Theodora Giovanazzi – Before Social Housing: A Critical History of Domestic Arrangements for the ‘Poor’

The thesis focuses on the relationship between domestic welfare and the history of the ‘poor’, understood as a social, legal, and economic subject. It offers a critical examination of the housing arrangements of those members of society who were experiencing destitution in Europe between the 16th and the end of the nineteenth century. The primary objective is thus to problematize the prehistory of what has been referred to as ‘social housing’ since the twentieth century, by investigating the architectural, historical, and ideological roots of this phenomenon.

Poverty was an ever-present characteristic of Western medieval society, where it was understood as a relative form of scarcity. In this sense, poverty could affect anyone, regardless of their economic or social status, as the word simply indicated a ‘lack of something’ or even a religious and voluntary choice of refusal of material possessions. However, throughout the early modern period, new conditions – such as the rise of capitalism, urbanization, state formation, and industrialization – transformed society’s attitudes towards ‘poverty’ and ‘the poor’ themselves. Within the modern period, starting from the 15th century, poor people were confronted by elites and state officials with condescension, derision, resentment, and ultimately, fear. This change in paradigm resulted in the top-down construction of a multifaceted, ever-changing subjectivity – the ‘poor’ person – which, in turn, triggered precise architectural responses. The ideological nature of these responses was ambiguous: the habitations for the poor were built to stigmatize the class identity of their inhabitants and to support only those ‘poor’ who committed themselves to becoming ‘productive’ members of society. The present study argues not only that these examples can be seen as typological and ideological anticipations of twentieth-century social housing systems, but that the very purpose of modern and contemporary social housing cannot be understood without taking into account its ‘prehistory’, that is, the domestic arrangements for poor people developed in Europe between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries.

The thesis utilizes paradigmatic case studies that had far-reaching influences on the development of domestic types in modern Europe. These case studies become the vantage point to study the correlation between social conflicts, welfare, legislation, and typology. More in detail, the thesis seeks to investigate the impact of various poverty-related laws and regulations implemented by different institutions and governments over time and how these contributed to the emergence of specific architectural types in the realm of welfare provisions.