Cover image for Freedom and the Cage: Modern Architecture and Psychiatry in Central Europe, 1890–1914 By Leslie Topp

Freedom and the Cage

Modern Architecture and Psychiatry in Central Europe, 1890–1914

Leslie Topp


$99.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07710-9

256 pages
9" × 10"
3 color/114 b&w illustrations/1 map

Buildings, Landscapes, and Societies

Freedom and the Cage

Modern Architecture and Psychiatry in Central Europe, 1890–1914

Leslie Topp

“Leslie Topp has written an important and impeccably researched corrective to widespread assumptions about the relationship between space and power in the design of asylums and in architecture more generally. Her investigation of the villa-type asylum and its relationship to regional identity in the final years of the Habsburg empire deserves to be read by all those interested in turn-of-the-century modern architecture.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Spurred by ideals of individual liberty that took hold in the Western world in the late nineteenth century, psychiatrists and public officials sought to reinvent asylums as large-scale, totally designed institutions that offered a level of freedom and normality impossible in the outside world. This volume explores the “caged freedom” that this new psychiatric ethos represented by analyzing seven such buildings established in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy between the late 1890s and World War I.

In the last two decades of the Habsburg Empire, architects of asylums began to abandon traditional corridor-based plans in favor of looser formations of connected villas, echoing through design the urban- and freedom-oriented impulse of the progressive architecture of the time. Leslie Topp considers the paradoxical position of designs that promoted an illusion of freedom even as they exercised careful social and spatial control over patients. In addition to discussing the physical and social aspects of these institutions, Topp shows how the commissioned buildings were symptomatic of larger cultural changes and of the modern asylum’s straining against its ideological anchorage in a premodern past of “unenlightened” restraint on human liberty.

Working at the intersection of the history of architecture and the history of psychiatry, Freedom and the Cage broadens our understanding of the complexity and fluidity of modern architecture’s engagement with the state, with social and medical projects, and with mental health, psychiatry, and psychology.

“Leslie Topp has written an important and impeccably researched corrective to widespread assumptions about the relationship between space and power in the design of asylums and in architecture more generally. Her investigation of the villa-type asylum and its relationship to regional identity in the final years of the Habsburg empire deserves to be read by all those interested in turn-of-the-century modern architecture.”

Leslie Topp is Senior Lecturer in the History of Architecture at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of Architecture and Truth in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna.


List of Illustrations

1 The Free Institution
2 Regions, Nationalism, and the Asylum as a Political Project
3 “A White City Shimmering”: The Rhetorical Heightening of Control
4 Utopia in Process in Vienna’s Hinterland
5 Spaces
6 Boundaries
Conclusions and Proposals

Appendix: New Psychiatric Hospitals Built in the Habsburg Empire After 1898


I can think of no better way of summing up modern opinions about the treatment of the insane in Germany than to cite the director of the Gabersee asylum, who pointed out during a tour of the colony that the windows of the farm buildings had no bars: “In this country every peasant has bars on the windows of his farm. When I buy a farm for the asylum, the first thing that I do is give orders to have all the bars removed.” In our country, the bars would certainly have to come down.

—Josef Maýr

Josef Maýr, a Czech government architect, had toured and was now, in 1894, reporting on recently built German asylums—institutions that by then set the standards internationally for progressive psychiatry. The anecdote he chose to sum up the Germans’ modernity seems unlikely. The relevance—let alone the summative power—of the removal of bars from the windows of peasants’ farm buildings is not immediately clear.

The asylum director in question had acquired these buildings as part of a farm purchased to provide a “colony” for his institution, a place where so-called quiet patients could live in relative freedom while remaining in confinement. The extant farm buildings would not have been pulled down to make way for modern purpose-built structures. Their normality, their familiarity, was highly valued in the construction of a self-consciously liberal, noninstitutional environment. Patients living and working in them were not to feel they were being kept in an artificially restricted world apart, but rather that they were living the free lives of local people. Visitors, like Maýr, would appreciate how remarkable the inclusion of such unremarkable structures in an asylum was.

To secure this impression, the buildings’ normality needed enhancing. The sheltering roofs, the cheerful folk ornamentation, the human scale—all these were welcome, but the bars on the windows were not. Though a feature of rural buildings, the bars in their new institutional setting evoked an unfashionably restrictive regime. The former occupants of these buildings had chosen freely to install the bars, to protect their possessions from thieves. Now, on the director’s orders, the bars were taken down and a rhetorical point made about this gesture of liberation. The obverse of the closed, artificial, old-style institution was the informal, natural vernacular of the outside world. But the outside world was not free enough, at least in appearance. Only within the bounds of the confining institution, in its modern guise, could appearances be controlled and freedom instituted with consistency and transparency.

