How Kiyoshi Izumi Built the Psych Ward of the Future by Dropping Acid

The late Canadian architect was part of a small team of visionaries tasked with overhauling post-war Saskatchewan's mental hospitals to address the affects that clinical environments had on patients. The trick? Get inside the heads of the mentally ill...

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He walked into a warp. As Kiyoshi "Kiyo" Izumi toured a select few of post-war Saskatchewan's aging mental hospitals, absorbing the wards' layouts and interviewing patients along the way, the Canadian architect grappled with hallmark features of the 1950s-era clinical milieu. Otherwise neutral accoutrements flung him into a centripetal mindfuck. 

Phantasms crept out of slim gaps between mirrored tiles that lined the hallways, now the hyper-reflective, mocking sheen of a personal hell that collapsed in on itself the longer Izumi fought, futilely, to look away. Recessed utility closets swung open like massive, gaping mouths that had him convinced he'd be vacuumed down the wormhole of rabbits. The windows were barred, a fixed reinforcement to the slow-crushing reality of life as a caged undesirable. His bed rode too high for sitting with both feet firmly on the ground, and thus was more like a plank dangling precariously over a spiked pit than a place to rest a weary head. He said he wouldn't let the noises haunt him, but the ward's piped-in ambient music and sporadic intercom announcements smelled like garbage, he swore it. 

There were no clocks, no calendars; time, to say nothing of his or any patient's temporal bearings, simply did not exist, which made remembering when to swing through the nurses station, a pill counter-turned police station, damn near impossible. There was no privacy, no moment that didn't feel like standing centerstage, naked, alone, and with no clear exit; at his every entrance and turn, heads turned. And the hallways! The mirrored hallways. It was as if they did not end. They shot straight past infinity, obliterating Izumi's constancy of perception. 

He couldn't take it. He felt himself leak away. You could say he freaked out. But that's because he had a head full of LSD.

That Izumi tripped over much of his initial assessment of Saskatchewan's psychiatric wards, a structural and patient survey that lasted from 1954 to 1958, perhaps explains a lot about what exactly the architect, then in his early 30s, experienced through the hospital's physical configurations and psychic paraphernalia.

Izumi was part of a small, federally-granted team of visionaries, including British psychiatrist and psychedelic researcher Humphry Osmond and Canadian biochemist and psychiatrist Abram Hoffer, tasked with developing a province-wide psychiatric hospital overhaul that addressed the affects that clinical environments had on patients. The trick? Get inside the heads of the mentally ill. The problem? Mere intellectual power and imagination would only take the trio so far.

Which is to say the success of the Saskatchewan Plan, as the provincial mental-hospital plan was officially known, hinged on mimicking the psychomimetic experince. A true, honest understanding of the at times cripplingly intense psychic distress of schizophrenics, namely, meant taking a good, hard look at the psych ward as only schizophrenics could. It meant occupying, so to speak, the minds and bodies of the committed as a way of forging an eye-to-eye rapport, and to empathize with how certain physical spaces dizzied their psychic boundaries, and stoked their anguish and fears.   

To build a better psych ward, a space unshackled from the inhumanity and stigmas of the "insane asylum," Kiyoshi Izumi would have to immerse himself in their world. He'd have to get on their level, the thinking went, to understand a patient's struggles and, crucially, how those struggles could be inverted, blended, stretched, and exploded by various design quirks, ambient anomalies, temporal-spatial glitches, color schemes, light casts and any other features that to outsiders seemed mundane, but to whose grimmery existed only on wavelengths discernible to the afflicted. He'd have to conjure up not only hallucinations but also delusions and perceptual distortions distinct to psychoses. He'd have to eat acid. Or so he and Osmond and Hoffer thought. 

It was a bold move. The insights he gleaned from levelling with patients and their surroundings, if we're to take his word for it, found Izumi envisioning what's gone on to be called "the ideal mental hospital", the first of which was raised in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, in 1965. Five more so-called "LSD-inspired" mental health clinics would be built throughout Canada, as well one in Pennsylvania. It was then only a matter of time before Izumi earned praise for the apparent humanity within his acid architecture, and also skepticism, still aired today, over the alleged problem-solving potential of his mind-altering drug of choice and the true extent to which his hospital designs effectively put the mentally ill at ease, or even helped integrate them back into the outside world.

Read the rest over at Motherboard.