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The Architecture of Madness

Insane Asylums in the United States

2007
Author:

Carla Yanni

The Architecture of Madness

A fascinating tour through nineteenth-century America’s asylums.

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. 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.

The Architecture of Madness is a major contribution to the history of the care and treatment of people with mental illnesses as well as to the history of architecture. It illuminates the manner in which architecture reflects underlying social, intellectual, and medical currents. A must-read.

Gerald N. Grob, author of The Deadly Truth: A History of Disease in America

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.

The Architecture of Madness

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.

The Architecture of Madness

The Architecture of Madness is a major contribution to the history of the care and treatment of people with mental illnesses as well as to the history of architecture. It illuminates the manner in which architecture reflects underlying social, intellectual, and medical currents. A must-read.

Gerald N. Grob, author of The Deadly Truth: A History of Disease in America

Sometimes we run across books that lure us in with simple, straightforward weirdness. Put up your horror novel and read this deal. Spooky and real.

Blueridge Business Journal

Yanni weaves together the fascinating tale of architecture and psychiatry with readable prose liberally illustrated with historic photographs, plans, and drawings.

Choice

Yanni has produced a fascinating and visually rich survey of this strange territory. Yanni is very successful at linking together architecture and mental medicine.

Times Literary Supplement

This is a well-written, well-illustrated, and thoroughly fascinating study. A serious and useful study of a time when architecture was thought to shape human behavior.

Studies in American Culture

The book makes a valuable contribution to architectural history. Yanni offers valuable comparisons between asylum architecture and forms that more closely approximate the social function of asylums: hospitals and colleges. She also brings a refreshing emphasis on space to medical history, showing, for example, how patients’s ‘progress’ from spatial margin to spatial center—or vice versa—shaped their experiences. This study should provide inspiration for teachers or researchers interested in the built environment, and may draw attention to those little-studied public buildings that, left standing or not, are part of the fabric of our material past.

The Annals of Iowa

In a well-wrought book, Carla Yanni provides a persuasive overview of the age of the insane asylum.

American Historical Review

The focus of Yanni’s history, The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States, is on the 19th-century American asylum, and she does a marvelous job describing and illustrating the buildings themselves and some of the many factors that entered into these buildings’s origins, construction, and decline.

PsycCRITIQUES

Yanni’s book is a valuable contribution to the broader literature on institutionalization, for it explores the ways in which cultural values shape physical spaces. Yanni has gone beyond contributing to an ongoing historical discussion to suggesting broad vistas for other scholars to explore.

Winterthur Portfolio

Despite the exotic nature of the topic, Yanni’s approach is both old-fashioned and refreshingly user-friendly in its provision of a definitive account. While there is a small but growing body of literature on architecture for psychiatry, this is the first book-length treatment of the architectural history of asylums in nineteenth-century America. She tells a fascinating story.

Journal of Architecture

A lucid history of state asylums in the United States. The scope of Yanni’s scholarship is impressive, and her writing is accessible and clear.

Psychiatric Services

Its excellent style and fascinating topic make this book an excellent read. . . . an extremely enlightening contribution to the study of insane asylums.

Neoamericanist

Yanni’s book is valuable for its attempt to cover the much-neglected and highly charged topic of madness and architecture. It is groundbreaking for its attempt to fuse social and medical history to architectural history.

Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

Yanni’s project and thesis are compelling and engaging. Her book is well organized and written; within a relatively short study, she offers an excellent understanding of the forms and variations of this significant nineteenth-century building type.

Buildings & Landscapes