Paul Renouard, In the padded room - Refractory (Woking Convict Invalid Prison), 1889. From Wellcome Images.


When Room becomes Cell: solitude and isolation in asylum architecture

  • Monday 1 April 2019
    (6 pm)
  • The Art Workers' Guild, 6 Queen Square, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 3AT
  • Lecturer: Leslie Topp

Leslie will explore the marked shift in the design of public, state-built asylums in Europe and North America over the course of the period between about 1830 and 1910. At the beginning of this period, the standard spatial unit for patient care and accommodation was the single room.  At the end it was the shared dormitory. This shift happened for a range of reasons – which differed across time and geography – but it was never uncontroversial. The shift from single rooms to dormitories certainly wasn’t an unproblematically progressive or enlightened development, nor was it a straightforwardly regressive one. Single rooms could create spaces for oppression and isolation, but also for privacy and the projection of individual autonomy.


Leslie Topp is Reader in History of Architecture in the Department of History of Art. Her teaching encompasses art, architecture, design and urbanism from 1800 to the present, with a particular focus on Central Europe around 1900. She joined Birkbeck in 2005 and was previously Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and Junior Research Fellow at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Leslie was appointed Head of Department in 2017. Her latest book is entitled: Freedom and the Cage: modern architecture and psychiatry in Central Europe, 1890-1914.

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