At Public Books, Kyle Walker reviews Freedom and the Cage: Modern Architecture and Psychiatry in Central Europe, 1890–1914 by Leslie Topp. The book explores how modernist architects sought to rethink the design of mental asylums so that these institutions could more humanely heal—or at least confine—people who were a struggling to cope with the increasing speed and chaos of modern life. As Walker points out, even as these new designs sought to allow greater freedom of movement and autonomy for mental patients, they pioneered forms of covert surveillance that are still practiced today. Read an excerpt from the review below, or the full text here.
The villa asylum may indeed have been the right response to Austria’s “nervous age.” It removed patients from their surroundings and let them recuperate, not unlike the popular spas and sanatoriums of the time. But it also subjected them to two crucial tools of modern social control: surveillance and planning. Those committed at Steinhof found themselves sorted according to the severity of their illnesses and subjected to varying degrees of control organized by the environment around them. We see a variant on this principle today in the design of hospital intensive-care units, where glass is a prominent feature of the interior-facing sides of patient rooms. Large windows and wide glass doors allow medical staff to monitor patients at a glance, surveilling in the service of a cure.
Crowned by its church, Steinhof’s white walls and imposing facades evoke a modernist city on a hill: rational and ordered, but also bright and healthy. The innovations made here—attention to light and air, provision of outdoor spaces, multiple units instead of one monolithic structure—would even reappear in the great public-housing projects that became Austria’s next social experiment, offering a socialist utopia to match the medical one. These tiny cities for the insane are early experiments in the architecture of medicine and social control. Rather than chaining the mentally ill to their bedposts, Austria’s psychiatrists tried to persuade them that the asylum hardly confined them. And its architects—in their own way—obliged.
Image: Aerial photo of Steinhof asylum in Vienna, 1932. Via Public Books.