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Professor Leslie Topp

  • Overview



    Leslie Topp is Professor of Architectural History in the Department of History of Art. Her teaching encompasses art, architecture, design and urbanism from 1800 to the present, with a particular focus on Central Europe around 1900.

    She joined Birkbeck in 2005 and was previously Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and Junior Research Fellow at St Hilda's College, Oxford.

    She was Director of the Architecture Space and Society Centre from 2014 to 2017, and Head of the History of Art Department from 2017 to 2020. She co-founded the Compass Project, which provides routes into university for people in the asylum process, and served as chair of the Compass Steering Committee from 2017 to 2022.


    • The Spaces We Are Reduced To - Inaugural Lecture, 7 June 2021, online. Watch the lecture here.

    • Steinhof: A Difficult Modernity - Presidential Lecture, Central European University, Vienna, May 2021. Watch a recording here.

    • 'Fenced Off', an essay co-authored with Milos Kosec on PLATFORM, an open digital venue for exchanging new ideas about buildings, spaces, and landscapes.


    • PhD, Bryn Mawr College, 1998
    • MA, Bryn Mawr College, 1995
    • BA, University of Toronto, 1991

    Visiting posts

    • Visiting Fellow, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Queen's University, 03-2018
    • Visiting Fellow, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge University, 01-2012 to 04-2012
    • Visiting Professor, Department of Art History and Art Conservation, Queen's University, Kingston, Canada, 09-2021 to 07-2022
  • Research


    Research interests

    • architecture and landscape in carceral institutions (prisons and psychiatric hospitals)
    • architecture, urbanism and visual culture in Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1890-1918
    • interior space and solitude
    • architecture, social control and freedom

    Research overview

    My research concerns architecture (including buildings, theory, interiors and urbanism) in social and cultural context. My first book Architecture and Truth in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (2004) explored the many meanings of architectural honesty in early modernism, and reinterpreted four iconic Viennese buildings with a view to their use and reception.

    My current research focuses on the connections between psychiatry, architecture and visual culture:

    Between 2004 and 2008, I was director of the project 'Madness and Modernity: Art, Architecture and Mental Illness in Vienna and the Habsburg Empire, 1890-1914', which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

    In 2009, I co-curated an international loan exhibition coming out of this project at Wellcome Colllection, London and Wien Museum, Vienna.

    My monograph, Freedom and the Cage: Modern Architecture and Psychiatry in Central Europe, 1890-1914, was published by Penn State University Press in March 2017.

    I have a developing research interest in single rooms, from cells, to bedrooms, offices, and studies.  In 2012 I chaired an academic session on the theme of single rooms at the annual conference of the Society of Architectural Historians in Buffalo, New York. In 2015, I received a mid-career award from the Birkbeck/Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund for the project 'Isolation and the single room in psychiatric architecture, Europe and North America, 1840-1914'. In 2018 I published the article 'Single Rooms, Seclusion and the Non-Restraint Movement in British Asylums, 1838-1844' in Social History of Medicine. I am currently writing a monograph with the working title 'The Problem of the Cell in Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry'.

    With Dr Milos Kosec, Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Arts, I have recently begun a project on the history and present of the cordon sanitaire.

    I was a visiting fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Queen's University in March 2018 and at the University of Cambridge Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) in the Spring Term of 2012.

    I am a founding member and past director of the Architecture Space and Society Centre (ASSC) at Birkbeck, which brings together scholars from early and modern periods interested in architecture, landscape and the designed environment in social and historical context. I am also a member of Birkbeck's Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Mental Health.

    Between 2014 and 2017, I served as Exhibitions Review Editor at the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (U.S.)

    Research Centres and Institutes

  • Supervision and teaching

    Supervision and teaching


    I welcome enquiries from prospective PhD students interested in the links between art, architecture and medicine/public health, in the architecture of carceral institutions, in early modernism in architecture and urban planning and in the links between power and/or politics and architecture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I currently supervise or co-supervise three students.

    Current doctoral researchers


    Doctoral alumni since 2013-14



    I teach across all levels, from Certificate and first year BA to MA and PhD, and have contributed to teaching on MA programmes outside the department as well. My teaching focuses the history of architecture and the built environment from the early nineteenth to the present, always with an eye on the larger social and historical context. Some examples of modules I've designed and taught are:

    - Spaces of Modernity: City, Suburb and Countryside in the 19th Century
    - Space and Politics in Modernity
    - What's the Point of an Art Museum? (with Liz Drew)
    - The Architecture of Asylums and Prisons
    - Modernisms in Central Europe
    - Designing for Communities: Housing and Landscape from 1900 to the Present (with Barbara Simms)

    I love teaching at Birkbeck, and am a huge enthusiast for the kind of teaching that's possible here: interactive, lively, drawing on the vast range of experience and knowledge brought by students. I believe in the power of the traditional lecture with images, but always informal and interspersed with opportunities for questions. All my classes include time set aside for productive and structured work in groups. I'm a great believer in the use of site visits as a teaching tool: I've organised trips to Pentonville Prison and 1960s housing estates among many other places.

    Another strong interest of mine is widening access to the History of Art. I have devised and run a dedicated programme offering a supported route into university study for people in East London who are passionate about art but have never had the chance to study at university.  I worked closely with Fundamental Architectural Inclusion on outreach activities connected to regeneration in East London and was involved in developing a partnership with Crisis Skylight Centre in Shoreditch. Most recently, I spearheaded the establishment of the Compass Project, to provide funded pathways into university for people in the asylum process.

    Teaching modules

    • Art and Society in the Nineteenth Century (AHVM010S5)
    • Art and Society Between 1900 and the Present (AHVM011S5)
    • Dissertation MA History of Art (AHVM019D7)
    • The Arts: Perspectives and Possibilities (ARAR008S3)
    • Museum Cultures - Approaches, Issues, Skills (ARVC059S7)
    • Space and Politics in Modernity (ARVC114S7)
    • Art History: A Survey (ARVC205S4)
    • Material and Process in Art (ARVC207S4)
    • Frameworks: Histories and Theories of Art, Architecture, Photography (ARVC247S7)
    • Modernity's Waste Spaces (ARVC288S7)
    • Understanding the City (SSGE105S7)
  • Publications




    Book Section

  • Business and community

    Business and community


    I am happy to receive enquiries from the media on the following topics:

    • Access to university for refugees and people seeking asylum
    • Architecture and mental health
    • Architecture and social control