Separation by Symmetry

Gillian Darley

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Plans of the 1815 New Bethlem Hospital in Southwark included in the Richard Dadd exhibition at the Watts Gallery, Compton, show complete segregation between male and female inmates. The ground plan consisted of two identical halves, except for the outlying women’s criminal building, which was considerably smaller than the men’s. There could be no chance meetings between men and women in a secure home for the ‘criminally insane’.

When segregation of the sexes is voluntary, the design has to be handled more deftly. The Shakers, Mother Ann Lee’s followers from north-west England, crossed the Atlantic in the late 18th century to establish celibate, self-supporting settlements. The result, as expressed in architectural form, is almost unsettling. The perfect symmetry of an interior, in which one side meticulously mirrors the other, door for door, stair for stair, each fitting answering another, is an absolutist aesthetic that came into its own with functional modernism.

The control implicit in the design goes further. Men and women worked in different trades, so rarely encountered one another in the workplace. But when it came to communal events and meetings, another set of rules, dealing with personal space and distance, were applied. Strict discipline applied even to their posture, whether they were awake or asleep.

The Shakers perfected what they called a ‘living building’: a settlement that served their purposes while also reinforcing their separation from non-believing outsiders. There is only one active Shaker community left, Sabbathday Lake in central Maine, with fewer than half a dozen members. It is the forms of the architecture, and the design of their artefacts, that have endured to tell the tale. The Shakers cared nothing for burial and did not mark their graves. The living building was their epitaph.


  • 14 July 2015 at 6:50am
    cufflink says:
    Looking at the Shaker Meeting House picture at New Lebanon it gives me a distinct impression of the House of Commons with a dispatch table and Speaker's podium, so I cannot raise a quizzical eyebrow at Gillian Darley's informative blog as to the needful symmetry as between women and men. Has anybody ever done a study of Utilitarianism and Shakerdom? The issue in our house is always between tidiness and reachable convenience and invariably the allocation of space is two to one to the women. The char lady would find the Quakers good employers. I imagine that Gillian's focused thought was subliminally implanted by the ad hoc architecture at Watts House.

  • 15 July 2015 at 7:28pm
    alexheddinger says:
    The photo above is a room on the 3rd floor of the Church Family Dwelling at Mount Lebanon, and I believe it is not the Meetinghouse. The Shaker 2nd Meetinghouse is a separate building, distinguished by its curved red roof. Most of the New Lebanon (Mount Lebanon) site is now the home of Darrow School, a college-prep boarding school, which was established in 1932 when the Shakers sold the property to school leaders. The Shaker Museum-Mount Lebanon owns the North Family site.

  • 16 July 2015 at 3:15am
    bilejones says:
    I've always thought that Bedlam was the perfect site for a war museum.

  • 20 July 2015 at 11:02am
    flannob says:
    As a youth I spent several summers at Mount Lebanon, when a Kropotkin-inflected summer camp called Shaker Village Work Group operated on the site, teaching us woodcraft etc.,maintain the wonderful buildings and recreating the ecstatic stompy dances of the original inhabitants. There was a fenced off area we were told was a mass grave, but exploring in the woods we discovered a very small cemetery, with a wall a few inches high and graves marked with a large piece of slate for the head and a smaller piece for the feet. The larger pieces bore only a pair of initials, so we assumed this area was also a Shaker cemetery.