Monday, October 30, 2017

The Architecture of Psychosis

In my studies of the ways that architecture can be exclusionary, oppressive, and politically and socially marginalizing, I've stumbled onto the psychology of architecture as it concerns mental health and insanity. The discoveries have been incredibly illuminating.
Winchester House (1884-1922), Sarah Winchester. All images contained herein are presumed to be in the public domain.
In order to effectively navigate our universe, the human-built world very much included, our brains rely on mental mapping of our environment. Mental maps are crucial to many members of the animal kingdom and so have an obvious evolutionary benefit. The mental maps we construct have a psychological effect on our perception of the world, and can serve to orient, disorient, or confound our understanding of spacial and volumetric relationships. If spatial cues can be used to affect psychological states, then it seems to be inarguable that they can also be used as tools of control and oppression. As we are well aware, any tools of control and oppression are most commonly employed by those in positions of power to subordinate those in marginalized positions, whether those in powerful positions do so knowingly or merely by custom or habit.

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)
"Hill House"
The first location I'd like to discuss is perhaps the most innocuous. The secret passages planned into the layout of the board-game were merely a programmatic device to facilitate uninterrupted game play.
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
Significantly, it was designed by one of the most important Black American architects, Paul Revere Williams, in 1929.


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 Towers
This apartment building, built in 1924, was said to have been built to house a brothel, and to accommodate presumably illegal alcohol consumption during Prohibition and other seedy activities. It's rumored to have secret staircases accessed by hidden doors. Finding plans of an entire floor of the building has proven impossible, at least by doing extensive online searches. Plans of individual apartments, namely the G-Line, do appear to include a closet off the back bedroom with a secondary doorway in its left wall, leading to an exit staircase. Honestly, I find the location of this staircase to be convoluted and very odd.

Majestic, G-Line floor plan
Naysayers claim that the appearance of such a staircase was required by fire safety laws of the era, and that many other buildings around this time featured them. But when was the last time you saw a Manhattan apartment bedroom with a closet with a back door leading to a fire escape staircase? I never have.

Regardless, the idea that a massive, sixteen-story building would be commissioned and built solely for the purposes of housing a brothel is equally incredulous. 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
Alleged Catholic plots against Queen Elizabeth I, who took the throne in 1558, led to the passing of laws persecuting Catholics and particularly Catholic priests. Many Catholics had hidden rooms built into their homes in which a visiting priest could safely hide during a raid by authorities. The master carpenter who constructed many of them was Nicholas Owen. He had a knack for creating these closets and small rooms with doors seamlessly hidden into architectural detailing so as to be impossible to detect.

A large number of them can be found at Harvington Hall in
Harvington, diagram
Worcestershire, UK, which is also open to the public as a tourist destination. This manor house has a number of secret passages, closets, concealed stairwells, and diminutive spaces hidden into its interior architecture, in which a Catholic priest could be concealed for a limited time. There was evidently a whole network of such houses dotting the British countryside, forming a sort of quasi Underground Railroad for Catholic priests.


Harvington, Priest Hide
Whatever the function of hidden spaces, they represent the unseen, the unknown, the mysterious, in architectural terms. The unknown generally fails to generate curiosity only when that curiosity is counteracted by fear or at least trepidation. Using mental maps and a basic understanding of how buildings are typically constructed, if given the opportunity to explore, relatively large areas in the interior of a building that can't be accessed by obvious means may not even register consciously. On a subconscious level, they should tend to make one uneasy, giving the uncanny sense that something is geometrically just not right.

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
Regardless, what remains is probably the perfect example of benign insanity, irrationality, and paranoia in built form. Staircases lead nowhere, or have treads that are impossibly steep or maddeningly shallow. Staircases descend only to meet nothing but another ascending one. Doorways open onto brick walls or onto a two-story drop. Enormous doors lead to tiny rooms, minuscule doors lead to giant ones. Some chimneys have no stoves or fireplaces attached to them. Rooms were built inside of other rooms. Construction completed one week would be demolished the next. Various features are numbered at thirteen. Corridors wind in every possible direction; a group of workmen attempting to remove some furniture from the house noted that, heading on a path in one direction toward their desired exit, the layout would inevitably turn them around and take them in the opposite direction.
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
Sadly, it would appear that no one has ever attempted to create a floor plan of the house as it exists today, either. Since reportedly very few of the house's 160 rooms are on the same level as any other, this would certainly have thwarted any well-meaning efforts to attempt this on a drafting board by conventional means. But with the aid of computer drafting software and other technologies, an accurate rendering could be produced. To do it precisely would still be a colossal, labor-intensive and time-consuming enterprise. Even a bird's-eye view of the house shows the daunting complexity of its massing but doesn't even hint at the disorientation of its interior layout, described by most visitors to be labyrinthine to the extreme.

Many houses in this period can be characterized by their
Winchester House, Music Room
gloominess and contrivance. Dark, rich, dusty colors and robust, looming, dark wooden detailing were in high fashion. The interesting thing about the Winchester House, though, from what I can discern, is that it appears to be no more oppressive in its architectural style than other homes of the era, quite the contrary. While arguably some of them do open onto blank walls, the house includes thousands of windows, the absence of which signifies and amplifies psychosis. It would have been potentially as open and airy as the prevailing trends of the day would have allowed.


