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The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums…

The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States… (original 2007; edition 2007)

by Carla Yanni (Author)

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Title:The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States (Architecture, Landscape and Amer Culture)
Authors:Carla Yanni (Author)
Info:Univ Of Minnesota Press (2007), Edition: 1, 256 pages
Collections:Your library, Currently reading

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The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States by Carla Yanni (2007)



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The Architecture of Madness is a really interesting look at the link between building design and the treatment of the mentally ill in (mostly) the US. Way before Prozac, before even Thorazine, and between the profoundly inhumane treatment eras of the 18th and mid-20th centuries, psychiatrists reasoned that the best way to treat mental illness was to have patients live in relaxed, outdoorsy, open settings. Places where they could be with nature, be productive, and not simply be locked away in a dirty cell until the end of time. This is where influential figures such as Kirkbride came in, who designed probably the most famous psychiatric hospitals in US history.

Of course, eventually, overcrowding became a problem, turning the very buildings that were supposed to help treat mental illness back into a system of warehousing people in deplorable conditions. The introduction of psychiatric medications such as Thorazine and removal of funding away from state hospitals led to the ultimate demise of many of these psychiatric hospitals, although some are still around today.

This book was rather academic (which is to be expected) and at times hard to slog through, but I found the ultimate question to be very compelling: was the architecture of the buildings helpful, or were the odds stacked against them in a way that disallowed us from even answering that question?

The author argues that after deinstitutionalization, architecture no longer factored into the treatment of the mentally ill. I actually disagree somewhat: one need only take a trip to any major city in the US to see benches that are equipped with unnecessary handles every foot or so, spikes driven into the ground near places one could curl up to sleep at night, purposefully uncomfortable bus shelters, etc. An entire subset of urban design has arisen to make the homeless go elsewhere, and the sad fact is that kicking the mentally ill out of state hospitals left most of them no other option than to live on the streets. Of course, the issues of the homeless mentally ill, the hospital to jail/prison pipeline, and other horrific consequences of deinstitutionalization are best left to (and are) addressed in other books. ( )
  lemontwist | Aug 7, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0816649405, Paperback)

Elaborately conceived, grandly constructed insane asylums—ranging in appearance from classical temples to Gothic castles—were once a common sight looming on the outskirts of American towns and cities. Many of these buildings were razed long ago, and those that remain stand as grim reminders of an often cruel system. For much of the nineteenth century, however, these asylums epitomized the widely held belief among doctors and social reformers that insanity was a curable disease and that environment—architecture in particular—was the most effective means of treatment.


In The Architecture of Madness, Carla Yanni tells a compelling story of therapeutic design, from America’s earliest purpose—built institutions for the insane to the asylum construction frenzy in the second half of the century. At the center of Yanni’s inquiry is Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, a Pennsylvania-born Quaker, who in the 1840s devised a novel way to house the mentally diseased that emphasized segregation by severity of illness, ease of treatment and surveillance, and ventilation. After the Civil War, American architects designed Kirkbride-plan hospitals across the country.


Before the end of the century, interest in the Kirkbride plan had begun to decline. Many of the asylums had deteriorated into human warehouses, strengthening arguments against the monolithic structures advocated by Kirkbride. At the same time, the medical profession began embracing a more neurological approach to mental disease that considered architecture as largely irrelevant to its treatment.


Generously illustrated, The Architecture of Madness is a fresh and original look at the American medical establishment’s century-long preoccupation with therapeutic architecture as a way to cure social ills.


Carla Yanni is associate professor of art history at Rutgers University and the author of Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:45 -0400)

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