The Bohemian Crown-land government, which funded Maýr’s study trip, built a large new asylum on the outskirts of Prague starting in 1905 using the so-called villa system, imported from Germany, which replaced the older model of a single rambling building with a small quasi-urban settlement of multiple structures (see fig. 4). For psychiatrists it was a “colonial asylum,” that is, a comprehensive institution for acute and chronic, disturbed and placid patients, designed along the lines of the open, liberal colony referred to by Maýr. Architects, and the architecturally aware, would have seen in the new asylum a combination of undistinguished but dignified “official” architecture and elegant residential references to the late historicist villa, the whole in a natural setting that drew on contemporary suburban landscape elements while carefully avoiding any hints of the high walls of old-style confinement. The neighboring Habsburg Crown land, Moravia, built a new asylum at the same time on the edge of the town of Kroměříž. There, a modern utopian Garden City was evoked by the architect, whose master-planning tendencies were in tension with the radical anti-institutional liberalism of the young asylum director (see chapter 5). Five further institutions were built from scratch in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy between the late 1890s and the onset of the First World War—at Vienna, in the small rural settlement of Mauer-Öhling in Lower Austria, outside of Krakow, and at Trieste and Gorizia in Northern Italy. This book is about these asylums, all essays, each completely distinct, in the paradoxical idea of controlled freedom.

The existence of the asylum as a place of involuntary confinement posed a dilemma for a society that placed value on individual liberty, a dilemma confronted over a century earlier by French revolutionary intellectuals. Already there, under the pressure of this dilemma, the asylum was converted, at least discursively, into a place in which the mad would enjoy a freedom within confinement, and indeed a freedom that was created by and impossible without confinement. Michel Foucault called this a “caged freedom.” The vision of a carefully designed cage within which increased freedom was made possible drove developments in asylum planning throughout the nineteenth century and into the period of this study. In the context of the late Habsburg Empire, and particularly in view of the groups involved in the creation of new psychiatric institutions (regional governments and architects, as well as psychiatrists), the idea of a redemptive, liberating confinement through planning and design was particularly seductive. It resonated with political visions of new discrete self-governing societies that would replace the rambling inconsistency of the empire; it also chimed with the notion, current in the architectural and wider cultural worlds, that people enslaved by the materialism and chaos of the metropolis could be freed by being transplanted into a new environment built from scratch and designed coherently.

The historian Patrick Joyce has written influentially of a “rule of freedom” driving the “achievement of a techno-administrative state in a liberal mode,” initially and most fully in nineteenth-century British cities. This seeming paradox—“to think about freedom as a mode of ruling people is to consider the absence of restraint as a form of constraint,” Joyce writes—comes about when, in governments’ attempts to tackle the unwieldy problems of rapidly growing and changing cities, order and liberty become inextricably intertwined. Traffic, for instance, resulting from the growth of unregulated, liberated industry becomes an obstacle to the free circulation of goods and people, and large-scale interventions in the physical fabric of the city, with their accompanying infringement on private property and freedom of habitation and movement, are organized in the name of unobstructed movement. Recasting the modern metropolis—always teetering on the edge of dangerous, clogged, insecure disorder—as an enabling landscape for the autonomous individual means developing bureaucracies, master plans, welfare systems, systematic knowledge of that city and those individuals. Order secures freedom, and is imposed in the name of freedom.

The importance of order and centralized power in urban planning has become a truism in studies of modernity in which Haussmann’s Paris is the watchword for urban control. What Joyce has usefully provided is a way of understanding the pervasive importance of liberal, freedom-oriented impulses within these same urbanist initiatives. Likewise even—or indeed especially—in a confining institution like a psychiatric hospital, where one might assume there would be a fairly uncomplicated and direct manipulation of space to foster power and control, freedom is in some sense a driving force. The very fact that the confining institution deprives people of freedom is acknowledged as a problem—especially when, as outlined in chapter 2, critics from outside the world of the institution attack it for its inscrutability and accuse its managers of abuses. A degree of freedom, a relative freedom, is employed as a tool for patient management, while institutional design is geared toward enabling free movement within the institution’s boundaries and, just as important, creating an impression, or appearance, of freedom, aimed both at patients and at the public.

