Chris Payne GAr’96’s photographs evoke the vanished world of state mental hospitals, where inmates could be both “mad and safe.”


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  “It’s a lot of fun to get into places most people can’t,” says architect and photographer Christopher Payne GAr’96. “There’s that sense of discovery when you’re wandering around the city. Most architects kind of look at things and wonder where they came from, how old they are, what’s the story behind it.”

For Payne, the attraction is all the greater when the structure in question has outlived its original purpose. In his first book, New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway, he explored the machines that once drove the city’s subway system and the structures that house them. Now he has published Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals (MIT Press), for which he visited more than 70 facilities in 30 states, most built in the last decades of the 19th century and the first few of the 20th.

Once as much a source of civic pride as the local concert hall and museum, these institutions were designed to function as self-sufficient communities, with their own farms and dairies, laundries and kitchens in which the inmates worked. They featured imposing architecture, extensive landscaped grounds, and entertainments including bowling alleys, billiards and ping-pong tables, art studios and theaters. In an introductory essay, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, who worked at a state hospital early in his career, writes that, at their best, these institutions were authentic places of refuge, where inmates could be both “mad and safe.”

Long plagued by overcrowding and underfunding, the state hospitals were ultimately done in by court decisions that effectively outlawed work by patients and a tidal wave of “deinstitutionalizations” as more effective drug treatments became available—a trend that brought its own set of problems. (Sacks quotes one former patient: “Bronx State is no picnic, but it is infinitely better than starving, freezing on the streets, or being knifed on the Bowery.”)

Operating at a fraction of their capacity or closed entirely, the hospitals have mostly fallen into disuse and decay. Sacks praises Payne’s photographs of these ruined structures, a sample of which are reproduced here, as “mute and heartbreaking testimony both to the pain of those with severe mental illness and to the once-heroic structures we built to try to assuage that pain.”

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FEATURE: Architecture of Madness by John Prendergast
Photography by Chris Payne GAr’96

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