Winchester House, elaborate hardware
For all her superstitions--justified or not--Sarah Winchester lived in the house. For her part, the house appears surprisingly livable, accommodating, even enjoyable in its way, given all the rest. As much of a recluse as she became, spending the majority of her later years in this house, I'm certain she would have had it no other way. For instance, it was built so that carriages, and later automobiles, could enter into the house before she would disembark them, in order to protect her privacy.

Winchester House, Tiffany window
The detailing was of the highest luxury--textured wallpapers inset with crystals, for instance, innumerable woods and metals from all corners of the globe, stained-glass windows by Tiffany Studios--all providing visual folly. And while the layout was eminently disorienting, even infuriating, many of the eccentric features of the house might generously be described as intriguing and easily astonishing (delightful might be too uplifting an adjective), something to which all truly pleasant architecture might aspire.


"The Overlook Hotel," The Shining (1980)
Timberline Lodge (1938), Gilbert Underwood
Stanley Kubrick was the Johannes Vermeer of our age; he created shockingly few works, but nearly every one of them, in one way or another, was an absolute landmark masterpiece of cinematic art. Many theories have been advanced on his 1980 horror classic, The Shining, not least of which is that it was a confession of his involvement in faking the 1969 moon landing on a Hollywood sound stage. Here I'd like to concentrate on the contortions on reality that he performed with his sets for the story's location, the fictional Overlook Hotel in Colorado.

Stanley Hotel (1909), Robert Weiger and Henry Rogers
In 1974, author Stephen King and his wife spent a night at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, having stumbled onto it mainly by accident. The hotel was in the process of closing for the season (as did the Overlook), and they were the only guests staying in an eerily mostly empty hotel.

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
The exteriors of the Overlook Hotel were shot at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, Oregon, designed by Gilbert Underwood and completed in 1938. Despite many ostensibly Native American details, it bears little resemblance to the Overlook on the inside. Some of the interior details were inspired by the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park in California, coincidentally also designed by Underwood in 1927. Underwood was contracted by the government to build several hotels that capitalized on the natural beauty of national parks--government-owned land.

Ahwahnee Hotel, Reception
The most pertinent issue here is the way that Kubrick conceived the Overlook Hotel on his sound stages. Plenty of directors, from Welles to Hitchcock, have manipulated spaces for scenic effect, but none with the complexity or deliberateness of Kubrick in The Shining. Steadicam was invented by Garrett Brown in 1974-5 and allowed cameras to move smoothly over uneven surfaces while preserving the integrity of the image without shaking or jittering. This allowed Kubrick's cameras to follow the film's protagonist, Danny (riding his Big Wheel), around the hotel set without cuts in the editing. Brown himself operated the Steadicam for the film.

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
The discrepancies in the architecture of the Overlook were first discovered by a designer of the video game Duke Nukem, attempting to recreate the building virtually. The first time we witness it is when Jack Torrance goes to meet Stuart Ullman to be familiarized with his job as the hotel's winter caretaker. Jack approaches the array of offices, to the right of which a corridor has employees emerging from it. He turns left, then enters the offices on the right, turns right again, and enters Ullman's office. Behind Ullman at the back of his office is a window, clearly admitting sunlight, which geographically should in reality open onto the interior corridor from which the employees emerged earlier in the shot. This is all shown in a single, uncut sequence.

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 row of hotel rooms across the hall from the terrifying Room 237 are shown to open almost directly onto the upper story of the Colorado Lounge. These hotel rooms cannot exist, geometrically. They defy spacial logic. It may be noted that Room 237 has no windows shown in the shots; we see only curtains. It is isolated, confined, and claustrophobic.

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
This structure is possibly the most perfect example I've found for this discussion, for a number of reasons. 1) It was designed by a man who was undoubtedly psychotic. 2) It was built in the real world, not merely to serve a fictional portrayal. 3) It didn't just facilitate psychotic acts, the reason for its construction was to execute the violent brutality of its psychotic builder. Therefore, the very building of this edifice may per se be considered a psychotic act, as much as designing and constructing an elaborate torture device. 4) Almost all the accounts of people who encountered the building found it to be, at the very least, "gloomy," and at worst, even disturbing and frightening. No one really wanted to be inside it. This demonstrates that psychotic architecture can have not only subliminal, but also fully conscious effects on ordinary users.

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 structure also allegedly allowed Holmes to observe his victims perhaps by sight, but definitely by sound, at the moment of their demise. It allowed him to witness the agony, desperation, and defeat of a victim first-hand and delight in it, which one author describes as an almost sexual gratification in his absolute control over them. This observational aspect of the architecture calls to mind not only the Panopticon so eloquently analyzed by Foucault, but also the power of the Gaze that has been so integral to the power politics of Film Theory and social discourse in Feminism and related subjects.

