A Lecture by Britta Hentschel : “Why Do We Care? Architecture and Social Responsibility in Early Modern Europe”
by Deborah Augsburger and Xenia Strohmeyer
Why do we care? Is it a natural given or of cultural and religious nature? And who do we care for? How can a state be fair, when there is poverty? Those are questions that have been occupying the human race from its early beginnings up until now. With her lecture „Why Do We Care? Architecture and Social Responsibility in Early Modern Europe“ Britta Hentschel addresses these questions. She gives an insight on the history of care and how it developed with regard to architecture starting from antiquity.
Dr. Britta Hentschel was a Research Assistant at the Chair of History of Art and Architecture at ETH Zurich from 2009-2016. She studied art history, philosophy and catholic church history in Munich, Rome and Bonn. After a research stay at Harvard University/USA in 2011/2012, she also wrote her postdoctoral thesis on architectural history of poverty at the ETH Zurich.
Looking at the development of care, during antiquity the view on care was very different than it is now. During these times, people didn’t have an idea of mercy and poverty was a disgrace, although 4/5 of the population was poor. They would distinguish between relative and absolute poverty, which was excluded from society. A needy person would be seen as ugly and deformed and would be made fun of rather than taken care of. As the roman empire was keen on keeping stability, poverty was seen as a spot of danger. Former soldiers were dangerous for society, so they established so called „valetudinariums“ to treat invalid soldiers, but there was no such thing as a hospital yet. In their point of view, in a good society there are no poor people, so the poor would be excluded.
Following „do ut des“ (I give so you give me back) the only reason to do good in those times was because you expected something in return.
The massive turning point in the history of care came with the rise of Christianity and therefore the order of altruism. According to the Christian world view, following the story of Adam and Eve, everybody is equal and has the right to the goods of the world. So why is there poverty? Looking at the old testament the answer to that question would be that being poor is a sign that you are chosen. Thereupon a big change came with the new testament and Jesus Christ. As Jesus Christ himself, who is the son of God, identifies with a poor person, it becomes a huge obligation to take care of others. Because if you do good to a needy person, you also do good to Jesus Christ. Being poor therefore means you are closer to God and have a good chance to go to paradise. Like it says in the Bible: „ Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God “ (Luke 6). However being rich stated a problem. To not burn in limbo, you must shift earthy goods into heavenly goods before you die. Therefore, rich people donated care institutions for the poor. The poor people, who are better heard by god, would have to pray for the donater for him not to burn in limbo.
This also provokes architecture and a huge variety of architectural typologies emerges: the more magnificent and expensive the building, the longer you would have people praying for you. Thus, while in antiquity they were excluded, the poor became a very important part to medieval society.
The exaltation of poverty came to an extreme when voluntary poverty arose with a huge success during 13th and 14th century. Starting with Franziscus von Assisi and the franciscan orders, mendicant orders were founded, of which some are still existing until today.
With a new notion of poverty, institutions for care were being created. Huge hospitals on pilgrim routes like the Bernhard Pass were built and St Benedict established monasticism, where it becomes an obligation to take care of needy people. In the ideal plan of a monastry there would be different institutions of care within the plan like a hall for pilgrims, dormitories, a bakery and a brewery etc.
However the whole architecture of care at that time was a huge hall. The poor and sick would gather in that one hall, not making a difference between their reason of stay. A famous example for this hall architecture is the Hôtel-Dieu in Tonnerre. The situation in those always crowded halls was quite difficult, as the medical possibilities were limited and there was no knowledge of how illness would jump from one to another.
Furthermore during that time abandoned children become a big problem. Not only poor people abandoned children, but also rich people. If nobody adopts them, who has to take the responsibility?
In the 14th and 15th hospitals become more and more separated to the specific needs of people. During Renaissance entire hospitals opened only for orphans and it becomes a religious duty to care for children. From an architectural point of view, a new element was being introduced to these orphanages: the loggia. Being a public place located at a major street or piazza, on special occasions they would show the children and ask to spend money or give children back to their mother.
As the accommodation was being split, the care institutions become a city of care, including a barber shop, pharmacy etc. In the 16th century the splitting according to certain needs comes hand in hand with a new view of the poor. While in the Middle Ages everyone cared for everyone without asking for a reason, in the Renaissance a distinction is made between good poor and bad poor. With the Reformation the conviction is spread, that everyone is responsible for their own actions. The leader of state takes over, establishing as the father of only „good children“. Therefore the care-work breaks down, and nobody is responsible for the „bad poor“.
According to Britta Hentschel the questions of care work still haven’t advanced much since the 15th century. There are no lasting solutions, and even though there is interesting architecture it is mostly a drop on problematic ground. As Hentschel points out, the problem doesn’t end with public housing, which brings up new questions with no answers like who is eligible for it. Architects react on social problems and take the opportunity of offering shelter, but with the huge proportion of social housing ist doesn’t show a difference any more. For a good working society, how you treat the poor shows the success of the organization.
Therefore with neoliberal capitalism the question of care is a very important topic for todays society.
In the end, the question of the right Care Work methodology remains open. Ultimately, it is a constantly changing development that raises many more questions than the primitive and simple “health care” of the Middle Ages. In the latter, ultimately, everyone was cared for, regardless of their value and in the sense that “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. Irrespective of this, it remains to be argued that the division into good and bad poor has left its mark even today. It is important to be aware of this and finally to question it critically.
Image 1: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Filarete_ospedale.jpg
Image 2: http://www.travelingintuscany.com/arte/domenicodibartolo.htm