in The Big Issue on 9 May 2010
In a small room at Oregon State Hospital, in Salem, north-western USA, hundreds of shiny copper urns line up like cans on a supermarket shelf. Dating from 1920s and earlier, they contain the unclaimed ashes of the asylum’s former residents.
The image comes from a new book of photography by Chris Payne, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. It is a room guarding burnt bodies and souls. Who were these people? How did they live? And why are they here, like this?
These themes fascinated the architect-turned-photographer for six years as he documented 70 decaying mental hospitals across 30 US states.
“I fell in love with the buildings and the places – the communities that the hospitals had been,” he says, “and with thinking about the thousands of people who had lived, worked and died there.”
Asylum is a grand, melancholy tribute to the lives spent in the institutions and to the astonishing scale and quality of the buildings themselves.
In 2002, when Payne needed a new project, a friend suggested he visit abandoned mental hospitals. The New York-based photographer drove to Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island. Opened in 1931, it was the largest hospital ever built in the world – at its peak, it housed over 14,000 patients. “I was amazed to find this abandoned city just sitting there,” he says. “I quickly learned it wasn’t isolated to one hospital or one area. It was all over the country.”
From the mid-19th to the early-20th century in the US, nearly 300 institutions were built for the insane – often designed by prominent architects and always set in spacious grounds. The facilities were intended to offer calm and comfort, to treat inhabitants by means of fresh air and beautiful surrounds. The hospitals functioned as self-sufficient communities, including farms, workshops and auditoriums, and in some cases, even cafés and bowling alleys.
But care diminished as hospitals became overcrowded and pressed by tight budgets. Then, as treatment came to encompass extreme methods such as electro-shock therapy, ‘asylum’ became a by-word for squalor and abuse.
Payne’s elegiac photos, with flaking colour and tender light, show beauty in places we least expect. “Every society has its asylums, but I think there is a misconception that the buildings are bad and should be torn down. In a way, the stigma of mental illness has been passed onto the architecture of the buildings,” he says.
His previous book documented abandoned substations that had powered the New York subway. His photography shows the architecture of an optimistic era, a time when industrialism promised human progress. “I’m fascinated with buildings that really had purpose. We don’t build like that anymore,” Payne says. “And I think it represents a shift in the way we function as a society. It’s sad we’ve lost that faith in building.”