The Mexican architect and engineer Luis Ramiro Barragán Morfín (9/3/02-22/11/88), is regarded as one of the most important architects of the 20th Century. His buildings are renowned for their mastery of space and light, but Luis Barragán was equally influential as a landscape architect and urban planner. He is one of the architects who succeeded in creating their own version of modernism by imbuing it with the warmth and vibrance of his native Mexico.
By Efi Michalarou
Luis Barragán was the son of wealthy, conservative parents, Barragán was born in Guadalajara in 1902, and brought up on the family’s sprawling estate in the southern state of Jalisco. As an engineering student in Escuela Libre de Ingenieros in his home town, he became fascinated by architecture. Mexico’s artists and intellectuals were then searching for a new national identity after Centuries of colonialism. When Barragán’s wealthy family treated him to a trip to Europe, he set off in search of ideas to modernise Mexican architecture. During his trip, Barragán visited the 1925 the Exposition des Arts-Décoratifs in Paris, an event which popularised Art Déco and introduced the public to the glacial, industrially-produced International Style designs of Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand. Barragán was impressed by their work, but the houses he designed after his return to Guadalajara in 1927 were fairly traditional in style. It was only after another trip in 1931, when he stayed for 3 months in New York, where he befriended the exiled Mexican muralist, José Clemente Orozco, in New York then he returned in Paris for a time, attending Le Corbusier’s lectures, and met the landscape architect, Ferdinand Bac. His time in Europe, and subsequently in Morroco, stimulated an interest in the native architecture of North Africa and the Mediterranean, which he related to construction in his own country, after that he settled in Mexico City and developed his own take on modernism. His architectural practice was based in Guadalajara from 1927 until 1936 when he moved to Mexico City and remained until his death. Barragán transformed the International Style into a vibrant, sensuous Mexican aesthetic by adding vivid colours and textural contrasts and accentuating his buildings’ natural surroundings. He once said that light and water were his favourite themes, and soon became skilled at manipulating them both in buildings like the 1966 Folke Egerstrom House and Stables built around a brightly coloured, sculptural sequence of horse pools and the 1975-77 Francisco Gilardi House framing an indoor pool. Barragán called himself a landscape architect, writing in the book, Contemporary Architects, “I believe that architects should design gardens to be used, as much as the houses they build, to develop a sense of beauty and the taste and inclination toward the fine arts and other spiritual values”. And further, “Any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake”. As a landscape architect, Barragán was heavily influenced by Ferdinand Bac’s writing. Much of his work in Mexico City during the 1940s involved garden design. Like Roberto Burle Marx, the famed Brazilian landscape architect, Barragán developed a distinctive approach to working within a modernist vocabulary while enhancing the local foliage and terrain of Mexico. By 1945, Barragán felt confident enough as a designer of buildings and landscape to buy a large plot of land at El Pedegral on the outskirts of Mexico City. He designed and planned an ambitious development there of elegant family homes and gardens. Architecturally, El Pedegral is regarded as a triumph, but commercially it was a failure and Barragán struggled for years with its financial difficulties. In 1952, Barragán returned to Guadalajara to work there for the first time since his move to Mexico City, on a house for a friend, Dr Arriola. Two years later, he was commissioned to build a convent at Tlálpan, a market town on the suburban fringe of Mexico City. It is a beautiful building where the serenity of convent life is gently enlivened by sculpturally positioned shafts of light. Another triumph was the 1957 Torri Satélite, the cluster of brightly coloured towers that Barragán designed for a frenzied traffic interchange in Mexico City. Designed to be viewed from a moving car rather than by foot, like traditional monuments, it is an inspired way of enlivening a traffic-choked city. Barragán’s ideas were crystallised in the house and studio he built for himself on calle Francisco Ramirez in Mexico City, and then rebuilt to test out ideas. Often a solitary figure, Barragán spent most of his time there. “It seems important to me that spaces are not aggressive. I always used low forms and permanently worked with right angles. At all times in my work, I had in mind the horizontal and vertical planes and angles of intersection. This explains the frequent use of the cube in my architecture”. Barragán mulled over new projects for weeks, sometimes months, before making a rough sketch and refining the details while working with an artist on the architectural model. Barragán has had a profound influence not only on three generations of Mexican architects, but many more throughout the world. In his acceptance of the Pritzker Architecture Prize (1980), he said, “It is impossible to understand Art and the glory of its history without avowing religious spirituality and the mythical roots that lead us to the very reason of being of the artistic phenomenon. Without the one or the other there would be no Egyptian pyramids, nor those of ancient Mexico. Would the Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals have existed?” His house and studio, built in 1948 in Mexico City, is a masterpiece in the development of the contemporary tendencies, integrating traditional, philosophical and artistic elements in one. His work becomes distinctive by the combination of contemporary and traditional elements, which is present even in the garden’s layout. They were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004.