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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Architectural crimes against humanity (3)

Joseph Brean has an article in today's National Post - Redesigning the asylum - about the impending demolition of the 1950s addition to Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on Queen Street West and the upcoming redevelopment of the complex.

Designed in the architectural style known as Brutalism (of which I have written here and here), the building is literally contributing to the mental illness of its residents. Brean writes:

Architecturally, the buildings that stand here now might constitute the worst psychiatric hospital in the country, a maze of cinder block hallways behind concrete walls.


Walls are not just walls here. They are cringe-inducing metaphors for "the mistakes of the past," as the psychiatric euphemism has it. The lobby has no gift shop. Two doorways lead off it, one labelled "Our Past" and the other "Our Future," and from each a hallway seems to stretch forever, lined with locked doors. In the patient wards, corners are too tight for stretchers to turn. Communal bathrooms for 20 people inexplicably have one toilet and three sinks. The only phone available to patients is in the hallway across from the nursing station. When the elevator opens on the mood and anxiety ward, the first thing you see are the prison-like metal bars that have been screwed into balcony railings to prevent suicides.


In the central atrium -- itself born of the realization that the mentally ill sometimes need to socialize, but flawed in that it allows them contact only with each other -- even the snack counter had to be rescued from Queen's Park bureaucrats by mental patients, who today muddle through, serving tea and muffins in all the ambience of a rural hockey arena's skate-sharpening bar.


This is yesterday's zeitgeist cast in concrete and cinder block. The proper architectural name for much of it is Brutalist, which invites mockery but defies humour. Listening to Dr. Goldbloom describe the design foibles with the weary resign of someone who has little choice but to muddle through them for just a little while longer, the whole place starts to feel like a joke in poor taste, or a Far Side cartoon come to life.

Read the whole article for a good look at the CAMH's plans for the redesign of the centre. One down, so many to go.

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