Recently, scents and sounds from Kirkbride Plan hospitals traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and into the Sensory Decay Symposium, an interdisciplinary conference about multisensorial, experimental archaeology hosted by the University of Amsterdam’s School of Heritage, Memory and Material Culture.
According to conference organizers Pamela Jordan and Sara Mura, the Symposium aimed to enrich our understanding of built environments and the past by considering “how we can isolate and record the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of decay within the continuum of deterioration.” Such sensory-based research is invaluable, they argue, since “sensing decay in a constructed environment is a multisensory experience,” yet “the stages of decay can be transitory and ever-changing.”
Although our senses “provide tools to analyze the presence of decay and its temporal stages, for example in material heritage conservation, a particular methodological challenge is how we, as multi-disciplinary sensory analysts, can record our own numerous but fast decaying experiences as avenues to questioning and interpreting the past.” In addition to sharing research methods, Jordan and Mura believed that such a gathering of “sensory analysts” might shed further light on “how particular sensory aspects of decay may prompt cultural responses and actions,” including “the aestheticization of architectural ruins.”
Of the thirteen diverse talks presented, two considered Kirkbride Plan hospitals from distinct sensorial approaches. In “Sound the Asylum,” composer-producers Melissa Grey and David Morneau featured resonant frequencies recorded on-site in the State Hospitals at Athens, OH and Buffalo, NY. My own talk, “The Scent of Kirkbride Plan Asylums and the Decay of American Mental Health Infrastructures,” featured video-recorded insights from my PreservationWorks colleagues and our extended community of explorer-preservationists.
Sound the Asylum
Sound the Asylum, a project by composer-producers Melissa Grey & David Morneau, “is a growing catalog of immersive audio documentation, recording the aural identity of decaying asylum interiors in 19th–century Kirkbride Plan hospitals.” Thus far, Grey and Morneau have documented the Richardson Olmsted Complex in Buffalo, New York, in August 2023, and The Ridges in Athens, Ohio, in October 2023.
For their on-site documentation, Grey & Morneau “use an ambisonic recording technique to capture the activation of resonant frequencies in full 360o spatial surround. A series of recordings—each a recording of the previous iteration amplified by a loudspeaker—gradually reveal the humming resonance of a room’s dimensions and character. These frequencies become part of the color of every sound activated in the space. It is an aural phenomenon that provides the ear spatial information. [This] process captures the sounds in and around the asylum—summer insects, tolling church bells, and bits of decaying plaster falling to the floor. These sounds give a sense of place, immersing the listener in the sonic landscape of the resonating frequencies that would have softly imbued every sound of daily life for the patients, staff, and visitors in these buildings.”
To listen to Grey & Morneau’s Sound the Asylum project and to sign up for periodic updates, visit https://flowercat.org/sta/ (retrieved 12/19/2023).
The Scent of Kirkbride Plan Hospitals
In keeping with the Sensory Decay Symposium’s embrace of new methods to investigate the transitory, multisensorial continuum between personal experience and cultural landscapes, my own talk drew upon explorer-preservationists’ scent recollections of Kirkbride Plan hospitals, casting new light on several of their signature architectural features. This approach evolved from an intriguing conversation several years earlier during which former PreservationWorks President, Christian VanAntwerpen, described the olfactory capacities of explorers to detect nuances of scent among Kirkbride Plan hospitals. Since multisensorial historical research had been pivotal to my study of Renaissance memory chambers, ideas from this conversation bounced around in my mind, awaiting the call of an opportune moment.
That moment arrived with the Sensory Decay Symposium.
Of course, not all explorers are compelled to preserve, and not all preservationists may be inclined to explore, but a group such as PreservationWorks represents growing interest in the overlap of both activities, reinforcing this symposium’s exploration of “multi-sensory experiences as vehicles for building deeper connections between people and place.” Ten explorer-preservationists from PreservationWorks and our community responded to my invitation in late summer 2023 to video-record themselves recounting a poignant olfactory encounter with abandoned Kirkbride Plan hospitals. A few choice excerpts of their reflections are offered here (watch the videos to match the phrases with the explorers listed in the caption below):
Formally trained as a physician, and not as a psychiatrist or architect, Thomas Story Kirkbride (1809-83) considered the workings of a hospital for the mentally ill from a physiological perspective, promoting generous flows of natural air and light alongside technological advances in internal plumbing and heating, while also focusing on the flows of everyday life, including the daily regimen of patients, doctors and staff. Although many of these design features resulted from Dr. Kirkbride’s direct experience as superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane (1840-83), several others – including their signature “batwing” layouts, initially described in his 1847 article – also responded to prevailing medical theories about foul odors (miasma), which were long believed to be the source of a range of illnesses.
Originating with Hippocrates in the 4th century BCE and continuing up to the emergence of germ theory in 1880, Miasma Theory held that the central cause of disease is a poisonous vapor or mist filled with particles of decaying organic matter (miasmata). Kirkbride’s treatise on asylum design and management (1854/1880) details a system of internal air ducts and towers to provide natural ventilation through the chimney effect. These towers were (and remain) a distinctive architectural feature of Kirkbride hospitals, offering visual landmarks for local communities.
Despite their creation as places of healing, Kirkbride Plan hospitals grew to haunt the popular imagination, symbolizing the decay of the American mental health care system and leading to the demolition of over half of the original hospitals by 2015. Those that remain offer three-dimensional documents of the complex challenges to physical and social infrastructures for mental healthcare. Consequently, close multisensorial readings of the buildings, grounds and their patterns of use are invaluable to illuminate our pasts, lending voice to what was, what might have been, and what might yet be.
The Sensory Decay Symposium offered a fascinating range of multisensorial research, including heritage preservation projects that utilized emerging technologies to reconstruct “authentic” scents and historical scenarios (such as the mummification process in ancient Egypt). In contrast, “Sounding the Asylum” and “The Scent of Kirkbride Asylums…” focused on structures in a transitional phase, post-occupancy and pre-renovation. One might ask – why document this transitional phase in a building’s life, visually or olfactorally? After all, the building will be demolished, or adapted into something else; this liminal phase is fleeting and representative of what, exactly? Why is this phase of decay, itself, worth preserving?
The transitional phase of Kirkbride Plan hospitals offers space to meditate on cycles of life and death through the scents and sounds of decay, enabling “a more expansive understanding of historic places as complex living systems whose components by their very nature grow, change, and die.” This melancholic romanticism of Kirkbride hospital’s ruins is, perhaps, not unlike Piranesi’s illustrated ruins of Rome, which captured the grand decay of a grand vision. Perhaps the scents and sounds of decay in a Kirkbride hospital captures the death of an aspirational dream too big to succeed. And yet, perhaps the scent of newly turned earth and baby carrots is also the scent of transformation, the scent of a dream becoming something new.
More to Come
To listen to Grey & Morneau’s Sound the Asylum project and to sign up for periodic updates as it unfolds, visit https://flowercat.org/sta/ (retrieved 12/19/2023).
Recently, the symposium hosts invited me to contribute an expanded version of “The Scent of Kirkbride Plan Asylums…” as a chapter for a new digital book, entitled New Sensory Approaches to the Past: Applied Methods in Sensory Heritage and Archaeology (UCL Press) in development for 2024 release.
Dr. Robert Kirkbride
Professor of Architecture and Product Design, Parsons School of Design
Links to previous Kirkbride on Kirkbride posts: