vomit-inducing sort. Conditions were often so abhorrent that in less humane times, mental patients were kept in structures not much better than barns, open to the outside air even in the bitterest winter cold.
As mentioned above, lush, landscaped grounds were a key selling point for many of these hospitals. Olmsted, responsible for quite a few, often even planned them with drives that would showcase their scenic beauty with controlled vistas as a visiting relative would arrive by horse-drawn carriage. In reality, these "leisurely strolls through landscaped grounds" were far more often long teams of patients being yanked around briefly and unceremoniously on tethers akin to dog leashes.
The parallels to prison incarceration in a reward-and-punishment disciplinary system is fairly easy to see. In some cases it may have had the benefit of encouraging good behavior in the mentally ill, as well. But it has a few obvious problems. The distinctions between which types of illness were curable and which were likely incurable was not very well understood at all. By arranging patients in a hierarchy of behavioral environments, the plan was perfectly designed to route them onto upward and, disastrously, downward spirals in their condition. A curable patient in a calm, peaceful, healthy ward would have far better chances of recovery, and an incurable one would be much less likely to get worse. Conversely, a curable patient confined by punishment to a ward with more disturbed, incurable ones would be far less likely to get any better.
What struck me most about the Kirkbride Plan, however, was how it would appear to be a direct built reflection of the psychotic mind. I refer to the kind of serial killer who, in retrospect, everyone who knew him believed was "completely normal." He seemed mild-mannered, relatively charming, held down a regular job, was clean and respectably dressed. The further one might psychologically descend from this presentable outward appearance--as in the contrived normality of the Central Main--the darker and more disturbed behaviors are revealed.
|The gargantuan Hudson River State Hospital in Poughkeepsie (1867), Frederick Withers|
The benefits of Sanity under most circumstances would be difficult to dispute. Rationality may have its place in some contexts, but at times may be used to smother moments of intrigue, surprise, and delight. Familiarity is fine, but Normality may be entirely overrated, particularly where it settles into the banal. In whatever form it takes, the best architecture should probably most often promote equality, equanimity, and induce pleasure. If the programme would be thematically well-served by tension or even frustration, it should probably be relieved by an inherent resolution and satisfaction. Where it concerns more complicated programs like a prison or, for instance, a Holocaust Museum, it should still provide creature comfort and relative ease of orientation. Above all else, the methods by which architecture can be used to psychologically oppress and subjugate its users should likely be avoided at all costs.
I hope with this post, I've helped to elucidate some of the ways these goals may be achieved in the construction of space.
©2017, Ryan Witte