Beauty is for the Poor, Too

John Bosco Church Torino

“How many poor people there still are in the world! And what great suffering they have to endure! After the example of Francis of Assisi, the Church in every corner of the globe has always tried to care for and look after those who suffer from want, and I think that in many of your countries you can attest to the generous activity of Christians who dedicate themselves to helping the sick, orphans, the homeless, and all the marginalized, thus striving to make society more humane and more just.”  —Pope Francis, Address to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See

What is the architectural corollary of Saint Francis of Assisi’s “holy poverty”? Is it the shantytowns of the third world or the stylish minimalism of first-world condominiums? When we build churches, schools, and soup kitchens, should they be cheap or at least look cheap? Not if the Franciscans of the past built them. In fact, history teaches how we should build through the example of the great philanthropists, religious orders, bishops, and saints. From the geometrical harmony of the Servites’ Foundling Hospital in Florence to Saint John Bosco’s house for boys in Torino, there is a type of Catholic building that is built to last with a sense of beauty. Some would question why we should spend great sums of money on architecture, when what the poor really need are buildings that meet their functional needs. And yet, following Mother Theresa and other great saints, to serve the poor means serving not only their material needs but their spiritual needs as well. Good architecture does both: it provides buildings and rooms for people to live in, study in, and work in while doing it in a way that can inspire.

Do the poor need beauty? Yes, maybe even more than other people do. The poor need beauty to ennoble them, to raise them up out of the morass of this fallen world. For many, their existing surroundings may not inspire them, so beautiful, durable architecture can have a salutary effect. We see the desire for beauty and tradition expressed in the parishes and schools built by poor immigrants in previous centuries. Their own houses may have been simple, but their communal home sought to be a work of art, full of iconography and richness. It is true that the rich and the middle class can afford many distractions: artwork, books, museums, travel, and entertainment where they oftentimes come in contact with beauty, serenity, and even the divine. Yet for those less well-off, where do they find the richness of culture and the majesty of nature but in the dome of a cathedral or the stained glass of a church?

Some years ago, my students designed and built a house for Habitat for Humanity. One of the leaders of the organization visited the house and was shocked to see brickwork below the front porch (matching the older houses in the neighborhood). “You can’t make this house nicer than the other Habitat homes—you will make the other owners jealous.” In his view, the poor deserved only the lowest common denominator. The house was meant not so much to beautify or dignify the occupants but only to provide for their material needs. In a small way I would like to think these students were unwittingly imitating Dorothy Day, who once gave a diamond ring to a bag lady. Upon being questioned by a Catholic Worker staff member on whether it would have been better to sell the ring and use the money for the poor, Dorothy said, “Do you suppose that God created diamonds only for the rich?”

Do the poor need a different or lesser architecture than other Americans? They too can feel the solidity of brickwork, the generosity of a porch, the human scale of baseboard and cornice, and the quality of natural materials. Likewise, they too are affected by mechanistic façades and oppressive interiors that do not elevate the spirit. When we welcome them to the homeless shelter, the school, the soup kitchen, the medical clinic, the pregnancy center, or the unwed mothers’ home, we welcome them to our house. Nothing less than the best is acceptable. We roll out the red carpet for them, since we believe “as you did it to the least of My brethren, you did it to Me.”

Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in number 25 (2014) of Sacred Architecture Journal and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is St. John Bosco’s Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians in Turin along with buildings that housed the Salesian Order and related associations and charities.

Duncan G. Stroik

By

Duncan G. Stroik is a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame where he helped implement a new curriculum in classical architecture in 1990. He played a central role in the revival of interest in sacred architecture that led to the formation of the Society for Catholic Liturgy and the journal Sacred Architecture, of which he is editor. He is the author, most recently, of The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal (2012).

  • Vinnie

    I get the gist of what the author is saying but there is an issue of finances too. There is an issue of dignity but also of practicality. I think there’s a little bit of rich guilt going on here.

    • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

      You aren’t serious, I hope. Rich guilt? Good grief! It is the affluent who seldom complain when some nutty bishop decides to wreck their beautiful church, or build them a suburban monstrosity, and the lower income inner-city Catholics who protest to the Vatican when their beautiful, historic churches are “updated” or sold. The harder our lives are, the more we need beauty and transcendence. I think that is a human constant.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    There is such a thing as false economy.

