‘Ideal’ Asylum/Psychiatric Spaces: contemporary parallels with the nineteenth century

By Kim Ross

I have just finished reading a BBC article titled “How patients might design a psychiatric hospital” by Tom Heyden . I was very interested to hear the proposals that would contribute to the ‘ideal’ psychiatric ward, as this was essentially what I have attempted to uncover for nineteenth century asylum spaces. It has been commented to me that there needs to be a radical shake up of the current spaces of mental health care and treatment, and I was intrigued to read the opinions of service users and what their suggestions might be. I was surprised, however, to read very similar language to that uncovered in my research, with many of the proposals chiming with the work I had explored in my thesis.

Contributors to the project, titled ‘Madlove’ (‘A Designer Asylum’), are calling for a move away from the clinical feel of the internal hospital spaces, wishing for a more ‘home-like’ environment, a ‘safe-place to go mad’:

There should be big windows and any white walls should be covered with plants, books or maybe patient artwork and poems, says Mataram. “It [would] feel more like a home/space where people can get back on their feet.”

Drawing parallels to the the nineteenth century, the Commissioners were of the belief:

“that the satisfactory condition of an asylum is greatly dependent on the influence which is exercised on its inmates by the circumstances in which they are placed. Experience shows that their behaviour improves with their surroundings; that, when these are comfortable and cheerful, there is less noise and excitement”. (Scottish Commissioners in Lunacy (SCL), 1878:xlii)

Time and again the Commissioners praised this aspect of the institutional spaces created by the district boards, commending, for example, “the civilising effects of floral decoration” ( (SCL), 1876:xxvii) at the Ayr District Asylum, or the extension of the ornamental painting and papering of the walls and the additions to furniture at the Fife and Kinross Asylum. It was stated in 1877 that the decoration of the wards at the Roxburgh Asylum was progressing rapidly and was of a “highly satisfactory and tasteful manner” (SCL, 1877:xxxvi), with much of the work being done by the male attendants and the patients together. Likewise, the Inverness Asylum had two ‘blue rooms’, one for males, the other for females. These spaces were designed as a place where patients could relax, the colour chosen as it was considered to be calming. At the Ayr Asylum, the medical superintendent reported that “the internal appearance and comfort of the House is much improved by papering the walls with pretty lively patterns, hanging numerous coloured pictures, furnishing the windows with valances, and providing additional chairs” (Ayr D.B., A.R., 1872:15). In 1879 a “handsome carpet of good quality” was laid in the female day room, which was said to add “much to the comfort and appearance of the room” (Ayr D.B., M.B., 1879:8), and in the early years of the twentieth century the use of pillows in the beds was commended, as well as the large number of easy chairs, which, “are said to be liked by the patients, and are believed to add to their comfort and peacefulness” (SCL, 1903:xxviii). Similar improvements were made to the Perth Asylum, which included replacing worn-out furniture with new and comfortable items, in particular armchairs, which were reportedly “much liked by the patients” (SCL, 1892:xxix) and said to increase their tranquillity and contentment.

The BBC article goes on to explore the importance of greenery and outdoor space to current service users, exclaiming that “it’s not just the inside that’s important”.

Relatedly, the Commissioners widely believed that outdoor recreation and occupation would have a positive affect on the mental condition of a person, stating:

The experience of common life proves that when we are in a state of nervous irritation, fidgety, and out of sorts, comfort and calm are best restored by active exercise in the open air. To be locked up in a remote room would certainly prevent us from proving a nuisance to other people, and distracting their attention from their own occupations; but it would be far better for ourselves that we should work off the cause of irritation in active exercise than in battering the door of the room or destroying the furniture and bedding”. (SCL, 1871:xlvi)

Thus, rather than purely banishing a patient to a “remote room”, the Commissioners continually advocated the use of the asylum estates for treatment, which, through careful planning and management, were believed to hold the ‘power’ to act as a crucial tool in the treatment of the insane. One method of achieving the desired affective atmosphere was through the laying out of the grounds in order to achieve a healthful, cheerful and, if not curative, then at least calming environment. This was done by planting trees and bushes, and laying out walkways and terraces, which had the dual result of providing outdoor employment for a number of patients (to supplement agricultural employment), as well as attaining an aesthetically pleasing appearance. Furthermore, asylums increasingly provided outdoor recreation in their grounds, which it was hoped would act as a deterrent from morbid thoughts, distracting and engaging the patients’ mind through mirroring the entertainment found in ‘ordinary’ life:

Amusement in a pauper establishment may to some appear as an anomaly, but it must be borne in mind that this Institution is a hospital requiring curative agents of every description, among which amusements hold a well-defined position. They act in various ways; they have in many instances a decided curative effect, the apathetic, the melancholic and demented have often dated their awakening into mental vigour from an evening’s fun or some stirring pastime; they break the monotony of routine which must necessarily exist in such an establishment, and they form an incentive to, and a reward for industry and good behaviour. A good proportion of the inmates are young, and to them amusement is very attractive. It will therefore be evident that amusements are necessary for the good and wellbeing of the patients. This year they have received due attention. Dances, concerts, Highland games and pic-nics [sic] continue to take place at proper intervals. I am grateful to those friends who show their interest in the Institution by their occasional presence and assistance at these festivities. (Fife & Kinross D.B., A.R., 1875:17)

As such, a number of institutions were increasingly provided with facilities such as bowling greens, curling ponds, and, in particular, cricket, as it was “regarded as a healthy, orderly game which encouraged self-respect, self-control and respect for rules of behaviour, both written and unwritten” (Cherry and Munting, 2005:48).

This is but a brief exploration of the spatial parallels between the design of the nineteenth century asylums and the “ideal” psychiatric hospital explored in the Madlove project, but perhaps shows that at least some of the ideas are not ‘new’ as such. There is a need, therefore, to keep in mind the lessons and experiences of the past when designing the new ‘asylum’ spaces of the future.

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