Architecture's pivotal role in illuminating a range of historical and contemporary cultural issues accounts for its increasing presence in exhibitions of differing content in a variety of venues. In 2009, when London's Wellcome Collection, a unique foundation offering galleries, meeting places, conferences and publications dedicated to "exploring the connections between medicine, life and art," presented Madness & Modernity, architectural works formed the heart of its small but potent display (Figure 1).

Figure 1

View of the exhibition Madness & Modernity

Figure 1

View of the exhibition Madness & Modernity

The thesis of Madness & Modernity was that, amid the general ferment of societal pressures and economic upheavals that shaped the avant-garde, Vienna's contribution was distinguished by a keen sensitivity to the expression and treatment of mental illness. In the Austrian capital, art and science colluded and sometimes clashed. Evidence lay in the exquisite but unsettling pictures by Gustav Klimt (1862––1918), and the portraits of anguished subjects by Egon Schiele (1890––1918), Oskar Kokoschka (1886––1939), and his nemesis, the talented but egregiously overlooked Max Oppenheimer (1885––1954), that were distributed throughout the exhibition. The visitor also encountered diagnostic representations in various media of inmates and their surroundings, electrotherapeutic equipment, medical advertisements, photos and memorabilia of prominent mental health professionals like Jean-Martin Charcot (1825––1893) and Sigmund Freud (1856––1939), and hauntingly beautiful watercolors by Josef Karl Räädler (1844––1917), a schizophrenic who spent the last forty years of his life in Austrian asylums. Dominating the galleries, however, were two projects that, if not unfamiliar thanks to the fame of their makers, have usually been considered in a primarily stylistic context: "am Steinhof" (1905––7, today the Otto-Wagner-Spital), its layout and Church of St. Leopold designed by Otto Wagner (1841––1918), and the residential building (1904––5) of the Purkersdorf sanatorium by Josef Hoffmann (1870––1956). Models, drawings (both originals and reproductions), furnishings, and ingeniously deployed videos and slides made vivid their corporeal substance and psychological affect.

The first room of the exhibition, dramatically darkened, featured a large model and multiple cinematic images of the "Narrenturm" (Tower of Fools). A ruthlessly efficient circular edifice for confinement and surveillance constructed in Vienna in 1784, it apparently——no comparison was drawn by the curators——anticipated by one year Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon project. In the past a cruel locus of both incarceration and vicious public amusement, today the rusticated walls of the Narrenturm enclose a museum of pathology and anatomy.

From Stygian gloom the visitor emerged into the enlightened brilliance of the next room, dedicated to the Lower Austrian Provincial Institution for the Care and Cure of the Mentally Ill and for Nervous Disorders "am Steinhof." In contrast to previous solutions for sequestered confinement, where one gigantic building housed the unfortunates, whatever the specificities of their mental maladies, "am Steinhof" was based on the more humane "villa system" devised by German psychiatrists in the late nineteenth century. However, with its sixty buildings accommodating some 3,000 patients and staff, Steinhof surpassed all previous experiments. Wagner's long-standing interest in urban planning encouraged his pursuit of the quasi-utopian commission for a sequence of pavilions, dormitories, offices, kitchens, laundries, community center, and infirmary, which became a small-scale realization of his vision of the modern city, ordered and rational in contrast to the chaotic metropolis of his day. A stunning model at 1:640 scale, created ca. 1907 by Erwin Pendl (1875––1945), documented Wagner's intentions. Most of Steinhof's individual buildings were designed in the Wagnerschule idiom by government architects Carlo van Boog and Franz Berger, but Wagner entered and won the competition for the Roman Catholic church that crowns the complex. St. Leopold became one of the prime exemplars of his architectural notions. Meticulously rendered sections, elevations, and details of Wagner's first and his final designs complemented a magnificent 1:50 scale model executed ca. 1930. The church not only demonstrated Wagner's concept of Bekleidung, with its marble panels frankly attached to the concrete frame by bronze bolts, but its plan offered at once an unobstructed view of the altar for patients and a simple seating arrangement facilitating unobtrusive invigilation by staff. The white and gold interior, decorated with fittings that fulfilled the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, simultaneously provided a hygienic environment.

In addition to serving as a hospital for the mentally ill, involuntarily committed and segregated according to their sex, their class, and the severity of their disorder, a picturesquely landscaped parcel was set aside at Steinhof for an alternative solution that arose alongside the asylum: the sanatorium for affluent sufferers of nervous and emotional disorders. A poster advertising this facility, also by Pendl, deserved close scrutiny. Its colorful vignettes depicted rooms and pavilions whose modish Secession architecture and decor were meant to soothe and cure neurasthenic occupants. Steinhof was a hybrid institution that, besides providing state-mandated care, was intended to attract the costly custom of those who voluntarily wished to undergo treatment in elegant surroundings. This made it a competitor of the slightly earlier paradigm, Purkersdorf Sanatorium, established in the Vienna Woods in 1890 by Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840––1902), which had set a new standard of refinement and sophisticated treatment for its well-to-do clients.

In 1904 Hoffmann was invited to create a residence with medical facilities at Purkersdorf. His building, a symmetrical, flat-roofed, uncompromisingly unadorned block covered in white rendered stucco that relied for visual impact solely on proportion and the rhythm of its varied fenestration, strikingly prefigured modernist tropes of the 1920s. The interiors were less stark; the Wiener Werkstäätte supplied furniture, fabric, wallpaper, and lighting fixtures that were harmonized through the use of rectangular motifs. Hoffmann's obsessive deployment of the square evidently was inspired not only by his own formal preferences but by the scientific insight that geometric order and coordination produced a serene and healing atmosphere, a theory evidenced at "am Steinhof" as well.

Madness & Modernity also made reference to Adolf Loos (1870––1933) in his role as cultural critic. Loos commissioned from Kokoschka a series of portraits that brought the painter his first notoriety, emphasizing as they did the sitters' psychopathological tendencies. Significantly too, Loos was a close friend of the self-promoting and self-destructive writer Peter Altenberg (1859––1919). Portraits and caricatures of the flamboyantly neurotic Altenberg were hung in Loos's American Bar (1908), illustrated in this display by photographs.

In a beguiling and original maneuver, achieved with rigorous economy, the entry to each of the topical sections that subdivided the large first-floor gallery was framed by a white-painted wooden doorway recalling in simplified form the facades or portals of memorable Viennese buildings: St. Leopold, Bergasse 13 (Freud's consulting rooms), Purkersdorf, plus Loos's Knize shop front on the Graben of 1909––13 and his Duschnitz house, 1915. This tactic added a witty sensual element and underlined the indispensable value of architecture in fin-de-sièècle Vienna. In their belief in the prescriptive power of design to improve and transform lives and to promote well-being, patrons and architects associated with psychiatric illness and healing anticipated the utopian proclivities of European modernism during the period between the two World Wars.

Related Publication

Gemma Blackshaw and Leslie Topp, eds., Madness and Modernity: Mental Illness and the Visual Arts in Vienna 1900. London: Lund Humphries, 2009, 166 pp., 81 color and 42 b/w illus. $70, ISBN 9781848220201