That this is a set of deeply problematic and contradictory ambitions was on occasion openly recognized by the teams of psychiatrists, government officials, and architects responsible for the seven early twentieth-century Habsburg asylums explored in this book. More often, while remaining unarticulated, the fraught complexity of the “free asylum” was compensated for or resisted. The very separateness and self-contained nature of these asylum worlds, perched on the edge of cities or located deep in the countryside, seemed to contradict the impulse toward the seamless knitting together of the urban fabric in the name of free movement. Such separateness needed to be justified, softened, even reinvented as something positive. The tools of master planning could be exploited to the full here, but master planners also faced the allure and danger of stasis and overweening power. Each of the seven asylums can be read as taking a different position, or set of positions, on the problem of caged freedom and generating new permutations of the problem, new compensations for it.

With the concept of designed freedom at its center, this study offers a new model for the analysis and interpretation of spaces designated for the mad throughout the long nineteenth century and into the twentieth, engaging in the process with a small but rich body of scholarship on psychiatric architectures and spaces. Christine Stevenson’s work on British precedents from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has set the standard for multilayered analysis, probing the meanings, often counterintuitive, of these buildings via their visual dissemination and reception. Thomas Markus’s study of power and control in the development of early nineteenth-century building types in Britain stresses the importance of the spatial configuration of asylums. Jeremy Taylor has investigated the lively asylum building activity of Victorian architects with an eye to professional specialization and competition around this increasingly important building type. Carla Yanni’s study of nineteenth-century American asylum design sets the narrative of changing building forms in the context of the history of psychiatry and asylum management. The spatial dimension of asylum history has been explored as well by the historical geographer Chris Philo, who engages with issues of scale and national and local cultural landscapes while also offering close analysis of interior spaces. Besides the literature on Anglo-American psychiatric spaces, there is a smaller but growing body of scholarship on the German-speaking world, beginning with the wide-ranging overviews by Dieter Jetter and continuing more recently with space-oriented work by historians of psychiatry such Eric Engstrom, Thomas Müller, and Kai Sammet. In the 2007 collected volume Madness, Architecture, and the Built Environment, many of these strands were brought together, alongside the beginning stages of the current study.

With regard to the geographical and chronological scope of this study, the focus on the Habsburg lands in the years around 1900 does not, it should be stressed, coincide with any particular innovations or developments in the design of asylums qua asylums. The villa system of asylum design had been universally adopted by this period in the empire, driven by an urbanistic and freedom-oriented impulse that is central to the themes of the book. The Germans, as has already been mentioned, got there first, and they built many more asylums per capita as well. When the Habsburg Crown lands ventured in a significant (or at least spectacular) way into villa-asylum building in the late 1890s, they were making up lost ground, building only after much frustrated agitation by psychiatrists aware of developments in Germany. What this delay meant, though, was that planning and building activity in the years covered by this book coincided with a period of change and debate and markedly lively activity in architectural culture, spanning the Wagner School and Secession impulses, radiating from Vienna, and various sorts of nationalist-inflected innovation developed in other parts of the empire—all the “competing visions” of the period, to use Ákos Moravánszky’s phrase.

Authors such as Moravánszky, Anthony Alofsin, Eve Blau, Monika Platzer, Elizabeth Clegg, Christopher Long, Jacek Purchla, and Jindřich Vybíral have done much in the last two decades to revise older and narrower conceptions of what constituted forward-looking innovation—indeed modernism itself—in Habsburg architecture. Previously, the focus was on Vienna, and within Vienna on the figures of Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos. If scholars acknowledged the wider Habsburg architectural scene—developments in Budapest, Krakow, Lviv, Trieste, Prague, and Brno—they characterized developments there as pale reflections of the center or as whimsy, insignificant in the larger scheme of things. A rich historiography has recast the region, in line with the now-prevalent view among historians, as a multicentered network of activity, all of which, in different ways, confronted the challenges of modernity.

All those architects who departed from the historical revivalist orthodoxy, whether in the name of rationalism, art, or the nation, can be seen as modernists, or, to use a less loaded term, progressives. Progressive architecture, to borrow Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s reconceptualization of post–World War I modernism, was not a style but a discourse—a dynamic discussion carried on through buildings, journals, exhibitions, and competitions “centered on the problem of how the built environment should be constructed to grapple with and respond to, rather than reject or ignore, the complex phenomenon of modernity.” It was in the Habsburg Empire that the architectural progressives of the period around 1900 got hold of the asylum.