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
This decently scary horror film was shot in an abandoned building at Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam, British Columbia, most likely built in 1913. An abandoned insane asylum is a particularly ripe environment for a supernatural narrative because essentially it conflates the fear of the unknown in two realms that each can generate terror on their own: extreme psychopathy and the afterlife. The mythology has persisted that hauntings are the result of troubled souls trapped in a limbo associated with the location of their suffering and/or demise. When the "soul" of the offending spirit lacks empathy or moral compass and is also, for lack of a better word, demented, it becomes all the more unpredictable and therefore terrifying.

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
To a degree, the Thir13een Ghosts house employs this, also; it's a machine powered by the spirits of the ghosts it imprisons. This house intermittently releases the evil spirits to terrorize the living characters, but the disorienting effects of an unpredictable environment is somewhat diminished by the fact that both the mechanism that operates it and the horrors it will unleash are both always visible through its transparent walls and floors.


Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center (1971), Paul Rudolph
Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center
Let it be known to anyone who hasn't read my other work, that I am a huge fan of Rudolph. Whatever Yale students feel about using it, I believe his Art & Architecture building in New Haven to be one of the ten undeniable masterpieces of American Architecture, one of the greatest works of Brutalism ever constructed.
Lindemann, site plan
I also don't particularly condemn his motives at Lindemann. I only suggest that his strategies were clearly misguided. In this project, he evidently attempted to create a structure in which the psychologically challenged patients would feel more comfortable, more at home. He wanted to create a building that was in some ways irrational, believing that to the patients using it, thinking "irrationally," would therefore more fully understand its logic. Unfortunately, he ended up building a hospital with psychotic architecture that was rumored to make its users' mental health conditions worse, rather than better. It's ironic to note that Rudolph was very much interested in the psychology of space, but perhaps that was exactly why this project went askew.

Lindemann, staircase
Lindemann again includes features that will be familiar: long, meandering, maze-like corridors and stairways leading to nowhere. Rudolph also introduces a few new elements, as well, notably, a staircase that appears out of nowhere. Curving lines flush in the pavement of the plaza one by one are raised higher and higher above the plaza surface to eventually form into a staircase. The effect is not only surreal, but the stairs are also difficult to climb in any ordinary manner. Exacerbating the problem is the rusticated concrete Rudolph used elsewhere with such dramatic effect (like corduroy, with the ribs chipped away after it has set to reveal the aggregate). Patients will often want to run their hands along walls to make a tactile connection with the building they're attempting to navigate, here the exposed concrete would make that painful, if not frightening.

Lindemann, winding staircases
Furthermore, staircases begin on the outside of the structure and then wind up, into, and through the building, effectively muddling the barrier of the enclosure and the distinctions between different types of space, not just inside and outside, but also public and private, for instance, and by extension, rational and irrational, "sane" and "insane."  Personally, I would delight in the constantly changing vistas this would provide in experiencing the building, but the meandering circulation frequently led some patients to become lost and disoriented.

Lindemann, Chapel
One catwalk eventually had to be enclosed because so many people were jumping over it to their deaths. Worse yet, the concrete slab that forms the altar in the chapel looked so designed for a human sacrifice that one patient used it to set himself on fire before the worship space was permanently locked. 

Lindemann, demon frog
Rudolph even bestowed the building with some hallucinatory, even anthropomorphic gestures, making the building still more ominous. One facade infamously has an evil frog's head glaring down ghoulishly at passersby. It's not hard to imagine why this would be problematic for someone prone to hallucinations or paranoia.

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
The mental health professionals of the nineteenth century, for several decades called "alienists," believed strongly in the impact of environment. Plenty of them believed that, in addition to family neuroses and dysfunctions, the contemporary urban lifestyle was itself the cause of many psychological ailments. They may have had a point; the industrial metropolis of the nineteenth century was dark, smoky, smelly, dangerous, and debauched. Industrialization, in an age largely before labor laws or safety precautions, was quite literally grinding human bodies to a bloody pulp. The urban environment moved at a dizzying pace, and very well may have produced, or at least contributed to, the illness of disturbed characters like Jack the Ripper and H. H. Holmes.

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
The main entrance to the building was called the Central Main. It was the cleanest, calmest, quietest, fanciest, most formal, most open and displayable part of the building. It in many respects very much resembled a traditional nineteenth-century home or manor house. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, "retreats" were designed in such a way that their outward appearances were decidedly domestic in style and scale.

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
To the right of the Central Main would be the first men's ward, to the left, the first women's ward. These were sometimes accessed by a narrow, windowed corridor allowing the ward structure to be mostly separated from the center one. These first wards were the calmest, quietest, most displayable ones, again kept immaculately clean, with ostensibly compassionate staff, and ideally (before overcrowding became endemic), patients enjoying individual, private rooms. This was also for show, these were the only wards into which guests would be admitted. In fact, some patients confined to less desirable wards would likely be brought temporarily to one of these Potemkin Villages to give visitors the false impression that their care was of a higher quality than the rest of the time.

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.


Happy Halloween!!!

©2017, Ryan Witte