Focus on architecture and media at NU-Q: Part 1

November 04, 2011

Parallels between Madrid in its “Golden Century” and Doha today

Art historian from Northwestern University speaks about the transformation of Madrid from a secondary city to the seat of a global empire

Dr. Jesus Escobar, chair of Northwestern University’s Art History Department in Evanston, Illinois, spoke to students on how architecture and politics interact to shape city design.

On a journey into how architecture and politics interact to shape city design, art historian Jesùs Escobar drew parallels between Madrid’s growth from a small market town to a European capital and Doha’s rapid transformation.

In the context of a discussion in late October that asked, “Why study architecture and the city?,” the speaker offered a case study of the European metropolis as a prelude to a discussion that ranged from architecture as an instrument of power—and how rulers from ancient times to the modern day have used architecture as a practical and symbolic solution in building nations.

The second speaker in a new lecture and discussion series at Northwestern University in Qatar called “The Evanston Experience: Great Teachers from Northwestern University,” Escobar lectured on “The Plaza and the Grid: The Design of Cities in the Early Modern Spanish World this November.  Escobar is chair of Northwestern University’s Art History Department in Evanston, Illinois.

“Because we look at Madrid today as a city of 3.5 million people, we think it’s always been a big city. But it was a very small town in 1561 when it was chosen to become the capital of Spain and within 40 years it became one of the largest cities of Europe. So the transformation is phenomenal. And that kind of transformation is one that I think is not too different to what you are living here,” said Escobar, who has written extensively about Madrid of 16th and 17th centuries, termed Madrid’s “Golden Century.”

In the historical case study, the art, architecture and urbanization specialist illustrated that Spanish contact and conflict with other cultures between 1500 and 1700 gave way to a new kind of urbanism, which Escobar labeled as ‘Habsburg urbanism’.

“Despite the evidence of contact and assimilation of ideas about cities, it remains a difficult task to pinpoint the exact design origins of Spanish colonial town planning,” explained Escobar.

“What is clear, however, is the way in which these cities  and especially their sense of order conveyed most often by a grid-iron plan and a central plaza of regular geometry  were interpreted by the people who designed them, as well as those who used and inhabited them. The grid and the plaza were both seen as political spaces,” added Escobar.

According to him, in the Spanish-speaking world, any city from the smallest town to the largest cities such as Mexico City, Lima, or Madrid all have plazas that function as the heart of the city- where people gather, where ceremonies happen, where rituals take place and where people have lunch.

“They are the centers of life,” pointed out Escobar, while describing how the pattern indicated a profound appreciation for the “spatial significance of the plaza as a political symbol.”

“The sense of order reflected in a grid plan with a centralized plaza was indeed understood by many contemporaries as a sign of just rule. For a status-conscious Spain in the early modern period, there was even an understanding that public spaces could be seen as a reflection of a city or even a ruler’s reputation.”

In Qatar too, greater emphasis on civic spaces is evident, noted Escobar while citing the Corniche and the civic spaces surrounding the Museum of Islamic Arts.

However, in order for cities to have more civic spaces, there should be a demand by the public first.

“There have to be people on the streets in order for public space to work, right? If people are in cars you will end up with Los Angeles – a very different kind of urbanism that is not about the experience at street-level on foot, but cars,” said Escobar.

While at NU-Q, Escobar met with members of the liberal arts faculty and with students.

“In a city like Doha where architecture is such a striking element and key to understanding development and change, a lesson like the one Dr. Escobar provided helps our students, faculty and staff better understand their surroundings in a deeper way,” said Dr. Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar, who welcomed the audience at the lecture and led the question and answer session that followed. He noted that, “Escobar is a scholar and teacher of note who contributed to NU-Q’s program in an intensive three days on campus.

The purpose of the Evanston Experience series, in his words, is to “augment and strengthen our students’ experience and expand their exposure to the liberal arts and related fields.”