Design and Health World Health Design

Exhibition review: Secession to sanity

Madness & Modernity: Mental illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna 1900
Exhibition and book
Wellcome Collection, London, 1 April to 28 June 2009
Gemma Blackshaw and Leslie Topp (editors)
Lund Humphries 2009, Hardback, 166pp., ISBN 978-1-84822-020-1, £35.00

Poster advertising the sanatorium section of 'am Steinhof', with watercolours by Erwin Pendl
While Sigmund Freud developed his theories of psychoanalysis, a group of Viennese artists, designers and architects developed a fresh, outward-looking approach to the design of mental health institutions, highlighted in a new book and exhibition. Colin Martin reports.

Fin-de-sie`cle Vienna was the urban crucible in which 20th-century modernism was forged in visual arts, literature, music, philosophy – and in psychiatry. Historian Edward Timms has published Venn diagrams showing how overlapping memberships of Viennese intellectual and cultural circles facilitated the development of modernist ideas and debate within and across professional disciplines. In 1897, Gustav Klimt founded the Viennese Secession, a group of artists, designers and architects which rejected tradition and created a new art for a new age. At the same time, Sigmund Freud was developing his psychoanalytical theories.

Many Viennese viewed themselves as living in a ‘nervous age.’ Mental illness was stigmatised but controllable nervous disorders such as hysteria and neurasthenia were accepted and even perceived by some as fashionable. An exhibition in London and a newly published book examine the infl uence of contemporary Viennese psychiatry on early modernism and how modernist architecture and design influenced the lives of mentally ill or neurotic patients.

Psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing believed people were made neurotic by the pressures of urban life and that providing patients with light and air in peaceful rural areas was important in treating nervous disorders. His pragmatic approach was a rational alternative to Freud’s ‘talking cure’. Rationally designed early 20th-century mental hospitals and sanatoriums encouraged patients to look outwards, in contrast to the inward focus Freud advocated in the cluttered environment of his 19th-century consulting room.

To provide historical context, the fi rst exhibit is a model of the Narrenturm (‘Tower of Fools’), a drum-shaped asylum of five stacked rings, each with 28 cells opening onto circular corridors.

Purkersdorf Sanatorium, 1903-04 (Josef Hoffmann)
Built in 1784 to isolate and confine ‘dangerous lunatics’, its poorly fed inmates were chained to their cell walls and slept on straw sleeping mats. Builders of new Viennese psychiatric institutions in the first decade of the 20th century admired some of the rational aspects of its design but were repelled by the inhumane treatment of patients.

Two video installations by artist and fi lm maker David Bickerstaff compensate for the lack of direct contact with the exhibited buildings. The first film explores the Narrenturm. Its soundtrack includes cooing pigeons and their wings flapping in flight, evoking the calm and freedom denied to inmates. Footsteps resounding on the wooden floors of its corridors hint at the monotony of incarcerated lives. Bickerstaff’s second film installation explores Europe’s largest mental hospital, built on a sloping 100-hectare site overlooking Vienna.

Viennese Secessionist architects Otto Wagner and his pupil Josef Hoffmann each designed a sanatorium for the mentally ill during the first decade of the 20th-century. Wagner won fi rst prize in a competition for the commission to design the Lower Austrian Provincial Institution for the Cure and Care of the Mentally and Nervously Ill, ‘am Steinhof’ (1903-07).

His site plan for 60 pavilions in a park-like setting was accepted but he only built St Leopold’s (1902-04), a magnificent church for 2,500 patients and 500 hospital staff. Its gleaming white cube and golden dome dominate the summit of the hospital’s main axis. Wagner’s practical design included a sloping floor to facilitate its cleaning, a necessity as many patients were incontinent.

Architectural model of the Narrenturm (replica of older, undated model in the Nierderosterreichisches Landesmuseum). Image courtesy of
the Technisches Museum, Vienna
‘Am Steinhof’ was described by a contemporary critic as “a white city, shimmering in the bright summer sun”. Male patients were housed in pavilions to the east of the main axis, with female patients to the west. Curable and quiet patients lived in pavilions closer to the hospital exit, with incurable and disruptive patients housed further away, another example of practicality. Most patients slept in dormitories and spent their days outside, working or relaxing, but disturbed patients were isolated. Badly chipped white paint on the outside of a thick wooden door, from an isolation cell, provides mute testimony to patients’ resistance to incarceration.

The main hospital treated public patients free of charge; however, there was also a self-contained sanatorium complex designed for private patients who could afford to pay. It treated less serious nervous conditions, such as hypochondria and cocaine addiction, as well as mental illness. An advertising poster depicts its elegant modern interiors and therapeutic facilities.

Hoffmann was also commissioned to design a new building for the private sanatorium, which Krafft-Ebing had established at Purkersdorf in 1890, in woodlands outside Vienna (1903-04). Its pristine design, geometrically simple and technologically advanced, was developed out of “necessity, need and the importance of hygiene”, according to Hoffmann.

Its severe interiors and furnishings reflected fashionable avant-garde taste. Repetitive geometric designs, including Hoffman’s textiles, Sehnsucht (‘Yearning’) and Notschrei (‘Cry for Help’), were used for their calming effect. Rephrasing a later modernist mantra, this building could be described as a “machine for curing”.

Colin Martin is a London-based writer on architecture, art and design, with a particular interest in their intersection with medicine and science

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