The period between the turn of the century and the First World War in Europe is often characterized as the quintessential period on the cusp, caught culturally between endings and beginnings, decadent while at the same time embryonic. To see the late Habsburg asylums in this wider context is helpful for understanding not only these projects but also what comes after them. Progressive architects of the period across Europe shared the ambition—at once late romantic and modernist—to build new settlements from scratch, settlements that would be transformative and catalytic, freeing modern man from the disorder that they felt was the legacy of the nineteenth century. The opportunities, though, were few and far between, and such opportunities as there were—the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony (begun 1900), for instance, and the Hellerau Garden City (begun 1907)—depended on individual patrons to an extent that impeded their wider application and relevance. To build little cities for the insane can be seen—and undoubtedly was often seen at the time—as inherently marginal. But in several crucial ways commissions for public asylums spoke to modernist ambitions: they were initiated and funded by public bodies as part of a wider scheme of provision for large groups of (passive and vulnerable) people; they were promoted by the psychiatric community as opportunities to have a transformative impact on individuals and to provide models for the wider world; and their very marginality, their separateness, offered all the possibilities of the blank slate. Marginality could be recast as cultural centrality. Here I am talking about how the early twentieth-century asylum idea, in its central European version, could be viewed through the lens of early twentieth-century architectural culture. The built projects are not fulfillments of modernist architectural ambitions, but they do, in almost all cases, bear the traces of them. As such, the Habsburg asylums are a lens, sharpening our understanding of the connections between modern architecture, utopian visions of transformation, and the operations of social control.

Architectural History, the Built Object, and the Challenge of Context

For a long time now, architectural history has looked beyond the narrowly architectural for meaning, distancing itself from its own tradition of insularity. A concern of mine ever since I have been writing on this topic has been to find a way back to specifically architectural questions while remaining fully alert to contextual richness. It may seem perverse to say that asylums have led me back to close looking at architectural objects—the analysis of the various stages of the treatment of a pediment in the developing design for an asylum mortuary, for instance—but they have, in a rather roundabout way. The extra-architectural dimensions of asylum design—that is, the elaborate discourse developed by psychiatrists about buildings, their layout, their importance as therapeutic instruments—is highly interesting, even seductive, for an architectural historian looking for wider cultural relevance. It is so much more specific than architects’ often vague gestures toward the transformation of society and can be related in satisfyingly concrete ways to particular built objects: the asylums themselves. Psychiatrists were dismissive about architects’ contributions to asylums, positioning them as superficial decorators, merely applying an attractive veneer to a set of spaces already designed in all their essentials by the psychiatrists themselves. But the psychiatrists’ view of architecture’s contribution was overdetermined—a stance in a competition over professional competence and preeminence—and should not be accepted at face value. My aim here is to reinsert the architectural, to propose an understanding of these projects that takes the implications of interdisciplinary analysis seriously. These buildings’ meanings are not exhausted by extra-architectural concerns; they are rather generated by an interaction between diverse disciplines, or discourses (to use Goldhagen’s formulation), one of which is architectural.

Goldhagen imagines architectural modernism as a discourse about modernity and acknowledges that that discourse comes into contact with forces from beyond architecture (“social, cultural, political, economic, technical . . .”) in different ways in different periods of the twentieth century. What I seek to tackle is the challenge posed by understanding buildings as products of multiple authors, including but not limited to architects. If architectural modernism is a discourse in which architects and others close to architecture (critics, historians, etc.) engage, one that can be compared (as Goldhagen does) to a professional conference, with multiple voices and positions but a shared set of concerns and vocabulary, what happens when we want to move beyond that discourse’s inner workings? What happens, that is, when we exit the conference and understand buildings not as contributions to an autonomous discourse but as products of multiple discourses, all of which have their own concerns and vocabulary, their own inner complexity and multiplicity of positions?

Instead of the professional conference, we might think about the building committee and the deliberations that go on there between architects and clients over the long course of a project, from brief via competition to final scheme and subsequent changes. For large public projects, now as well as a hundred years ago, even the idea of a two-way dialogue between single architect and single client would be an oversimplification. There were multiple players in a process with multiple stages, each of which possibly involving misunderstandings, snags, changes of direction. Typically for an early twentieth-century institution, the built result would issue from discussions between an architect, a government-employed engineer, the psychiatrist-director of the institution, and one or more officials representing the government body responsible for the project. To do justice to the layers of meaning resulting from such discussions means taking each contributor seriously, as a representative of a distinct and internally rich discourse, and attending to the ways in which the various players sought to understand the others’ discourses, and the ways, too, in which they talked past each other. The architect was not dominant, but neither can he be seen to have relinquished his position altogether, no matter how eloquent the other members of the team on matters spatial and building-related.

