Quiet Revolution Continues

written by Miquel Adrià

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Luis Barragán (1902–1988) filled a gap in the history of architecture. His quiet revolution involved an act of syncretism between modernity and Mexican idiosyncrasy. His blind walls, use of light and shadows, open-air architecture and the essential quality of his designs are all facets of an immensely complex personality. At once Mexican and modern, Barragán proposed a revolutionary architecture composed of calm. His work did not conflict with the ideas of the Modern movement, since he used his personal experience to seek a different, perhaps more metaphysical, approach and understanding of his spaces, in order to define the meaning of his unfussy, simple architecture, intertwined with nature. His work has motion. It is alive and changes with a circularity that constantly progresses and perpetually returns.[1]


Although Barragán’s architecture is inward facing, it does not deny the existence of the outside world. His constructions are few in number but still feature prominently on the architectural landscape of the last century. His work produces a colorful crucible which blends Mexican vernacular traditions, the Mediterranean world, and a certain modernity. His architecture is intimate, clear, simple, austere and abstract, enriched with an abundant use of color; and there is an unusually strong fascination for water throughout Barragán’s work, which is hermetic and archaic and holds a promise of calm.[2]


His understanding of space—subtly marking it out, framing it, and appropriating each stone yet barely touching it, making a tree his own simply by supporting its shadow—enabled him to transform it using the minimum number of elements. Barragán is the paradigm of 20th-century Mexican architecture, and not only because he is the only Mexican to have won architecture’s top award: the Pritzker Prize. During the last century, various schools and architects were constantly searching for signs of Mexican identity while also identifying with modern premises. Barragán was not exempt from this duality, and he was forever engaged in the debate between vernacular influences and the modernity of Le Corbusier. In his work, Barragán reconciled the idea of international architecture with a pared down vernacular vision: his architecture manages very dissimilar cultural concepts that nevertheless share a certain unique and intimate vision of the domestic garden. Therefore, the Alhambra, which made such an impact on him during his first trip to Europe, together with the popular architecture of his Guadalajara and Mediterranean culture, all combined with a subtle interpretation of modern architecture and sieved through his idiosyncratic reflectiveness, calm, and serenity, to result in one of the most suggestive works of 20th-century architecture.[3]


Luis Barragán, following an initial phase of working in his native Guadalajara before embarking on a rationalist and modern period in Mexico City, went on to travel, a time when he found inspiration in Mediterranean architecture and gardens. On his return he established himself permanently in the Mexican capital and his architecture took a new direction, assimilating the modern language espoused by Le Corbusier and using it to define his own style: the construction of an abstract architectural language based on materials and solutions learned from the Mexican tradition. Similarly to Louis Kahn, his friend, he interrupted his career at its prime. Perhaps he needed the space in which to think and to earn some money. Barragán began to work in real-estate speculation, achieving financial independence that was essential for him to work without restrictions. Within a short span of time he had become rich and was able to build free from compromises—discretely, and behind high walls.


In the same way as Le Corbusier on a global level, Barragán has been followed by generations of Mexicans. The difference between imitators and disciples is that the imitators have used Luis Barragán as their destination, while for his disciples his work is a starting point.[4] Paradoxically, his foremost disciples are to be found in other parts of the world: distance and time have helped them understand the architect’s message. They are not so worried about seeing what Barragán did. Instead they try to see what Barragán saw.


Luis Barragán undoubtedly entered the history books as Mexico’s most important 20th-century architect, causing future generations to delight in the use of color and smooth concrete stucco finishes. More interested in the resulting image than in the discourse, Barragán’s works are quiet dialogues between blind walls and muted light. In post-Barragán architecture one can discern a preference for form, even empty of content: the closed would take precedence over the open, the representative over the functional, the aesthetic over the ethical.


By the end of the 20th century, there was an outlook of Barragan followers led by Ricardo Legorreta with painted walls and metaphysical towers. Legorreta worked with José Villagrán and learned from Luís Barragán, becoming the main exporter of Mexican architecture, again with his concrete stucco finishes, blind walls and the use of color. In the past two decades of the last century, a large number of followers of this tendency came to trust this chromatic resource as a sign of identity, although they have recently been overtaken by more minimalist formalism. Ricardo Legorreta received the Japan Imperiale prize, the Gold Medal of aia and some others. He exported the Mexican architecture around the world with scenographic monumentality. His first important project was the Hotel Camino Real where he changed the American concept for luxury hotels, building a horizontal sequence of courtyards. What Kenneth Frampton defined as critical regionalism for Legorreta were defined as the rescue of colonial typologies and popular materials. The influence of Barragan came with the intensive use of bright colours and the atemporality of primary forms, like cylinders, spheres and cubes. His most relevant buildings were built on the nineties, like Museo marco at Monterrey (1991), Museo del Niño, México City (1993), library at San Antonio, Tejas (1995) and, among others, the Centro Nacional de las Artes, at México City. Some buildings were built at the United States, Japan, Spain, Brazil and Egipt. Basically speaking, Legorreta translated the poetry of Barragan into prose.


Some other architects could be mentioned as Barragan followers, like Andres Casillas who worked directly with Barragán and was deeply influenced by his architecture, and who built some houses with the same sensibility of the master. But, perhaps some foreigners like Tadao Ando, John Pawson and Alberto Campo Baeza that never met him, had understood much better than local imitators, the deep sense of the Barragán heritage.


[1] Ruiz Barbarín 17

[2] ibid. 23

[3] ibid. 13

[4] ibid. 13