    Look at the Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty, established by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester in 1136. 878 years later, it continues to accommodate 25 poor single old men in the same buildings he erected and it is maintained by the rents of the same lands with which he endowed it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hospital_of_St_Cross#mediaviewer/File:Hospital_of_St_Cross.jpg

  • fredx2

    I sometimes go to mass in one of the more modern churches where everyone sits in a semi circle around the altar. Oddly, at the same time that “Theater in the round” started becoming popular, we adopted “Mass in the round” so to speak.

    What I notice is that this gives you an unobstructed view of….the rest of the people. You see people you know, you see the whole crowd. You see them fidget, etc. You see what they are wearing, etc. Rather than having your attention focused on the mass, you are almost purposely distracted.

    Everyone who goes to church has their mind wander. Even at the best of times, You daydream, you look around. In the older churches, when you looked around, you would see a statue of Mary, or a painting of the Transfiguration, or a stained glass window showing John the Baptist. In other words, if you became distracted, you were gently led to keep your mind on the whole reason you were there. It kept you focused even if you were not focused.

    At Mass in the round, you are distracted away from God, and just see the rest of the people. I can think of no worse layout for a church.

    • DE-173

      On the rare occasion when 6:00PM Mass is too early, I attend the 7:00PM Mass at the next nearest Parish. It is one of those round Churches.

      What it lacks in linearity, it makes up for in a series of stained glass windows that light up brilliantly during those times of the year when the sun is still shing @7:00.

      I wonder what the people who had to go in caves think about these sorts of complaints. I wonder what those yet unborn will think of disputes about architecture when they are forced into caves.

      • MarcAlcan

        The people who had to go in caves would have praised the Lord for having something like this.
        If the people who HAD to go in caves could have had their say, they would not have wanted to go in caves.

  • fredx2

    The churches used to be places where the poorest of the poor could experience great art and great music – all for free. Now, the poor experience the worst, most banal art, and the worst, most banal music. The brutalist style seems to hate mankind. Its sharp angles threaten, and its straight lines are empty of meaning.

    • Patrick

      Regrettably, to many talented artists-to-be are discouraged from going into those fields when they could instead get an MBA and a better-than-average paycheck doing work that does nothing to enrich culture.

      • DE-173

        “talented artists” rarely pursue MBA’s. They usually don’t do handle competition, accountability or performance appraisals that well.

        • Patrick

          Wow, you’re just arguing for the sake of disagreeing with people, aren’t you?

          • DE-173

            “they could instead get an MBA and a better-than-average paycheck doing work that does nothing to enrich culture.”

            Tell me again about being argumentative as you throw around some insulting condescension about something that you have no knowledge about.

          • hombre111

            Classic response from DE-173. Don’t look for a positive thought.

      • hombre111

        It is very, very hard to make a living as an artist or musician. Artists have to resign themselves to that. Hundreds of hours into something inspiring can earn pennies per hour spent. I guess this is the fate of modern artists, who do not have their noble sponsors, as Bach and Mozart did. One pastor in our area spent huge money on some great art for a church he was remodeling. Probably, he went overboard. But in a hundred years, people will still visit that church to stare in wonder. But that is not the way it is with most new churches, where people operate on a tight budget. I now celebrate Mass in a splendid new building, with empty spaces awaiting their masterpiece. I pray that such a day will come.

    • hombre111

      When I was a kid, I discovered God in a simple parish church, with its plaster statues and so-so music. My family was the poorest of the poor. I would accompany my mother for a visit, and while she was praying, I would wander the church, looking at those statues, which instructed me in the presence of God and the Communion of Saints.

  • Colleen Connell Mitchell

    Our family organization is building chapels in the poorest mission territories in the same spirit as this article. http://www.stbryce.org

  • cestusdei

    Great article.

  • kag1982

    This is snobby because it suggests the poor cannot create their own beauty. They need to gaze on Burke’s pretty gold vestments while starving to understand what beauty is.

    • Augustus

      Just because a poor person lacks resources does not mean he lacks taste. The point of the article, which you completely missed, is that some people believe the poor are unworthy of beauty, not that they themselves don’t appreciate it. The poor immigrants build beautiful churches in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Why do you insult them by asserting that they are incapable of appreciating high culture? Or is it simply that you don’t care for it yourself but don’t want to admit it?

      • kag1982

        So what if natives want to honor God with a native Mass, can they do that? Or is the European centric Latin Mass the only true Mass.

