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After the Asylum

Part 2 Project 2002
Simon Critchley
University of Nottingham Nottingham UK
After the Asylums – The Search for Social Inclusion - Prestwich, North Manchester.

“…The main organizational principle of a system, then, is essentially a centripetal one: it draws the behaviour of actors toward the nucleus of the system, bringing it within range of basic norms. Any conduct which is neither attracted toward this nerve centre by the rewards of conformity nor compelled toward it by other social pressures is considered ‘out of control’, which is to say, deviant…”
(Erikson, K. T. “The Sociology of Deviance”, p.298)

A Project Summary.

This is a project that addresses architecture’s symbiotic relationship with a social agenda and the everyday space. The approach is two-fold: firstly, to question the current position of mental health care, and secondly to implement a new approach to this in order to benefit all.

For centuries, those labelled as mentally ill have been banished to the asylums, but today mental health care draws ‘patients’ back into the everyday space of the community. Largely due to progressive drug treatments, service users (‘patients’) can now expect to lead a ‘normal’ life. If the routine of everyday life is ‘normal’, then where do the boundaries lie? Can the existing system widen it’s perception of normality to embrace an outside group dropped into its midst? Can the community actually embrace the outsider, the ‘patient’, the other?

Architecture by its very nature is an entity that celebrates a certain foothold within society. Community mental health accommodation therefore is representative of a socially discriminated group, a monument to the outsider or ‘other’ placed within a sea of the same. To some degree this accommodation is still as socially excluded as the asylum. When ‘re-integration’ is the buzzword in rehabilitation programmes, how can this be achieved through a segregated architecture? The mental health charity Mindout promotes the notion of mental health disorders affecting 1 in 4 of us. Can architecture question our position within a community – can it purport to challenge the notion of ‘them’ and ‘us’?

Subverting an Everyday Architecture.

The project starts by questioning the existing site in Prestwich; as an established suburban community, what are the common patterns and directions that suggest how space is used? In order to move the boundaries of what is deemed normal, the project begins to subvert signs and markings as a means towards questioning ones position vis-à-vis the social contract. This initial study promotes a re-evaluation of space by the user, challenging space to be used in an un-prescribed manner: A new series of sports markings suggest specific forms of behaviour in times and spaces which are uncommon to the social make-up of Prestwich – i.e. the large void of the car park on a Sunday afternoon.

The disused Sainsbury’s supermarket is an icon of super-modern space. Its large void, and familiar form are symbols of the normality that provoked public disgust when its closer was announced. Through the introduction of a new architectural form, the ‘in-between’ space separating new and old serves as a social landscape – suggesting spaces for meeting, watching, reading and relaxing etc. The boundaries of existing outer walls are punctured and removed, allowing the landscape to infiltrate the building. A complex programme of specific spaces, ranging from those directly suitable for the care of mental illnesses, through general counselling / advisory spaces for all, to less rigorous / un-prescribed sporting activities, are structured on three floors throughout the existing fabric of the supermarket. Their vertical positions relate to public and private issues, and the potential offered by the existing building. Pre-fabricated units offer a flexible approach to spaces, altering their function at different times, perhaps through a change in materials. Like Tschumi’s folies, they become new points of reference in an existing system. A ground floor swimming pool makes use of the large span beams whilst addressing the poor physical health of service users. The existing flat roof is converted into ‘wandering’, private outdoor space for residents. The whole scheme is intended to rejuvenate Prestwich, whilst offering a notion of mental health advice / action for all the community. Furthermore, these functions are intended to compliment the existing surrounding buildings such as the health centre, library and job centre etc.

Simon Critchley


The combination of day-centre and sports-centre puts together - in a not un-ironic way - an overlapping collection of regimented and ritualised activities. Fascinated by the supposedly clear distinctions between so-called normal and abnormal patterns of behaviour in society, the project began with a challenging analysis of the institutional nature of everyday urban environments. The intriguing photo-essay showing the subtle manipulation of behaviour through road markings and street signage played an important role in the development of the final programme focussed on mental health.

Juxtaposing facilities for two uncannily similar institutions – the day-centre for mental health patients and the sports centre for the whole community, the project also rescues another uncanny building-type, a redundant out-of-town supermarket and its adjacent empty car park. The seeming madness of play provided an excuse to develop an urban park and market-place that infiltrate the interior of the sports center, just as the sports hall markings run riot outside, across the tarmac of the car park. The physical fabric of the old supermarket has undergone selective surgery in this radical transformation but the main structural elements have been retained alongside the most iconic fragments of its exterior architecture.

Overall the project spans an impressive range of investigation, including: Primary research into mental health provision through a number of local and national organizations; a theoretical study into the nature of the urban environment through Marc Auge’s analysis of ‘supermodernity’; and an impressive technical and material study of the main structural system as well as the intimate pod-like boxes - these latter elements inspired by the ranks of bottle banks and waste-paper skips found in ‘normal’ supermarket car-parks…

2002
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