In order to remain alert to the richness of the multiple extra-architectural discourses while keeping architecture in view, I have chosen to focus on the built results of these discussions. The built objects themselves and the documentation closely packed around them (plans with their changes and refinements, competition entries and minutes and alternatives, contemporary reviews and other architectural commentary) are products of a process that can be reconstructed via them. It is a matter of taking the lead from the built objects and letting them guide the historian toward the particular set of issues they represent. The meaning of the architecture is not exhausted by contextual content. Instead, the architecture is a reading of, or an answer to, the problem posed, and looking at a series of projects based on similar medico-political problems, we can see the diversity of the responses as a series of rereadings and reinterpretations of a shared brief.

For most of these large public (and therefore well-documented) projects it is possible to trace in considerable detail the often protracted and extremely complex process of designing and building, but it is worth asking at the outset what the point is of doing so. The point is not to provide an epilogue to a single original moment, tracing with regret subsequent financial or client-driven factors that have undermined the integrity of the architect’s original design. Nor is it to attribute authorship of a building, whether, as traditionally, to an architect or, as in more recent contextually driven architectural history, to the client or patron (with the architect as mere prettifier or implementer of a preexisting and complete scheme). Rather, if we understand buildings as resulting from a multivoiced discussion that sometimes sharpens into debate, then the point of tracing the building process—and especially those aspects that involve alterations to proposed designs, and counterrevisions, and even barriers to completion, resulting from shortages of time or money—is precisely to mine it for evidence of those multiple voices. The architect’s conception, as well as the client’s, is no longer something fixed and complete, which can be realized or (to a greater or lesser extent) abandoned, but a work forever in progress, formed in dialogue as it goes along.

In sum, this book offers an alternative to both a predominantly formal or stylistic emphasis and a predominantly contextual emphasis in its analysis of these asylum projects. Throughout my discussion I aim to be alert to the interaction between architectural factors (decisions about irregularity versus regularity, stylistic references from the Secessionist to the nationalist, the impact of architectural modernism, and Garden City planning tendencies, for instance) and contextual ones (models of asylum management, therapeutic practices, political agendas). I do this by maintaining a consistent focus on the built and landscaped asylum complexes themselves and reading them for how they manifest this interdisciplinary interaction. This avoids the pitfall of attributing too much agency either to architects (as was often the case in traditional architectural history) or to other players such as psychiatrists and politicians (as is often the case in more recent contextual studies). It also allows the richness and complexity of the built results to come to the fore.

Early Twentieth-Century Habsburg Asylums

The chapters of this book investigate the diverse origins, contexts, and meanings of the institutions that form its focus, as well as the range of forms they took. Here, before introducing the individual chapters, I spell out some important basic characteristics they had in common. The institutions were built and run by public bodies to house, keep secure, and treat the people in the institutions’ catchments who were deemed mentally ill and in need of intensive residential treatment and confinement. The ones I examine here were founded and built from scratch between the years 1898 and 1914 and joined a range of existing institutions with the same function, some built (or converted from other uses) as early as the late eighteenth century but most dating from the mid to late nineteenth century. In the empire, asylums housed far fewer people per capita than was the case, for instance, in Germany, but even so, the range of conditions that made people eligible for treatment in psychiatric hospitals was much wider than that which current practices would sanction. Asylums confined epileptics, syphilitics, alcoholics, people with old-age dementia, and “idiots” (learning disabled), as well as people suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other acute mental illnesses. Several institutions also contained wards for the so-called criminally insane.

These relatively large public institutions existed alongside a network of private mental hospitals, and the great majority of their patient population consisted of what were known in the English-speaking world as “pauper” patients, that is, people who themselves or whose relatives could not afford the cost of their room, board, and treatment and who were therefore wards of the state. All the institutions also contained accommodation for paying patients. In the period in question the responsibility for financing the “care of the insane” (Irrenpflege) fell to the individual semiautonomous countries, referred to as Crown lands, that made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their administrative arms initiated and oversaw the building of new asylums, and their parliaments approved budgets and had varying degrees of input into the particulars of location, scale, and design. For the Crown lands, asylums were a major expense, and new asylums were highly significant public projects, at least in one half of the early twentieth-century empire. The empire was divided into Transleithania, also referred to as Hungary, though it contained several separate lands, and Cisleithania, the so-called Austrian half of the empire. Provision for the insane was relatively minimal in Transleithania, and a lack of political will meant that no new asylums were built there in the period under examination. The seven institutions that were built from scratch in this period, two by the Crown land of Lower Austria and one each by Bohemia, Moravia, Galicia, Trieste, and Gorizia, were all in Cisleithania (see map 1).

The smallest institution, the asylum at Gorizia (fig. 1), had 350 beds and 21 separate buildings, while the largest, the Vienna asylum “am Steinhof,” opened with 2,200 beds and 60 buildings. All the institutions were built to foster a large degree of self-sufficiency, with kitchens, laundries, social centers, chapels, administrative buildings, and mortuaries. Most had farms and extensive gardens, in which patients worked (and sometimes played) as part of a concerted practice of “occupation” for the purposes of calming and distraction. Most accommodation was provided in dormitories, some very large, and bed therapy (in which, as in general hospitals, patients spent the bulk of their time in beds in large wards) was another common form of treatment. Doctors, nurses, and other staff were housed on site in purpose-built apartments, most commonly in separate structures but sometimes (for nurses and attendants) in the same buildings as the patients.

The range of players involved in the design of these asylums followed a fairly consistent pattern. Politicians were involved, but the process was led by the civil servants of the administrative arm of the Crown land in question (the Landesausschuss, or provincial committee). Psychiatrists—normally the directors of existing institutions in the same Crown land—were always consulted extensively and often had leading roles in the building committees and in drafting the brief. Though the architects and/or engineers in the office responsible for public works (Landesbauamt) were usually commissioned to prepare initial designs, in most cases a private architect was employed in some capacity too. Commentary on these institutions, during their construction and once they were open—or at least that commentary that has been recorded—was offered by other psychiatrists and government officials, often from other Crown lands or sometimes other countries, but also by mainstream journalists and observers of the current architectural scene. Patients, not surprisingly, were never consulted about the design of asylums—doctors were confident that they knew what would be best for them—and I have almost no record of their own reactions to or understandings of those spaces. This paucity of evidence from the main and, one would think, most important users of the buildings can be attributed for the most part to the fact that patients’ voices were not valued or heeded, but it is also a result of the type of evidence I have drawn on here. In the documents preserved in the archives of the individual Crown lands, and in material published by and for psychiatrists, architects, and the culturally sophisticated public, patients’ views were neither sought nor reflected. I have also limited myself primarily to sources that date from the time of the design and building of these institutions and have paid less attention to the period of their subsequent occupation and use. Accounts of patients’ experiences of living in these institutions over time—and of staff and visitors’ experiences as well—are badly needed. This study contributes a nuanced and carefully articulated account of the built and landscaped environment of these institutions—and above all of the ideas and values, and the contradictions, that can be read in these environments.

The book does not treat each institution in equivalent detail or depth but rather draws on aspects of their history and design in chapters that have a thematic focus, each exploring an aspect of the paradox of “caged freedom” represented differently by the various institutions. Chapter 2 frames the psychiatric engagement with buildings historically and historiographically and explores the late nineteenth-century preoccupation with the asylum designed and run on the principle of freedom. Early antipsychiatric campaigns, as well as internal critique, sharpened the focus on freedom. The previous generation of corridor asylums was not seen as adequate to the representational needs of a modern, culturally central psychiatry, and the villa system developed in Germany and central Europe, driven by a need for good publicity.

The relevance of regional politics is shown in chapter 3. Habsburg Crown-land governments, which had responsibility for psychiatric institutions, sought autonomy from the imperial center; new asylums were one of the most visible and substantial ways in which the values and social visions of the Crown lands—with their various political colorings—could be embodied. This chapter examines the design and building processes and the achieved results of the Trieste asylum, on the edge of the empire, and the first Lower Austrian asylum at Mauer-Öhling, near the center, with an eye to the interaction of psychiatry, architecture, and politics.

Chapters 4 and 5 each take one Habsburg asylum as a case study, tracing the dialogue between psychiatrists and architects that took place in the course of design and execution. Chapter 4 focuses on how the challenge of the villa asylum was confronted at the asylum “am Steinhof” (designed and built 1904 to 1907), the largest and most widely publicized of the Habsburg institutions, serving the imperial capital Vienna. Psychiatrists and government architects initially sought to mask the scale of the institution and its institutionality with a loose and variegated site plan. Otto Wagner intervened, interpreting the brief through the lens of utopian planning impulses, heightening the aesthetic rhetoric, regularizing, capitalizing on, and rejuvenating the older metaphor of the asylum as a world unto itself, and recasting arbitrary confinement as modern, rational, and transparent master planning. In chapter 5, a less confrontational but equally multilayered process is evident in the case of the Moravian asylum at Kroměříž (1904–9), involving distinct utopian impulses on both the architectural and psychiatric sides, held in check and sometimes diverted by the halting and piecemeal nature of the design-and-construction process, with its frequent revisions. The architect Hubert Gessner, a student of Wagner, shifted emphasis from a Wagnerian coherence and regularity to a more open-ended, allusive, and intimate mode of design. In the cases of both Steinhof and Kroměříž, though, the publicity (including photographs, published plans, and models)—where it was under the control of the institution—was strong and seductive, with an emphasis on coherence, and drew on references to progressive culture: associations with both freedom and rationality had to be shored up so the image of the asylum would not relapse into one of irrational confinement.

