The Contentious Biography of an Institution: Otto Wagner’s Psychiatric Hospital at Steinhof, Vienna 1907-2018

Open to the Public
Oktober 6 u. 7
Oktober Hall
Thursday, February 14, 2019 - 5:30pm
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Thursday, February 14, 2019 - 5:30pm

When the ‘Lower Austrian Provincial Institution for the Care and Cure of the Mentally Ill and for Nervous Disorders at Steinhof’ first opened its doors to psychiatric patients in 1907, the site was unanimously celebrated as the world’s largest and most beautiful asylum to date. Otto Wagner (1841-1918) designed the master plan and its prominent church. The asylum featured 60 separate buildings that accommodated up to 3000 patients and included social spaces, communal kitchens and laundries, a farm and plant nursery, an infirmary, administrative offices and a mortuary. Erwin Pendl’s beautiful panoramic view of Steinhof shows that the asylum was conceived as a series of villas set in landscaped parkland covering 143 hectares and sloping up a gentle hill west of Vienna and at the edge of the Vienna Woods (14th District, Penzing). The Psychiatric Hospital at Steinhof was intended to evoke comparisons with a self-contained rural colony and directly responded to fervent anti-psychiatric campaigns waging around 1900 that accused asylums of warehousing patients like prisoners.

This talk explores the rich history of Steinhof between 1907 and 2018 by focusing on three key moments. First, we look at the utopian inception of the asylum that brought together psychiatry and modern architecture at the beginning of the twentieth century. We then scrutinise how Steinhof’s lofty ideals of a therapeutic space in which patients lived harmoniously in nature metamorphosed into a much darker and oppressive reality that culminated in the cruel victimisation of patients under the National Socialist regime (‘Am Spiegelgrund 1940-45). We end by turning our attention to more recent events, when Steinhof again captured the attention of international observers who debated the site’s future. The psychiatric hospital is no longer fit for purpose, but as its last long-term patients leave, the fabric of many villas is becoming increasingly unstable and an intervention is desperately needed. CEU’s proposal to move part of its campus to Steinhof potentially opens an exciting new chapter in this architectural icon’s long history, but it does not come without its detractors. The talk therefore closes with a brief discussion of the argument on both sides.  

Sabine Wieber is a Lecturer in History of Art, Architecture and Design at the University of Glasgow. Her research focusses on the intersections of psychiatry, gender and the arts in last decades of the Habsburg Empire. She co-curated the exhibition ‘Madness & Modernity: Kunst und Wahn in Wien um 1900’ at the Wien Museum in 2010 and is currently finalising a book manuscript on Jugendstil Women and the Making of Modern Design.