On Friday I attended an Architectural League lecture by photographer Christopher Payne, whose book Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals will be released this fall by MIT Press. Payne gave a brief history of the institutions, a subject I gained some familiarity from reading Carla Yanni's The Architecture of Madness. An architect by training, he discussed the typical plans of state hospitals, their grounds, and the impact of the edifices on their localities, followed by slides of his beautiful and moving photographs.
[Buffalo State Hospital Ward, 2009 by Chris Payne | image source]
What Payne was most enthusiastic about after his years of travels and shot-taking was the self-sufficiency of the places that grew their own food, made their own clothes, produced their own power, and in other ways basically lived "off the grid." He discovered parallels and inspiration with our current predicament, where self-sufficiency as a community goal is commendable, if not completely realistic. My studies in urban design stressed such an approach, though I'm suspect of an appreciation of places that disavows the circumstances of their self-sufficiency. Were the state hospitals self-sufficient due to their physical situations detached from cities (urban places were seen as harmful for mental recuperation around 100 years ago), or because the patients were removed from a society that did not want them? If it's the latter to any degree, how commendable is the self-sufficiency of state hospitals?
One aspect of the deterioration of state hospitals -- why they are being photographed as ruins and not architectural masterpieces -- is the rise of psychotropic drugs in the middle of last century and the shift from remote locations to community-based treatment. These factors led to reduced populations in the institutions, meaning less free labor for the farming, sewing, cooking and other activities that went into making the places self-sufficient. So basically this admirable trait arose from taking advantage of the inhabitants, like in prisons, which some of the state hospitals have actually become. Can this model be replicated in communities that strive for the self-sufficiency propounded by some? Hardly, though I wonder what would happen if people really tried to resuscitate these structures and their surrounding land as communities, instead of demolishing them to make way for suburban developments? If tried they might just become experiments that fade away in the 100-year time period of the state hospitals, though the same might be said of the suburbia that replaces them.