Chapters 6 and 7 turn to the spaces, interior and exterior, of the asylums as built, exploring the various uses to which a sophisticated spatial vocabulary—a hybrid of narrowly psychiatric and wider architectural and cultural understandings of space—could be put. It is here that the fine-grained decisions were made about degrees of freedom and continued confinement in the modern institution, decisions that were at once material and ideological. Chapter 6 focuses on the floor plans of patient pavilions in all seven asylums studied in this book and on the particular charge corridors and cells continued to have. Chapter 7 moves outdoors and examines the handling of boundaries within and encircling the grounds of asylums, with an emphasis on those at Prague, Vienna, and Krakow.

The Asylum, a Contested History, and Modern Architecture

The psychiatrists and government officials featured in the story I tell in this book saw themselves as part of a reform of the asylum as an institution, a reform guided by benevolence, rationality, liberalism, and the desire for good, well-functioning administration. They explicitly presented their project as an extension of the ambitions, often thwarted, of the first “enlightened” psychiatrists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Yet too much has happened between the early twentieth century and now (and indeed too much had already happened then) to accept these stated intentions at face value and accord them centrality.

It is tempting to sidestep the protracted and dense academic discussion and sometimes vituperative debate about the asylum, its birth, its legacy, and its true nature. It is tempting to plead the historian’s prerogative to stick to the sources and avoid confusing matters with detours into a historiography strongly marked by mid to late twentieth-century concerns. But the minute one draws on or refers to one history of psychiatry or another, one is implicated. The author most closely associated with the history of psychiatry and who has done most to secure its peculiar status as a subject with mythic reach and relevance, Michel Foucault, is at the center of a controversy that began in 1961 with the publication of his thesis on the “history of madness.” Another key author, Andrew Scull, shares Foucault’s fundamental rejection of what Scull calls “the rhetoric of intentions”—that is, the acceptance at face value of the importance and validity of psychiatry’s own stated intentions as the main drivers of the history of the asylum system—but has also been deeply skeptical of many of Foucault’s historical claims. Meanwhile, one of the most lucid and useful overviews of the history of psychiatry, by Edward Shorter, is at the same time a highly polemical defense of the profession against its myriad attackers, including both Foucault and Scull.

A useful guide through this difficult terrain is an analysis by the sociologist Stanley Cohen. Cohen’s book Visions of Social Control (1985) was an effort to take stock of the many parallel movements toward closure of institutions (decarceration), community treatment, and radical rethinking of the role of self-contained institutions (asylums, but also prisons, care homes, and reform schools) since the 1960s in the Anglo-American world. Cohen puts history writing at the center of his review of the ideological roots of the turn against institutions: “The extraordinarily interesting current debates about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century structures of punishment, justice and treatment . . . are not just competing versions of what may or may not have happened nearly two hundred years ago. They are informed by fundamentally different views about the nature of ideology and hence quite different ways of making sense of current policies and change.” Having parsed the differences between key interventions by Foucault, Scull, and others, Cohen formulates a useful and (deliberately) simply expressed list of claims shared by all the revisionists, claims on which most further studies (with the exception of those by counterrevisionists like Shorter) build. First, the study of the psychiatry and other similar “social-control” disciplines as a set of ideas must be grounded in their “actual working functions.” The second shared claim is “that the motives and programmes of the reformers were more complicated than a simple revulsion with cruelty, impatience with administrative incompetence or sudden scientific discovery.” This cautious restatement is particularly useful, opening up as it does a distance from the seductively simple claims of the reformers of the past without binding scholars to a particular historiographical interpretation (Marxist, Foucauldian, or otherwise) of what these reformers were actually up to. Two further “shared claims” identified by Cohen are also worth citing for their relatively open-ended but focused account of the postrevisionist state of play: “that experts and professionals created and captured a monopoly for their services despite their demonstrable lack of cognitive superiority,” and “that control institutions can persist indefinitely despite their manifest failure.” Cohen also provides a model for how one might critically but productively engage with Foucault’s work, using specific insights as a spur to further thinking. One can write about asylums without having to become a Foucauldian—or an anti-Foucauldian.

