Thursday 25 September 2014


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.

Craighouse is (theoretically) a comprehensively protected site of national ecological and environmental significance which is home to several grade A listed buildings, some dating back to the 16th century. It’s adjacent to Craiglockhart, which was made famous by Pat Barker in her ‘Regeneration’ trilogy.
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. 
Many of our classic mental asylums are on similar (if somewhat less lavish) lines.

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.

It’s true that the man behind New Craig, the psychiatrist Sir Thomas Clouston, had some (to us) pretty alarming views about 'self-abuse', and so on, but he and the architect Sydney Mitchell, deliberately built therapeutic features into their plans.  It was their over-medicating successors, and a society reluctant to pay for quality carers who messed everything up. The buildings were not inevitably the cause of that, but somehow it was the buildings, and the concept of large-scale institutional care, that got the blame.
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 √©lan 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.

Like so many hospitals, that institution has changed its name as the very words ‘Asylum’ and ‘Insane’ have suffered from an association with the conduct of the mid-20th century doctors and nurses who practiced under its roof.  Language, like building styles, can become contaminated in the public mind.

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.


Sue Purkiss said...

This is really interesting. I think we do tend to assume that progress has happened, and we know how to do everything much better than people in the past. We are very patronising towards our ancestors! Thank you, Ellie.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

How very interesting Eleanor. Particularly so because we had one of those hospitals in our area. It's now be partly demolished and partly turned into high-end housing. We live in a cottage by the farmland on which the inmates used to work. I visited the hospital as a child, to sing songs at Christmas for the patients and also to visit a couple of schoolfriends who, for different reasons, had to be resident there for a time. It always had a tranquil atmosphere and it felt like a place where you might actually get better. It had many resonances with what you say in your blog. Thank you for posting!

jordanRwood said...
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Becca McCallum said...

At least that situation, however flawed, is better than simply bulldozing the lot. I remember reading a book once that was a list of all the big houses that had been demolished in the '50s, '60s and '70s - it was so sad to see the amount of houses that had once been full of life, and then left to sit empty, and finally knocked down.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yerss... I can remember people in the 60s who could only live in the institution.. And yet it is all too easy to judge the past by our own standards. Care in the community for psychological patients would have been great if it had been done with care, but done under the auspices of a lady with a heart of stone, who disguised greed under 'you can't solve a problem by throwing money at it).. which in our day has translated into 'take the money away and it will be fine'. It amounted to throwing people out onto the street.
I was living in Hing Kong for 18 months between 1982 and 1983, and was appalled to see the sudden appearance of beggars on the streets. Honestly, there was a time when there were none, barring a few alcoholic dossers. Many of them came out of the now closed mental hospitals.
As for the Nightingales, they were apparently safer, not just because of cleanliness, but because nurses could see if someone collapsed. There was much wrong with the old system, but before cleaning was contracted out to the lowest bidder, you could eat your dinner off hospital floors and infections did not rampage the wards...

Leslie Wilson said...

I don't mean much wrong with the system of medical care free at the point of delivery, but with the tendency to domineering over patients and fuss about the. Ed. Wing tidy. On the other hand, hospitals used to be quiet at night, not hell- holes of racket...

Leslie Wilson said...

Bed being tidy! Blooming Apple gadgets with their corrections!