Architecture Reveals Rich Social History of People, Places

By Matt GolosinskiJune 9, 2017

Buildings tell tales. From castles to cathedrals, modern skyscrapers to modest bungalows, structures are a ubiquitous physical manifestation of social relationships, community values, and power dynamics. This is equally true of government buildings, where architecture embodies the intention of those who design and inhabit the spaces.

For Northwestern art historian Jesús Escobar, a two-story 17th-century courthouse in Madrid offers a wealth of architectural information that can help reveal the legal and social life of the Spanish Habsburg empire, a vast dominion that spanned four continents and two centuries. These buildings, which Escobar considers “primary sources” and “records of the past,” are especially important for his approach to Madrid, a place he calls “a forgotten Renaissance city,” one ravaged by the Spanish Civil War, thereby leaving scholars with less of a physical trace than they have about other urban centers of the period.

Helping to remedy this is Escobar’s own award-winning research, which focuses on early modern architecture and urbanism in Europe and Latin America. His first book, The Plaza Mayor and the Shaping of Baroque Madrid (2003), explored the relationship between architecture and politics in Madrid’s evolution as a capital of a global empire. His next book, tentatively titled Architecture and Spaces of Power in Seventeenth-Century Madrid, examines government buildings during a time of political transformation, says Escobar, who is chair of the art history department.

It’s not surprising that Escobar appreciates ornamental detail. A building’s façade can project power in obvious ways: through impressive columns, say, or by prominent display of a royal crest. But it is the relationship between architecture and power on a deeper level that has long fascinated him. As a child growing up in Sacramento, California, Escobar would travel on occasion with his family to Mexico. Exposure to “monumental buildings of the past” and their use a “backdrops for processions” and community events made a profound impression on him. That interest was sustained through college, where his undergraduate senior thesis at Columbia University focused on Mussolini and the architecture of 20th-century Rome.

“The aesthetic, to me, is not as important as the political resonance of buildings,” says Escobar. “Architectural history without people is not interesting. We want to know how people used buildings and to understand their relationships with the built environment.”

This goal proves challenging in the case of Madrid, says Escobar, whose research has taken him inside the great courthouse among other sites. Much modified over time, the courthouse today houses the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It’s their State Department,” he says. “Not an easy place to get into.”

But Escobar has been inside to pursue what he says feels like “archeology.” The building’s original plans are missing, but by combining firsthand observation with archival research — including analysis of 17th-century documents, such as liens or bills of payment to workers, which do still exist — Escobar is attempting to create a new plan of the building’s original interior disposition. The project integrates research that also draws on political theory and literature: for instance, Escobar cites a novel from the 1660s about a young man’s life in Madrid, which includes a scene inside the courthouse.

“It’s a great moment, with the character regarding the building’s beautiful exterior, but when he walks inside he sees the chaos of justice,” says Escobar, noting that the court building included a prison and featured a sword-wielding statue of the Archangel Michael on its façade.

Escobar is careful to acknowledge where fact-based research meets more speculative considerations: “I’m not going to write about things I can’t find historical evidence for.” The focus on interiors can feel particularly speculative but “very valuable” in helping imagine how buildings were used. He is excited by the challenge of rigorously assembling a historical puzzle even in the absence of rich material records. In doing so, he tries to imagine inhabiting that space — and the space surrounding it.

“This is a courthouse that for its first 50 years relied on the chiming of a clock in a church tower next door to mark the time, so sound enters the story, the senses become important,” he says. “This was a way of ordering society and buildings created this aura.”

In Madrid, courthouses owed some of their design to royal buildings, which served as models so that the power of empire was suffused throughout the capital city’s social fabric. Today, and in less majestic government structures, architecture still projects messages about the ruling order.

Escobar once assigned students a project to research US post office design, which changed greatly over the 20th century. He wanted them to think about various factors, aesthetic and political, including government spending priorities and how surrounding spaces affect architectural design. Earlier buildings might be fronted by a colonnade or be set back from the street with a grand staircase. Today, it is common to find a post office tucked into a strip mall, constructed much more cheaply. These settings create dramatically different impressions.

“When you walk inside a two-story interior hall versus a building in a strip mall, the light is different, the sound is different,” says Escobar. “How does this affect your experience of the building and how does this building change your experience and understanding of government?”