That said, there is no escaping Foucault. Scholars working in cultural and social history are sometimes criticized for hauling Foucault in, applying his formulations in highly unlikely contexts—and thus falling under the spell of Foucault’s claim to have, via asylums and prisons and the doctor’s office, explained everything about society, modern and premodern. Yet the risk in writing about modern architecture and psychiatry is quite the opposite. Readers will be concerned that there is nothing to say that has not already been said, more eloquently, by the philosopher. Or, conversely, that the entire impulse of the book will be to establish distance, to show how wrong Foucault was. Any book, like this one, about the intimate connection between the organization of space in institutions and the structures of psychiatric knowledge—about how knowledge is also power to organize bodies in space—will be indebted to Foucault’s History of Madness (1961) and Discipline and Punish (1975), in which these are the key themes. Another, in the History of Madness, is historical actors’ preoccupation with the well-designed asylum as a site of freedom. My focus on these institutions as quasi-urban structures, on their ideological links with existing modern cities and their connection, both ideological and practical, to government, is linked to Foucault’s later work on governmentality, work that is generally proving influential on urban and even architectural history, as his legacy is refreshed and made relevant for a new generation of scholars.

Foucault never wrote directly about the moment around 1900, but he kept circling back to themes that turn out to be relevant for fin de siècle asylum psychiatry and its built and urban contexts. As I argue at greater length in chapter 1, this is largely because the sources on which he built his first major intervention into this area, the History of Madness (which was also his first major work), are the histories of psychiatry written in and for the circa-1900 period. The emphases on reform, on the identification of precursors in such key figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as France’s Philippe Pinel and England’s William Tuke, on freedom within confinement, on the crucial role of the well-designed institution, are inescapable in these sources, simply because they were the concerns of the period around 1900. Foucault’s great originality was to invert the progressive narrative constructed around these generally accepted nodal points, but the nodes themselves remained intact. Working with late nineteenth-century histories of the late eighteenth century, and radically skeptical of their progressive slant, Foucault nonetheless accepted the historical selection that had taken place.

To draw attention to Foucault’s unexamined debt to the narratives of my period is a way of opening up a productive distance from Foucault’s work, so that it becomes a source (among other sources) of insights that can be deployed, rather than an interpretive system that must be accepted, or rejected, as a whole. Other perspectives on the rich primary material on early twentieth-century central European asylum psychiatry highlight, for instance, the fissures within the psychiatric community: internal critiques, countermovements to liberal reforms, and anxiety about continued social meaningfulness. If we take this shakiness seriously, it suggests new ways of understanding the asylums as built objects and of understanding the differences that existed between them. They can be seen as positions in a debate rather than (simply) as reiterations of a self-perpetuating technology.

Another angle opens up if we take “architecture,” narrowly defined, seriously. Foucault of course took the built environment very seriously, and his work, alongside Henri Lefebvre’s, has fruitfully encouraged the incorporation of a spatial dimension in cultural history. If its reception in architectural history has been a little less enthusiastic, one reason may be that Foucault made it clear that architecture qua architecture was a spent force and that indeed its replacement as a tool of governance by engineering and other more technical, less visible, and therefore more pervasive sciences of design was a key marker of modernity. Here another author, Martin Jay, shows a way of contextualizing such compelling formulations, by situating Foucault among a set of assumptions that together, crudely speaking, amount to a downplaying of the visual, prevalent in the French philosophical tradition. One can find Foucault useful and still recognize visual sources as vital and active components of modernity, alongside, and not merely as shadows of, Foucault’s invisible operations.

The frequent discussions of psychiatric architecture, the competitions, the reviews, the richness of the built and represented objects, are interesting not just for being there (and showing that “architecture” was understood seriously at the time, pace Foucault) but also for the kinds of interpretations they allow. The freedom-in-confinement so beloved of the asylum planners, for instance, was to be instituted in large part via architecture and landscape design and disseminated through the visual media of photographs, plans, prints, and models. The idea that spaces could appear normal, domestic, open, natural, or free resonated deeply with current architectural concerns, and it was architects who had control over this distinctively visual strategy in their design of asylums.

Before the architects make an entrance, though, I should account for the spatial and urbanistic forms laid before them by psychiatrists promoting their beloved villa system. It, they argued, was the fulfillment of the century-old vision of the asylum as a place of freedom, made possible by confinement, instituted, managed, and represented by design.