The Master Builder

To the English-speaking world, Spain is a country with architecture but no architects. Everyone, of course, knows of Antoní Gaudí, although his claim to Spanish nationality would be hotly contested by Catalans, who interpret his works as embodying their historical identity. Otherwise, the buildings constructed in Spain roughly between 1500 and 1900 apparently just came into being through some mysterious combination of men and materials. Architecture without architects is “vernacular” architecture, which may be admirable in a folksy sort of way, but offers no competition to architecture by high artists. Thus four centuries of Spanish architectural history are usually neglected.

Of all the Spanish architects who languish in oblivion, none is less deserving of his fate than Juan de Herrera (c. 1530–1597), the leading architect of the Spanish Renaissance. Herrera’s stature has always been hard to measure, despite the fact that, for thirtyfour years, he served the most powerful monarch of the time, Philip II (1556–1598), and was involved in dozens of projects, including the Escorial, arguably the greatest architectural work of the later sixteenth century.

Herrera’s virtual disappearance from the artistic map of Europe is partly explained by the grudging evidence of his activity. Although he was prolific, only a handful of his designs were realized in his lifetime. In addition a good number of them consist of additions or alterations to existing or incomplete structures. As a consequence, his identity often has to be almost archaeologically excavated, with magnifying glass and tweezers, from buildings of composite authorship. This problem might be easier to deal with if his drawings had survived in quantity. Not that they were discarded; on the contrary, they were saved too carefully. Philip II established an archive of drawings from the royal works in his principal palace, the Alcázar of Madrid. On Christmas Eve of 1734, however, the palace was consumed by fire and Herrera’s drawings, along with numerous paintings by Titian, Rubens, and Velázquez, were burned to a crisp.

Documents of Herrera’s career, on the other hand, abound. As a cog in the bureaucratic machine created by Philip II, Herrera left a trail of paper that fills several cupboards in the Archivo General de Simancas, the principal archive of the Spanish crown. Yet this huge store of information is hardly satisfying. Here again, the particular terms of Herrera’s employment are to blame. As a royal servant, Herrera was compensated by an annual stipend, occasionally augmented by special grants and favors, and thus, unlike a contract architect, did not receive payment on a project-by-project basis. Herrera was a salaried functionary, and the reading of the evidence sometimes suggests that he was the senior vice-president for architecture in a large corporation rather than a practitioner of the art.

The problems do not end here. Herrera’s entry into the architectural profession, and eventually his career, were highly unconventional by Spanish standards. In Spain, architects were both born and made. Lucrative practices were perpetuated by dynastic succession, in which a …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.