ARC 331: Social Reform

week of

January 25-31

  • note: one-third of the class has due dates starting Saturday night, so scan the whole lesson early to make sure you know what you're responsible for this time!


Can Architecture be a Remedy for Social Problems?

The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of tremendous change: new political borders were struck throughout Europe; people recognized that the American "experiment" might just take hold; industry spread from its roots in England to other places in Europe and to the US, bringing with it new wealth and prosperity for some, and devastation and delusion for others. Social decay was not an abstract problem, as the degrading quality of some corners of the industrialized world also saw significant challenges in such areas as law and criminality, and physical and mental health. Social reformers stepped in to address these issues in turn, and oftentimes brought architects with them.

  • Read: Bergdoll, chap. 3 (skim the first part; read pp. 91-95)
  • Review: Gelernter, chap. 5 (pp. 140-151)

Some people identified a deeper issue than social relations: the very morality of western civilization was at stake. In America, Quakers would take the lead in several instances to correct moral problems through institutional reform; in England, our old friend Pugin claimed the church could correct social turmoil of all kinds. Although he will be most closely associated with the design of churches in this lesson, the following introduction to a BBC mini series on him is a good introduction to many of the era's issues.

learning objectives

At the conclusion of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify main monuments of early 19th c. social reform by name, date, designer/client and location (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Define terminology specific to technique, style and structure (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Describe integration of technology (material and non-material) in individual monuments (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Explain changes in design as they relate to cultural context (and ostensible social problem-solving) (COMPREHENSION)
  • Visually analyze buildings from this period to suggest date, place, and designer (ANALYSIS)
  • Recognize change in architectural planning by comparing their formal and technical characteristics (ANALYSIS)
  • Evaluate different theoretical and design approaches and defend personal preference for one or more (EVALUATE)

part 1

Religious Reform

While people motivated by faith joined or led efforts to address specific problems, a particularly focused group came out of England. Looking to reform the Church in its functions and attitudes, the Camden Society (and its mouthpiece, The Ecclesiologist) also considered the material culture of the faith--including architecture--to be necessary for reform.

The most famous churches associated with the movement are Pugin's, but the architectural efforts traveled where ever likeminded people went--including America. English builder and cabinet-maker Richard Upjohn, who emigrated to the USA as an established craftsman and builder, first came to national prominence as an architect with his design for Trinity Church in New York. Upjohn was a follower of the Ecclesiologists not for the sake of style; as a committed Anglican, he believed that medieval principles of design were required to fully serve the liturgy of his church. So strong was his commitment that he refused to provide Gothic churches to any denomination but his own.

While Trinity is a spectacular example of masonry Gothic architecture in New York, it's important to remember that Upjohn was following principles of design that were flexible and applicable in many different circumstances. Just as he knew and benefitted from Pugin's and the Ecclesiologists' publications, Upjohn also helped spread the word about good design, with the American hinterlands as his object. You can see images from his book, Upjohn's Rural Architecture (1852), here. Consider this more remote building, associated with Upjohn as it was likely constructed by a builder with access to one of Upjohn's many books on design:

part 2

Reform for Physical and Mental Health

Sick people were not new in the nineteenth century, but approaches to treatment of them were. Many professions increased their degrees of specialization after the Industrial Revolution. Among them, medicine diversified into many new specialties to treat different ailments. Some of these required special facilities to perform delicate operations. For this reason, hospitals devoted to ailments of the eye and ear start to pop up in major cities. For most people, however, medical attention was still sought in the home, where extra-clean kitchen tables were the surgical beds used by most. Yes, you read that right.

Before the nineteenth century, people with mental illness were typically "treated" one of two ways (recognizing that people at the time thought that mental impairments were actually untreatable): if they were from a wealthy family, they would be locked up in an outside asylum or in their own houses, to be concealed from the outside world. If they were from a poor family, they would probably be left to their own fortunes on the streets. In the early nineteenth century, disease of the mind was addressed as a curable ailment by new breed of professionals. More so than doctors who served bodily problems, doctors of proto-psychiatry depended on architecture to help them do their jobs, since a longterm residential status was a requirement.

In Philadelphia, Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, physician and founder of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, manifest his ideas of treatment, which required fresh air and segregated populations into an architectural plan that quickly became known as the "Kirkbride Plan:" a linear arrangement of stepped, double-loaded corridors in a strikingly recognizable pattern:

Read more about the Kirkbride plan in one of the doctor's own publications, On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane (1854),and visit these two related pages to review:

part 3

Penal Reform

Like the other issues discussed in this unit, crime was not new to the nineteenth century--nor were architectural arrangements to address it. Americans followed the European (especially British) approach to constructing prisons where all manner of bad-doers were lodged in large open rooms together. For example, the Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia (Robert Smith, 1773), housed adult murderers and adolescent pickpockets with every other conceivable criminal. A place to lock away wrong-doers for a time, prisons were also seen as a kind of laboratory or school where thieves could learn from each other and potentially form gangs to activate upon release. In other words, any benefit the jail provided was short-lived, at best.

With their devotion to social-justice and soul care, Quakers (who also had significant economic power and political pull in Philadelphia), argued against the long tradition of jails and suggested that what was needed in their place was penitentiaries. Their efforts moved the conscience, will, and approach of architects to try something new. In 1822 a competition was held for the new building. It was won by John Haviland, who designed a wholly new plan for the function of incarceration and adopting the principles of "Confinement in solitude with labor" as penitent reform promoted by the Quakers. In short, it's one of the most overt manifestations of theory into practice in the nineteenth century.

Haviland's spoked design ensured ease of observation from guards at the center. Each small cell flanking the corridors housed a single inmate in solitary confinement. Prisoners had no contact with humans during the duration of their stay except for weekly visits from a priest. Meals were delivered in silence; the hinges were continuous along the edge of the doors so as to foil any peeking through and perhaps spying another person. The second range of cells on each spoke represents the yards into which inmates were allowed to take fresh air. They were released from their cells on an alternating basis so their neighbors were never outdoors at the same time. While the plan is the real innovation, and the design aspect that attracted visitors from around the world, Haviland's use of castellated architecture for its rugged qualities and associations of fortress-like stability are important, too. Learn more about the penitentiary, and its demise, in the following:

part 4


Churches, asylums, hospitals, and penitentiaries are only a few of the building types that illustrate the era's interest in social reform through the capacities of architecture. With these experiments something like 150-200 years behind us, we recognize that architecture did not solve all of society's ills then, although we still keep looking to it to help reform our lives now.


Contribute to one of the following discussion forums, to which I am assigning everyone randomly. What's not random is your function in the group. Blue names finish their work by Saturday midnight; Green names finish their work by Monday at 1 PM; Purple names finish their work by Wednesday at 1 PM. If you want to trade places within your group, please let me know.

  1. Kirkbride: Bradman, Brown, Burkhart, Carballo, Collins, David
  2. Kirkbride: Done, Foster, Medina, Nickell, Okesson, Pelley
  3. Eastern State: Pletcher, Rodriguez, Rogers, Romero, Rutter, Starcevich
  4. Eastern State: Taylor, Van Bruggen, Wahlfeld, White, Wills, Wise

additional resources

Additional Resources

You have a quiz coming up. It will be short (20 min.), and draw from the outlines that your colleagues have prepared for lessons 01-03. Question types will include:

  • terminology
  • extended response questions relating to new/important technologies and themes from "comprehension objectives"
  • "unknown" buildings (consider "analysis cues," and study the "monuments" and other buildings like them to prepare; this quiz may help, as well)

For more on Pugin, read his books: