Violence and Obscurity; Asylums and the Transformative Experience from Feminine Misfortune to Healing

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Psychiatric institutions have been notorious for the neglect, experimentation and abuse inflicted on patients throughout the field's development. Historically, asylums were not so much a place of healing as a place of harm and maltreatment. From London's Bethlem Hospital to the first psychiatric hospital in the US, historical record provides many examples of violence against patients. While this violence was not discriminatory in choosing its victims, women were uniquely vulnerable. With a status of minimal personal rights, women were commonly institutionalized for a variety of suspicious, often trivial reasons, whether their spouse simply grew tired of them or they proved to have a "disagreeable nature." The violence perpetrated within the walls of these institutions is typically attributed to human behavior while the structural characteristics of the environment are not commonly considered. From the decisions made in space planning to the social culture of the staff, the harm done by patients was reinforced as much by non-tangible factors as it was by any individual's hand. As discussed in a series of articles in Architecture and Violence, "The notion of spatial violence as a mute incorporation of power into the built environment has been voiced by a number of theorists, critiquing architecture's complicity with bureaucracy . " Evidence of this complicity is written into spatial organization, planning and quality. Paupers were housed in substandard conditions because it was believed by designers that they "would not desire or benefit from the luxuries that were essential for the cure of the wealthy . " Deeply troubled individuals were left in isolation in the basement where their sounds or outbursts of violence would not trouble the outside world.

Now, many of these structures have become melancholy relics on the land, sitting ducks for vandalism and vagrancy. There is a significant missed opportunity in allowing these structures to decay instead of applying their vast square footage to an important use. Though their history is mired by sorrow and abuse against women, the story of the asylum need not end there. The mission to provide a place of healing failed, but by adaptively reusing the old asylum, that mission may be reinvigorated. These buildings can be reborn as positive environments by fulfilling critical needs for struggling women today.

By researching the history of thought and design of asylums from the 1800's to today, I aim to pull away the fundamental principles that led to the violence against patients and demise of the structures around them. With this set of fundamentals in mind, I will analyze the theoretical doctrine in the history of psychology, gender equality and the cognitive effects on self in order to determine how these institutions became such a perfect storm of disregard. Once established, I will take the doctrine and fundamentals of old asylums and compare them to principles of healing environments. This will provide me with a rubric of positive space I can use to transform the abandoned asylum into a true haven for women in need.

Kenzari, Architecture and Violence, 101.

Yanni, The Architecture of Madness Insane Asylums in the United States, 24.