Confinement Amid Flux: Asylum Boundaries in Early 20th-Century Central Europe
My project offers a historical case study of the inside-outside dynamics of closed institutions in a heterogeneous political context. It looks at how borders can construct both separation and connection and at how they can resist transregional flux while also exploiting it. Large state psychiatric institutions built between 1900 and 1914 across Central Europe were complex settlements consisting of multiple buildings arranged urbanistically within landscaped grounds. These grounds had policed boundaries that operated on the levels of both lived experience (walls, fences and surveillance prevented escape, while openings regulated ingress and egress) and representation (clear boundaries defined the asylum as a self-contained entity, a world unto itself). Cisleithania, the 'Austrian' half of the Habsburg Empire, with its multiple co-existing languages, identities and geographies, is recognised as an important historical precedent for the transregional present of permeable borders and their concomitant anxieties. The new asylums of the period were defined as ordered alternatives, subject to master planning, and maintaining strict control of the make up and movement of their patient populations. On the other hand, links with the complex and shifting world outside the asylum walls were crucial to the cultural meaning psychiatrists and politicians wanted to communicate through these large and expensive public projects. My focus will be on the actual physical boundaries around closed institutions located at the edge of major interconnected urban centres (Prague, Krakow, Vienna) in three diverse regions. I will explore how these boundaries interact with the cross-cultural mobility of ideas and images in early 20th-century Central Europe.
Leslie Topp is a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH, Lent 2012.
Leslie Topp is Senior Lecturer in History of Architecture in the Department of History of Art and Screen Media. She teaches in the areas of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture, design and urbanism, 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's research concerns architecture (including buildings, theory, interiors and urbanism) in social and cultural context. Her book Architecture and Truth in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (2004) explored the many meanings of architectural honesty in early modernism, and reinterpreted four iconic Viennese buildings with a view to their use and reception.
Her current research focuses on the connections between psychiatry, architecture and visual culture. Between 2004 and 2008, she was director of the project 'Madness and Modernity: Art, Architecture and Mental Illness in Vienna and the Habsburg Empire, 1890-1914', which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. In 2009, she co-curated an international loan exhibition coming out of this project, and is currently writing a monograph entitled Freedom and the Cage: Modern Architecture and Psychiatry in Central Europe, 1890-1914.