Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals

America's abandoned state mental hospitals, the subject of this project by the photographer Christopher Payne, aren't so much a "closed world" as a lost one. These vast, decaying buildings were part of a grand experiment in health care that lasted for over a hundred years.

They were built at an extraordinary pace, beginning in the mid-19th century. Reformers campaigned for construction of homes for the mentally ill, and US states - frothing with prosperity and civic pride - competed to build them bigger and better. The clamour and disorder of urban life were thought to contribute to insanity, so the new hospitals were built outside towns and cities on open land. The designs were utopian - they included gardens and agricultural land so that the patients could work. Many hospitals were self-sufficient. The buildings were, for the time, hi-tech, with central heating and gaslight.

These hospitals were a vast improvement on what had gone before, and were a place of solace for many of the patients. Nevertheless, they had several drawbacks. As the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote in his 1961 book Asylums, they were "total institutions", places where the roles of patients and staff were so rigidly defined that they became habitual. Inmates thus "institutionalised" would find it difficult to recover. Improving medication and reforms that stopped patients working eventually spelled the decline of the asylums.

Payne's photographs capture the supreme melancholy of these forgotten places, and show what a fleshed-out microcosmic world it was. As well as wards and corridors, there are farm buildings, theatres, bowling alleys and even a television studio. Some of these places look as if deserted just days previously; others are in an advanced state of rot. All the pictures are depopulated, apart from a couple at the back which show shelf after shelf of unclaimed copper cremation tins in a storeroom - the human remains of scores of deceased patients, left behind with the building.

What is the appeal of such books, filled with photographs of abandoned buildings and the detritus of human civilisation? It's a field of photography that is more popular than ever, with an avid online audience, as a quick scan of the hugely popular decay-fixated architecture blog BLDGBLOG will demonstrate. There are dozens of other "urban exploration" sites devoted to poking around in abandoned structures. Part of this enthusiasm is no doubt based on the same frisson as the Victorians derived from ancient ruins - wrecks are reminders of mortality, proof that nothing is for ever.

In a time painfully short on utopianism and long on anxiety over the resilience of civilisation, these remnants of a more confident age are doubly forlorn and intriguing. And it is interesting to note that some of the facilities are finding appropriate new uses. Take St Elizabeth's in Washington, DC, the huge hospital where Goffman did his research. It will shortly become the headquarters of the US department of homeland security.

“Society," Goffman wrote, "is an insane asylum run by the inmates."

William Wiles is a senior editor at Icon magazine

Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
Christopher Payne, with an introductory essay by Oliver Sacks
MIT Press, 216pp, £29.95

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street