Now, does this theory hold up? Sometimes, when things go wrong, we end up blaming the buildings in which events take place, rather than looking at the human behaviour at the heart of the problem.
I was set off thinking about this when - to my astonishment - I spent eight hours completely absorbed in a session of Edinburgh City Council’s Planning Committee.
I’m not going to inflict all the grisly details of the meeting on you, but suffice it to say that it hinged on a proposal that has powerfully churned local juices: the fate of Craighouse: one of Edinburgh’s seven hills.
The planning committee was deciding whether to allow a developer to build several modern blocks there.
If you want more information and background, look here. The planning case is a wonderful example of the civic mess we are in in the 21st century, but this is not the place for me to vent my spleen about that. Instead, I’m going to talk about mental illness and architecture.
The link to Craighouse is its use for much of the past 130 years. At the heart of the site is New Craig, a purpose built mental asylum designed in the 1880s.
It is a grand building in the French style, with a mighty staircase, grand hall and billiard room.
Across the country, they were at first absorbed into the NHS, but have been decommissioned over recent years: condemned for their association with a cruelty and abuse, much of which was exposed during the golden age of television documentary film-making at the end of the last century.
It might come as a shock to hear how unfair is the link between the buildings and what went on inside them. To my parents’ generation the buildings were seen as ‘Victorian Monstrosities’, almost inevitably generating the horrors inside. But if you look back to the words of the people who commissioned and designed the old asylums, it becomes clear that they had the best of intentions.
Those old asylums are valuable properties now partly because they are often surrounded by extensive grounds. They had market gardens, farms and workshops, not only for the maintenance of the ‘mother ship’. but also for the restorative effect of work - especially outdoor work - on the inmates.
The same is true of general hospitals, with their ‘Nightingale’ wards: designed to provide ventilation, cleanliness and good eyelines for the nurses. It’s hard not to pine for them when visiting the stifling, shopping-mall style centres of infection and neglect built in the past thirty years or so.
But the mental health cycle of enlightenment and horror is not new. Way back in the 17th century, Robert Hooke was asked to design a new building for the squalid Bethlem (Bedlam) hospital in London. He did it with as much élan as the buildings he created alongside his friend Sir Christopher Wren. Even though he was forced to abandon some of the most grandiose elements of his plan, Hooke gave his ‘Bedlam’ airy proportions and even the new sash windows he’d invented and installed in some of the grandest houses of the day.
His aim was to provide an humane environment. But within a century, under the supervision of 'correctionist' supervisors, who denied inmates the use of the grandest internal or external spaces of the site, the Bedlam at Moorfields was a byword for cruelty and abuse, and playground for voyeurs, paying to watch the lunatics.
The solution? another new building - this time in Lambeth, on what is now the site of the Imperial War Museum.
In the late 18th century, a crucial 'enlightened' attempt to contain and care for the mentally ill took place at The Retreat in York.
It was a Quaker institution, and when, in 1797, George Jepson took control there, he introduced a kinder regime than that of his contemporaries elsewhere in the city - not least because he felt that lunatics, like wild animals, were more likely to be tamed by gentleness than force. The Retreat went on to become a model for asylums worldwide.
I invented an enlightened Victorian mental asylum for one of my books (Montmorency’s Revenge) and set some of the story in a real American example - Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane.
So did the buildings themselves generate the bad behaviour of the staff inside or the public on the outside? I like to think not. But then I find myself reflecting on the concrete and steel sheds in which so much modern medicine is practiced, and wondering whether some of today’s heartlessness by be generated, or at least exacerbated by, environmental factors. It’s hard not to long for the rolling acres of the old asylums. But ultimately, it’s people who are responsible for poor care, and they can find a way to abuse or let down their patients in any environment.
And finally, in case you’re wondering...
Despite a day-long series of speeches opposing the Craighouse development, the councillors narrowly allowed the plans through, thanks to the developer’s argument that they can’t afford to maintain Craighouse without converting the listed buildings into flats and constructing new residential blocks and car parks on the surrounding land. That put me in mind of the Vietnam War, and the famous quote from a US Major, explaining the obliteration of Ben Tre in February 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it”.
Apparently, Craighouse's A-listed buildings and their surroundings are so needy of TLC that the only way their owner can afford to save them is by contravening multiple planning laws and destroying everything that makes them special. Never mind that, under the law, the owner of a listed building has an obligation to maintain it. In future, buying one, and then pleading poverty, will be a ticket to by-passing the planning regulations. Once again the buildings, and not the people, get the blame.