By Deborah Van Hoewyk
At any given point in its 5,000-year history, Mexican architecture represents a chronicle of cultural change. From ancient Mesoamerican ruins and Spanish colonial buildings, followed by Spanish and French styles (mostly reflections of European Baroque and Neoclassical), through a series of modernist/brutalist approaches that work to incorporate Mexican themes and traditions, Mexican architecture has reflected external influences and tried to integrate them with native themes. These styles are all represented by well-known public buildings, many in Mexico City – think the Metropolitan Cathedral (1813), the Palacio de Bellas Artes (1934), the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadeloupe (1976), and the Museo Soumaya in Plaza Carso (2011).
Mexican Modernity, Mexican Houses
It is the Mexican house, however, that created a true Mexican modernism that synthesizes international modernist influences with Mexican architectural traditions. And the architect (and engineer) who accomplished this synthesis was Luis Ramiro Barragán Morfín (1902-88), largely through the houses he designed in the 1950s and 1960s. Barragán is the only Mexican to have won the prestigious Pritzker Prize, often referred to as the “Nobel prize of architecture.”
Born in Guadalajara, Barragán graduated from the Escuela Libre de Ingenieros de Guadalajara in 1923. He would complete coursework elsewhere that qualified him as an architect as well. Two years later, and again in 1931, he toured western Europe, where his observations led him to see landscape as integral to architecture. He also met modernist European architects, saliently Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, the Swiss-French architect known as Le Corbusier, from whom Barragán learned to appreciate clean, simple lines; open, sculptural spaces; deftly handled color and light; and gradually, a softening of the mechanical relationship between the architecture and its purpose.
According to Andrés Casillas, who worked with Barragán, the “rules” of the Modernist movement had a functionalist tendency to make the house “a machine for living,” and Barragán had moved on to a more “emotional architecture.” Barragán claimed that “any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake.” Furthermore, Barragán felt that “In alarming proportions, the following words have disappeared from architectural publications: beauty, inspiration, magic, sorcery, enchantment, and also serenity, mystery, silence, privacy, astonishment. All of these have found a loving home in my soul.”
The Houses of Barragán’s Soul
Barragán is usually referred to as a modernist, and his buildings do use clean lines and raw, natural, and simple materials. What sets his houses apart, however, is the use of color and light, along with a surprising use of space – both interior and exterior – to create a flowing, connected, or self-contained spatial composition.
Casa-Jardin Ortega, Tacubaya, CDMX, 1942: Tacubaya is an old working-class neighborhood in CDMX; Barragán bought several lots there and built this house as his own. He lived there from 1942 to 1947, when he sold the house to a silversmith named Alfredo Ortega to raise money for another landscape project. Barragán started with the jardin (garden) part with a wandering multi-level garden, but the casa (house) gradually emerged in the form of a large, T-shaped house. While little-visited today, the Casa-Jardin Ortega is considered the first of Barragán’s mature works, and a primary example of his ideas about uniting the setting with the house. About Casa-Jardin Ortega, Barragán said, “In 1941, I created my first garden in Mexico City. I acquired a piece of land with various slopes, complemented and leveled various platforms to create a garden in compartments, recalling the beauty of the patios and gardens of the Alhambra and the Generalife [palaces Barragán had visited in Granada, Spain].”
Casa-Estudio Luis Barragán, Tacubaya, CDMX, 1948: Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, Barragán’s studio is considered a remarkable regional adaptation of the international modern movement in architecture, achieved through Barragán’s integration of modernist design with traditional Mexican vernacular architecture. The casa-estudio has three stories and a private garden.
According to UNESCO, the house and studio “represent a masterpiece of the new developments in the Modern Movement, integrating traditional, philosophical and artistic currents into a new synthesis.” Of specific importance are “the profound dialogue between light and constructed space and the way in which colour is substantial to form and materials.”
Cuadra San Cristóbal, Egerstrom House in the Los Clubes subdivision northeast of CDMX, 1968: Accomplished in collaboration with his colleague Andrés Casillas, Cuadra San Cristóbal is perhaps Barragán’s best-known work. Formerly rural agricultural land, Los Clubes offered the architects the opportunity to echo the ranches the subdivision replaced. Cuadra San Cristóbal features a huge swimming pool (sometimes used to cool the horses), an architecturally integrated fountain (Fuente de las Amantes, or Lover’s Fountain), stables, gardens, plus a large house defined by a typical Barragán palette of pinks, purples, other bright accent colors grounded with earth-toned elements.
Casa Gilardi, San Miguel Chapultepec, CDMX, 1977: Casa Gilardi is Barragán’s last house, designed as a “bachelor pad” for two friends who ran an advertising agency; it is now occupied by the family of one of the friends. The commission had two requirements. First, the house had to surround an old jacaranda tree in the center of the lot, and second, there had to be a large indoor pool. In somewhat of a departure from his other houses, Casa Gilardi works to preserve the privacy of its residents, rather than allowing spaces to flow together; on the other hand, Casa Gilardi may be the epitome of Barragán’s use of color to define the architecture.
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