Theatrics of Psychiatry

STUDENT Danielle Berwick, University of Toronto

Combining a destabilized economic site with the uncomfortableness of psychiatry, this narrative is an experiment in juxtaposing the delicacy of brain health with the architectural invasion of single-room occupancies. Through the use of renovated construction equipment, a travelling road show of mental health workers navigates and infiltrates the windows of historic hotels in the fragile Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver.

It should come as no news here that architecture’s relationship to psychiatry is an uncomfortable one. Spaces with loaded intentions such as to hide, display, contain and treat psychiatric patients have been constructed since the prison became inappropriate. Furthermore, we must gaze over the rural healing landscapes and faked suburban houses designed to teach the insane how to act within a picket fence. Grappling with Victorian-era rules, the exhibitions of freaks and travelling road shows turned chemical imbalances into theatrical entertainment. The lure of the misfit continues with the digital carnival capitalizing on the performance of the diagnosable. Is this obsession because we identify with characteristics of madness within ourselves or reject it? Consequently, this project sees mental health as something that everyone must address, a precursor to physical health, and therefore the words misfit, freak, oddball or weirdo are used as pejorative adjectives.

The invasiveness of psychiatric construction equipment rolling out onto the street provides a daily performance. For ease of steering into the berths, the buildings are retrofitted with ledges and bumpers indicating docking locations. The display of the scissor lift takes on the role of misfit, inhabiting and creating scenes, begging an audience to stare at and criticize psychiatry.

A series of rules re-envision urban theatrics to include a designated lane and parking spots for psychiatric vehicles, as well as the use of latent construction equipment for suspending landscapes above the second storey of residential or office spaces. The therapeutic landscapes can be found outside different windows. One day you may just wake up with a tree or patch of grass outside your window. 

Teams of mechanical, doctor and mental-health workers outfit their rides in a warehouse on the perimeter of the neighbourhood. Three movable ceiling lifts are supported on a steel frame and every other bay has a garage door for the psychiatry vehicles to enter. The machines are made completely from readily available parts.

Half architecture, half transportation, the trucks and lifts occupy the sidewalk carrying with them the living room, the landscape and the office. Each capsule is outfitted with the technology of construction equipment, such as a control pad and a directional light juxtaposed with antique furnishings and hardwood floors. Hinged collapsible stairs lower through the window ledge. Clamps reach through the window securing the capsule to the façade. Wooden screens can be rolled down to cover the windows for privacy that utilize the pulley mechanism of the crane. Metal pins secure the furnishings to the floor. 

There exists potential for future expansion into secondary and tertiary health care as well as residential programs and other uses of customizable lifts with replaceable upgrades. New typologies of vehicular congestion and invention lead to new uncomfortabilities.

DC: In the milieu of Superstudio and Archigram, the utopic graininess of this vision is well-formulated and unexpectedly disciplined despite its loose and irreverent nature. While the fictive character of the project heightens its direct commentary on architecturally neglected aspects of society, the audacious collage-based plan is counterbalanced with cerebral scaled drawings. The fantastical narrative shored up by a dexterity reminiscent of Cooper Union drawings and Lebbeus Woods images demands respect.

MCC: While the approach and subject of this project is disturbing, the main thesis doesn’t propose an architectural solution–as conventional architecture cannot resolve every problem. However, the critical point of view is refreshing and the result is poetic.

BH: This thesis proposes an intentionally provocative intervention that made me think of Architectural Association projects of similar inventiveness. Its combination of graphic distinctiveness and a willingness to address head-on the issues of psychiatry and privacy creates a real thesis. This project would not have been so convincing without its tectonic rigour and a resolute willingness to address the intersection of mobility and fixed historic buildings. Passion and craft addressing a volatile subject is brightened by humour.