        • Augustus

          The author was focusing on architecture: traditional vs. modern. Poor parishes have been able to produce beautiful traditional churches, and middle class parishes have produced ugly modern churches. We are talking about an aesthetic that (at least in part) transcends wealth. If you look at the mission churches in the South West and south of the border, they imitate traditional architectural styles, even though the parish was not wealthy. As a result, the churches are beautiful, even though the local talent may not have been trained in Europe. Liturgically, they were LATIN, that is, they used the Latin rite. If you’ve been to the cathedrals of Latin America, you will find traditional architecture, which complimented the LATIN liturgy of the Western Church. Don’t tell me that only rich people attended these churches. Once again, you are insulting people because you think that the poor can’t appreciate or are hostile to, traditional architectural and liturgical forms. If you limit peoples exposure to certain types of architecture or music, then they may not be able to contribute personally. They may not be able to build traditional buildings because they were never trained, or they may not be able to sing chant because no one has taught them, or they may not be able to play the organ because there is no organ (or organist). But that does not mean that poor people can not appreciate these things if they are exposed to them. Some communities are limited because of their poverty, but don’t assume that financial limitations necessarily mean a lack of imagination or taste.

          • hombre111

            Basically, a good reply. But I have celebrated Mass in tiny little pueblos in New Mexico and along the Rio Grande, in tiny churches about half the size of my house, with clumsy pictures and a rickety altar. And yet, in these places as humble as the Bethlehem stable, I was spiritually moved to the core.

            • Augustus

              I have nothing against smallness. I’ve seen some very beautiful chapels in my life. Yes, there are poor parishes that are humble because of a lack of resources and local talent. But still, even in a small poor parish, there is no reason for there to be clumsy pictures and rickety altars. Some parishioners may not have a lot of pride in their church or place a lot of importance on property maintenance. But the parish priest should. (Good response to kag1982. Nice to agree with you once in awhile…)

    • Steph

      “We see the desire for beauty and tradition expressed in the parishes and schools built by poor immigrants in previous centuries. Their own houses may have been simple, but their communal home sought to be a work of art, full of iconography and richness.”

      Odd comment. The article explicitly acknowledges quite the opposite. It also acknowledges that the poor do not always have the resources or power to create an aesthetically pleasing environment. A harsh reality perhaps, but a reality nonetheless.

      • kag1982

        So you don’t think that what the poor creates is aesthetically pleasing? A community mural or adobe church in the desert built by the hands of natives isn’t as pleasing as a grand cathedral in Europe? Why? Isn’t a poor simple church beautiful in the eyes of God?

        • Pam H

          It isn’t a matter of what’s “beautiful in the eyes of God”. It’s a matter of what the POOR find beautiful. And it’s not snobbish to suggest they don’t have the means to create as much beauty as they would like to have. It’s a simple fact. Look at pictures of the poor in Tijuana, or other places where REAL poverty exists. Their lives are too full of putting food on the table to spend time or energy creating beauty. It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like to have it. It’s an act of love, to give them their wants, not just their needs.

          • kag1982

            But what do the poor find beautiful? Is beauty objective or is it subjective based on culture? Poor people in the Global South appreciate beauty as much as rich people in Europe and the U.S., but their idea of beauty based on culture. Vibrant murals are beautiful, but they are also outside the narrow aesthetics of a traditional parish church. I’m sure that churches and the idea of beauty in Sub-Saharan Africa is also much different from the European idea of beauty. The real issue is the wealthy in Europe and North America defining what is beautiful or fitting for worship based on their own experience and not being open to what is considered beautiful to the rest of the world.

            • craig

              Cultures often have unique ways of expressing beauty, but the art and architecture of genuine folk culture, built by the poor with their own hands, is almost never iconoclastic but instead runs wild with imagery and color. But university-educated elites typically abhor such lowbrow stuff as ‘kitsch’, and instead foist sterile minimalism on the masses in order to ‘elevate’ them.

    • hombre111

      I don’t think this is what the author was getting at. In one town where I served, there was a huge modern church that had reduced art to the minimum. Across town, there was a much older church with all the statues and other art still intact. Spiritually, the older church provided a much richer experience. In a city nearby, a priest has built a church in the round, where the people stare at each other. The only art is a modernistic cross. I cannot think of a worse place for children, with no art to teach them about God and his saints.

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  • portcatholic

    I am often dumbfounded by the kinds of clothing I find at donation centers. Torn, stained, outworn, out-of-shape–in a nutshell, stuff I wouldn’t be caught dead in, but is apparently deemed “suitable” for a person living in poverty. As if we didn’t already know how despised we were!

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