Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
thesis_access.pdf (14.64 MB)

One dose of Architecture, taken daily: Building for Mental Health in New Zealand

Download (14.64 MB)
posted on 2021-11-14, 05:06 authored by McLaughlan, Rebecca

Thousands of New Zealanders were treated in the nation’s mental hospitals in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Existing research has examined this history of institutionalisation from the perspectives of policy, psychiatric medicine and nursing culture, but to date little has been written about the built fabric of this type of institutional care. This dissertation asks what does the architectural approach taken to Seacliff Asylum (1878-84), Kingseat Hospital (1927-40) and Cherry Farm Hospital (1943-71) indicate about official attitudes to mental illness in New Zealand. Architecture was thought to be capable of performing a curative role in the treatment of mental illness; the administrators of New Zealand’s mental hospitals stated this belief publically in various press releases and reports to the government between 1878 and 1957. This dissertation examines Seacliff, Kingseat and Cherry Farm against current thought regarding the treatment of mental illness and against best architectural practice in mental hospital design.   While these three institutions were the jewels in the crown of New Zealand’s mental hospital network, only Kingseat could be considered an exemplary hospital of its time. The compromises that occurred in the construction of Seacliff, Kingseat and Cherry Farm hospitals indicate that meeting the needs of the mentally ill was only one of a number of agendas that were addressed by the officials involved in the design of these institutions. Many of these agendas were peripheral to the delivery of mental health care, such as the political desire for colonial propaganda and professional concerns of marginalisation, and conflicted with the attainment of ideal environments for the treatment of mental illness. The needs of the mentally ill were a low priority for successive New Zealand governments who exhibited a reluctance to spend taxpayer funds on patients who were not considered curable. The architects and medical advisors involved in the design of these facilities did attempt to meet the needs of these patients; however, they were limited by a design and procurement process that elevated political and operational concerns over the curative potential of these hospitals.   This dissertation also examines the role of individuals in the design of these institutions. Architect Robert Lawson was reproached for deficiencies in the curative potential of Seacliff Asylum. Similarly, medical administrator Theodore Gray has received criticism for limiting the development of New Zealand’s wider network of mental hospital care. This dissertation establishes that Lawson and Gray deserve greater recognition for their relative contributions to the architecture created, within New Zealand, for the treatment of mental illness.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970112 Expanding Knowledge in Built Environment and Design

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Architecture


Skinner, Robin; Brand, Diane