Asylum viewProvincial Asylum in Toronto 

 National Post (Toronto), January 10, 2001

Make the building sane
and the people will follow

A new way of thinking required a new architecture


John Bentley Mays
National Post

In 1845, Edgar Allan Poe published a story called The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, surely among the most savage burlesques ever written about the "progressive" treatment of insanity.
      While touring the south of France, the narrator decides to drop by a new private psychiatric hospital that's all the rage in Parisian medical circles. The buzz has to do with a novel "system of soothing" madfolk developed by the proprietor, a certain Dr. Maillard. All punishment is strictly avoided, and "even confinement was seldom resorted to." The patients, "while secretly watched, were left much apparent liberty," most being allowed "to roam about the house and grounds in the ordinary apparel of persons in right mind." No chains, whips or other traditional paraphernalia of traditional psychiatric treatment? It does sound too interesting to miss.
      But upon arriving on the institution's doorstep, the narrator is advised by the famous Dr. Maillard that the celebrated "method of soothing" has been abandoned. It had not failed. Indeed, it had worked too well. The patients, it seems, took advantage of the liberty given them under the "progressive" regime and ambushed their keepers, whom they then tarred, feathered and locked away. Now that the restraining and stern treatment of patients had been restored, and the keepers mandated to keep strict order, peace had come back to the hospital.
      As the narrator gradually figures out, the chief engineer of the capture and lock-up of keepers turns out to be the renowned Dr. Maillard himself. His "system of soothing" patients is revealed as merely the pretext for creating this remote hospital. Unsuspecting wardens could then be lured to this remote place, to provide outward respectability. Until, of course, the doctor and his insane confederates could seize power and run the tiny crazy commonwealth their way. "A madman is not necessarily a fool," the clever Dr. Maillard says before the narrator has glimpsed what's going on. Indeed.
      Poe's radical pessimism about healing personal maladies (or social ones) is not the most remarkable thing about this story. The old Enlightenment view of the mind and body politic as infinitely curable and improvable was collapsing among thoughtful writers throughout North America and Europe by the 1840s.
      What's stunning about the story is its clear prophecy of what was to come. Again and again in the 150 years since its publication, the world has seen Dr. Maillards come and go -- Hitler and Stalin, among others -- who use the rhetoric and licences of liberty to turn whole countries into despotic asylums, whole populations into helpless objects of clinical "improvement" (or "scientific" extermination).
      But what of Poe's dark view of psychiatry itself? His story is not only political allegory, after all. He loathed the mental-health reforms taking place in his time.
      He could hardly have been more jerkily out of step with popular wisdom, on the streets or in the hospitals and medical schools. Revolution was in the air. The mentally ill were being unchained from the walls of ordinary prisons in Canada, as everywhere. What the sick needed, according to a contemporary American architect, were not the dark cellars of yesteryear, but "living temples of moral truth." The heroic treatments favoured in former times -- beating and starving and purging -- were being discarded everywhere. "Moral management," reinforced by "activity without excitement," in the words of a Victorian psychiatrist, was in vogue as the cure for the deranged mind.
      In 1846, a year after Poe's dark story appeared, the cornerstone of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, one of Canada's first great architectural incarnations of the new spirit in psychiatry, was laid. Over the next few years, its towers and great halls would rise in the sylvan countryside south of Queen Street West, near the intersection of present-day Ossington Ave. The first phase of the palatial structure designed by Toronto architect John George Howard -- which has been known simply as "999 Queen" for as long as anybody can remember -- received its first patients in early 1850.
      In 1975, its last remnants fell under the wrecker's ball after a prolonged conflict between a new generation of "progressives" and vigilant architectural preservationists. Though the building is gone, the preservationists have nevertheless had the last word. The Provincial Asylum in Toronto: Reflections on Social and Architectural History, just out in bookshops, is an admirable tribute to one of Canada's most important medical buildings.

Edited by retired engineer Edna Hudson, and published by the Toronto Region Architectural Conservancy, this gathering of essays and images is an invaluable record of the doctors, designers, politicians and thinkers who helped shape the hospital's design and strategy.
      An essay by architectural historian Pleasance Kaufman Crawford surveys the asylum landscaping as part of the therapeutic program. Toronto nurse William H. Brown sets 999 Queen's school for nurses in the context of both Victorian medicine and Victorian ideals of womanhood. The delightful summary of Howard's mind and career by neighbourhood historian and preservation activist Alec Keefer cries out to become a book -- but, as is, it delivers shrewd insights into the mind of the man who gave us this mental hospital of the new sort.
      As described by U.S. theorist Thomas Kirkbride, it "should have a cheerful and comfortable appearance, everything repulsive and prison-like should be carefully avoided, and even the means of effecting the proper degree of security should be masked." In its classical symmetry, the building should express stability, order, permanence. Its architecture should itself be a kind of therapy, reinforcing the "moral management" going on inside.
      Howard's work was perhaps a victim of popular expectations few buildings can live up to. Almost immediately it was criticized for structural faults. It was later hated for a nasty smell nobody could ever get rid of. Like so much Victorian architecture, it stopped being grand and became monstrous. "For many generations of Torontonians," historian Tom Brown has written, it expressed "all the terrors and horrors of the dark and hidden world of the mad."
      Then there was the terribly exaggerated mid-Victorian optimism about mental illness that every angle and gable of the building expressed. As the 150 years since 1850 has shown, insanity is more terrible, more elusive and more stubbornly resistant to all known treatments than naive "moral managers" were prepared to believe. But the Toronto Conservancy's new book is a useful lesson in how the meanings of medical architecture shift and slide over time, and with the darkenings and lightenings of medical knowledge about our frail human condition.


The Provincial Asylum In Toronto:
a history of the Asylum


THE DARK SIDE OF THE WALL: The asylum's present state

Heaven Preserve Us!