The Architecture of Madness/Brutalism

The Architecture of Madness

Buildings can drive you crazy, but can they help restore mental health?

By Philip Nobel

The Boston Government Service Center (BGSC) looks like the last place one would want to go for help. Designed by Paul Rudolph immediately after he completed the Art and Architecture Building at Yale in 1963, the BGSC incorporates all of that earlier building’s cave-dwelling mystery and brave experimentation with the abrasive qualities of concrete. But it was designed on a much grander scale–the BGSC occupies a superblock on the lowest slope of Beacon Hill, consolidated in what might be the nation’s most infamous act of postwar urban renewal, the destruction of Boston’s West End–and with more harrowing possibilities for unhinging the minds of those unfortunates inside.

The Art and Architecture Building has often been singled out as an example of unnecessarily belabored and disorienting space; in the catalogue for an exhibition to celebrate its opening, Vincent Scully famously warned that the building “puts demands upon the individual user that not every psyche will be able to meet.” In the BGSC, and particularly the Lindemann Mental Health Center, which shares the spiraling megastructure with several civic bureaucracies, Rudolph would expand on Art and Architecture’s dark palette of labyrinthian spaces, and the result in human terms would be infinitely worse.

Erich Lindemann, for whom the center was named, was a respected Boston psychiatrist and a professor at Harvard in the 1960s. There is considerable irony in his being honored with this dedication. Among his then-recent works was a well-publicized study that recorded the deleterious side effects of urban renewal, focusing on the experiences of residents in the West End. He would later help lead a movement that brought psychiatrists, designers, and urbanists together to study the influence of man-made environments on mental health. The building that still bears his name would go on to be a notorious example of architecture’s power to confuse, agitate, and sometimes fatally overwhelm.

In a 1993 lecture, Rudolph joked that he could finally admit that the “wasted space” of any building is “more important than that which is used,” because it provides “space for the subconscious.” This remark echoed one he had made in an interview 20 years earlier: “The relationship between everyday needs and spiritual needs is very complex, and they are often at war with each other. Mere Functionalism is never enough.” In the same interview, Rudolph indicted the International Style for ignoring what he called the “psychology of space.” At the center of this only vaguely elaborated theory is the recurrent idea that buildings should enrich the public and embody their aspirations. Rudolph reasoned that “there [are] certain types of buildings that need to rise above Functionalism,” and these buildings should “move people.” In the BGSC–a building of this type–an expression of the building’s program should therefore supersede its use. The Lindemann Center became a tragic experiment in the antagonism of function and the “psychology of space.”

Reveling in his newfound expressive freedom, and armed with his theory of psychology, Rudolph chose to sacrifice the function of the Lindemann Center to further an emotive agenda. The essential aim was to express the program of the building, while creating within an environment “suitable” for the mentally ill. Thus, the spaces inside reflect Rudolph’s romanticized view of mental illness: eerie, twisting stairways, one of which leads nowhere like an oubliette in a Medieval keep; amorphous passages that never reveal their ends; a chapel that creates a stirring, dismal ambiance through spatial theatrics. On the exterior this atmosphere is communicated through an unwitting architecture parlante–not a symbolic program but a concoction of private motifs–intended to perpetuate the mood at a subconscious level. In short, Rudolph made the building “insane” in order to express the insanity within.

Rudolph’s dramatic spaces and subliminal imagery (there’s a thinly veiled frog’s head looking out from the building’s facade) make the Lindemann Center very expressive, and very dangerous. As has been noted by psychiatrists who have worked in the building or sent patients there, the building can be physically and psychologically damaging. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine the effects of the building’s subtle, encrypted psychedelia on a patient already prone to paranoia and hallucinations. In his book Treating the Poor (1992), Matthew Dumont, a Boston psychiatrist, records his apprehensions about sending a schizophrenic patient to the Lindemann Center. “There is a certain perverse genius in the design of the building for people with poor ego boundaries,” Dumont writes. He argues that elements of the building actually conspire to defeat mentally ill patients’ efforts to orient themselves in space. One culprit is the bush-hammered concrete, used, as at the Art and Architecture Building, on every surface, inside and out. Dumont writes that patients “generally like to tap a corridor wall as they walk down it as a way of assuring themselves that they are not falling through a dreamlike vortex. But if you try to touch the wall of a corridor at Lindemann as you walk, your knuckles are likely to be bloodied.” The exterior stairs also actively disorient patients by “majestically [rising] not to but through the building” and by inducing what one Lindemann staff member referred to as a “kinesthetic disorder.” Dumont describes this phenomenon: “A Cinderella staircase emerges gradually from engraved curvilinear lines in the sidewalk. One stumbles at first, thinking that the lines represent steps, and then stumbles again when they imperceptibly do begin to become steps. With a short rise and a two-foot tread, they cannot be climbed one at a time: one has to take a short, limping, extra little step to reach the next one. The building thereby programs disabled behavior.”

Responses to this environment are predictably tragic. Horror stories of patients lost in the building are common, as are accounts of assaults on patients and staff in its many dim, secluded alcoves. Indeed, the building has proved to be so insidious that it is possible to hold certain spaces responsible for repeatedly abetting self-destructive acts. A catwalk over the Lindemann’s plaza-level lobby had to be glazed after it invited too many suicide attempts. The chapel, a top-lit chamber called out on the skyline with a crowning finial, is experienced as the heart of the building, what Rudolph once called “that releasing space which dominates.” It has been sealed shut since shortly after the building opened in 1972; a patient died there after igniting himself on the concrete slab altar. As one former Lindemann Center psychiatrist noted darkly, the patient was just following environmental cues: “It looks like a place that should be used for human sacrifice.”

The little-known tragedy at the Lindemann Center could supplant the firebombing of the Art and Architecture Building as an emblem of the confusion in Rudolph’s work. But beyond Rudolph, the saga of the Lindemann is a sort of cautionary tale about Modern architecture’s persistent belief that it can affect human behavior. As this extreme example shows, it can certainly hurt. Can architecture also heal?

In the wake of deinstitutionalization in the 1960s, and the new psychotropic drugs that made it possible, schizophrenia was the signature mental health issue at the time the Lindemann Center was built. With the number of Americans over 65 expected to double within the next 20 years, Alzheimer’s disease is now the hot-button topic in the field. As many as three million Americans may currently suffer from some form of age-related dementia. Here, too, architects and design consultants are moving in with spatial remedies. Today, however, it is with humility, not hubris. In place of the arrogance that Rudolph exemplified, designers are approaching the problem with an eye to the limitations of architectural intervention. And they are sharing information with the people who know the most: doctors and the patients themselves.”
for full article go to :

http://www.metropolismag.com/html/content_1099/oc99aom.htm

to get a quick idea of brutilism check out:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brutalism

another article but about yale school of art and architecture…quite relevant to some thoughts that have been coming up in class:

http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/98_02/AA.html

~ by installations08 on October 1, 2008.

One Response to “The Architecture of Madness/Brutalism”

  1. […] relation to the needs of its vulnerable users, architecture writer Philip Nobel once wrote that “Rudolph made the building ‘insane’ in order to express the insanity […]

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