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Institute of Mental Health



Architecture and Mental Health – How built environment and healthcare professionals can work together to improve psychiatric environments

By iomh, on 11 May 2021

patient room

This blog was written by Dr Evangelia Chrysikou, Lecturer at The Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, Program Director of the MSc Healthcare Facilities at UCL and medical architect.

Foucault’s History of Madness (1964) was the book that triggered my interest on spaces for psychiatric patients. Even though the spaces of confinement where not the purpose in the book, being an architect with skills on visualising spaces, those asylum buildings provided an incredibly dystopian scenery for the actual context. It was clear to me that those spaces, even if that were not necessarily the intention, were facilitating the alienation of mentally ill people at multiple levels, from social to personal. Looking at the plans and the narratives one could understand that deprivation and inequality were principles embedded in their architecture. So, what was the situation now, what was the physical context of mental illness? Did the movements of anti-psychiatry or the efforts for psychiatric rehabilitation have a tangible effect in stopping this coercive paradigm of neglect and at the same time help facilitate the change that was happening at that time in the care for psychiatric patients? This was in the mid-nineties, at a period where in several parts of Europe the old asylums would be gradually replaced by smaller psychiatric facilities, mostly but not necessarily in the community, in an uneven journey of trial and error. I started working with the teams that moved the patients from the notorious Leros asylum back to the community. I soon realised that the available literature was mainly from health services research rather than architecture. The new paradigm advocated for small (but then how small?), domestic (but what does this actually mean?) structures of various types and purposes, preferably in the centre of their catchment area with welcoming accents of tablecloths and cutlery. Those descriptions reflected how a healthcare professional would describe spaces but would leave a lot unanswered in terms of an architectural inquiry. Taking people from Leros asylum to their original places in mainland Greece was a task for the psychiatrists. How they would bring people back from a courtyard where the single tree was always leafy –a eucalyptus tree– so patients did not know what the word “autumn” meant and they had forgotten the seasons. How would they explain inner city traffic jams and crossings to somebody who left their rural village in the thirties, or modern flats and electrical appliances? How would these people be transferred into the modern era and in a busy urban context that they had never met? What sort of buildings should facilitate this transition?

This is where my research started. I had to look at the available provision first in Greece and then to Belgium, the UK and France. I could see a variety of structures, urban or rural, embedded in the community or isolated, small or multi-storey and complex, with different levels of security, interaction and stimuli. There was no unified model of care and that was apparent if one looked at the building stock. My research initially looked at these various options and then I concentrated on understanding the therapeutic spaces available for the acute spectrum of mental illness. I involved patients and staff and sought to understand their perspectives on how such spaces should be shaped. It was the first time that a researcher asked psychiatric spaces to give feedback about the place and space of the wards. At the same time I evaluated the architecture of spaces using theories of space and place making. My research generated various tools: a very useful one and very simple to use was a checklist that classified the psychiatric buildings in terms of domesticity vs institutionalization and the SCP model for the planning and evaluation of psychiatric spaces (Chrysikou, 2014). For the benefit of PhD researchers, you might be interested to know that the model was developed from my PhD and has shaped much of my research since as well as providing a useful tool for other research projects I have been involved over the years, including my Marie Curie Individual Fellowship project (Chrysikou, 2019). This model offers a three dimensional perspective of analysing psychiatric buildings in relation to their therapeutic purpose. Each axis refers to a different priority –safety and security, competence and personalisation and choice—and at the same time refers to a different era in the design for mental health –the coercive, the medical and the psychosocial (Figure 1). That way, professionals and stakeholders involved in the planning, the design and the evaluation of such premises can have context and references, even for simple decision-making. For example, in the case of a forensic facility we need to focus more on safety and security as dangerousness might have a significant impact, but at the same time we have to think and acknowledge clinical needs and the ultimate aim of psychosocial rehabilitation and the principles of valorisation that could still be suitable for forensic accommodation. So, we would have secure windows but at the same time we could prioritise views to green and blue. The tools developed would help evaluate the environment of the wards in relation to their surroundings, the closed space within the ward and even details.

When I first conducted research in the UK in the late nineties, I could detect remnants of the previous mental health care model, the medical model, in the architecture of the wards. The older wards might be situated in hospital premises and even if they had evolved they still retain general ward typologies. Those co-existed with some new typologies, experimenting on what a psychiatric ward should be. Those would demonstrate investment in design and innovation. This period of experimentation has been replaced by a more uniform reality supporting single ensuite rooms, light spaces and the introduction of visual art. Yet, at the same time we could detect some institutional re-introductions in the name of anti-ligature: bathroom fixtures and fittings that cannot cause harm but are quite uncomfortable to use, heavy, immobile furniture very similar to what the old asylums would have, absence of door panels or drawers in storage units, making clutter more visible. To a system that is understaffed such practices prove a viable solution yet at the same time convey the message that patients are not to be trusted. They are also present in North American psychiatric hospitals but we do not see them in the European equivalents, making the comparison inevitable. More cross-country comparisons would be important to help us learn from those differences. Transdisciplinarity would be another critical element for future research. As psychiatric environments have to support a variety of functions and purposes, they present challenges that other types of healthcare environments do not necessarily have. Transdisciplinary and user-inclusive research would be our best chance to capture that complexity. Researchers from health disciplines have to collaborate with researchers who are familiar with built environment perspectives and grow the area in between.


Fouqault, M. (1964). Histoire de la Folie, a l’ age classique. Paris: Plon

Chrysikou, Ε. (2014). Architecture for psychiatric environments and therapeutic spaces. Amsterdam: IOS Press. ISBN 978-1-61499-459-6

Chrysikou, E. (2019). Psychiatric institutions and the physical environment: combining medical architecture methodologies and architectural morphology to increase our understanding. Journal of Healthcare Engineering, vol. 2019, Article ID 4076259, 16 pages, https://doi.org/10.1155/2019/4076259

Figure 1: The SCP model


Dr Evangelia Chrysikou is Lecturer at The Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction, Program Director of the MSc Healthcare Facilities and medical architect. She is Vice-President of the Urban Health Section (EUPHA) and RIBA Chartered Member. She specialises in healthcare facilities, holding a rare PhD on mental health facilities from UCL and a very prestigious Marie Curie H2020 Individual Fellowship. She has been actively involved in policy, being Coordinator on D4 Action Group of the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing (EIP on AHA) of the European Commission (EC). Evangelia has received several international awards for her healthcare architectural projects and her research. She authored the national guidelines for mental health facilities in the community for Greece on behalf of the European Union. Additionally, she authored the books ‘Architecture for psychiatric environments and therapeutic spaces’ and ‘The social invisibility of mental health facilities’, is a healthcare architecture editor, reviewer, active member of several professional and scientific associations and TED-MED speaker.

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