The typological emergence of the Lunatic Asylum: Asylum buildings, and Beliefs concerning Madness and Architecture from circa 1559 to 1808
Prof JML McKean
Dr PW Jackson (external supervisor)
This project will examine the emergence of the lunatic asylum as an architectural “type” in the early 19th century. It will explore the interaction between the architecture of lunatic asylums, and contemporary texts on insanity and architecture, from the earliest depiction of Bethlem Hospital (c. 1559) to the first piece of legislation concerning asylum building, the County Asylums Act of 1808.
The aim of the research is to explore the development of the precursors of the 19th century asylum “type” which was ushered in by the 1808 County Asylums Act, and their role in the crystallization of this “type”. The research will examine the interaction between three categories of primary texts, which are seen as articulations of contemporary discourses concerning the nature and categories of insanity, its treatment, and the architecture appropriate to this, during the period from about 1559 to the 1808 Act. The three varieties of text comprise contemporary written texts on insanity, and on architecture, and “built” texts in the form of actual asylum buildings, plans, elevations, sections, images, descriptions of asylum interiors and so on.
As the research is exploratory and led by primary data there are no specific research questions.
The research programme has three main elements which have been developing in parallel since the project began in January 2001; specifically; a theoretical framework in which the research sits, the development of a set of analytic methods and the collection of data.
The theoretical framework embraces written, built, visual and other texts within a common social constructionist framework and sees the processes involved in the production of texts (discourse, design, production, distribution, and reception) as points at which meaning may be created. The constructionist approach sees texts as “utterances”, analogous to verbal utterances, within an ongoing conversation in which they are used to achieve social actions and create versions of “reality”. Within this model asylums are seen as “utterances” within an ongoing “argument” which attempts to construct a particular version of “madness” for the purposes of particular groups (social reformers, architects, religious groups, magistrates etc.). A variety of discourses are seen as intersecting in asylum buildings, of which contemporary written texts on insanity and architecture are critical, though many other discourses (e.g. gender and class) also played a part in the social construction of madness and asylums.
A mixed method approach will be taken to collected data, for four reasons. First the aim is to produce as rich an account of the data as possible. Different methods engage with different aspects of data and a range of methods will produce a multi-faceted account of them. Second, as the data will comprise written, built, visual andother modalities of text, different methods will be necessary to interrogate these. Third, a range of methods will be required to elucidate the different semiotic systems which give asylum buildings meaning. Fourth, it is not known what data will have been preserved for many of the buildings concerned, and a flexible “tool-kit” of methods will be required to handle whatever data is available.
Currently a number of methods are being considered, embracing several varieties of discourse analysis, an architectural history approach, a more general historical approach, analysis of spatial syntax, and visual semiotics. These all require further exploration and this will be ongoing, alongside development of the theoretical base and practical data collection. The approach taken to data (mainly on specific asylum buildings) which has been collected so far has been to write it up chronologically, in order to get an initial feel of it and to expose gaps which can then lead to searches for sources of data to fill them. This initial contact with the data, as work proceeds, is likely to generate initial interpretative ideas and links, which can then be explored more rigorously.
The major part of the data collection will comprise:
Since the project began a substantial amount of data on four asylums, Bethlem I and II in London, St. Peter’s, Bristol, and The Bethel, Norwich have been collected.
The research is partly funded by a research expenses grant in the history of medicine from the Wellcome Trust.