LUIS BARRAGAN (1902-1988) was one of Mexico’s most influential 20th century architects. Famed for his mastery of space and light, he reinvented the International Style as a colourful, sensuous genre of Mexican modernism.
Although not quite down-and-out, Luis Barragán (1902-1988) had certainly hit a rough patch when a letter arrived at his Mexico City studio in 1975 asking if the Museum of Modern Art in New York could stage a retrospective of his career.
Then 73, Barragán had built nothing outside his native Mexico, and was virtually forgotten there. He was so hard-up that he occasionally sold letters, sketches and books from his archive to make ends meet. But the beauty and orginality of Barragán’s buildings – like the Tlálpan Convent and Torri Satélite in Mexico City – had made him a legend among his fellow architects, and they lobbied hard for his MoMA exhibition. A few years later, Luis Barragán was awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s answer to the Nobel.
Barragán is now regarded as one of the most important architects of the 20th century. His buildings are renowned for their mastery of space and light, but Barragán was equally influential as a landscape architect and urban planner. Cited as an inspiration by a succession of other Pritzker winners – from Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry, to Rem Koolhaas – he is one of the handful of architects who succeeded in creating their own version of modernism by imbuing it with the warmth and vibrance of his native Mexico.
The son of wealthy, conservative parents, Barragán was born in Guadalajara, Mexico’s “second city” in 1902, and brought up on the family’s sprawling estate in the southern state of Jalisco. As an engineering student in Guadalajara, he became fascinated by architecture. Mexico’s artists and intellectuals were then searching for a new national identity after centuries of colonial rule. 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 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 foreign trip in the early 1930s – when he befriended the exiled Mexican muralist, José Clemente Orozco, in New York before meeting Le Corbusier and the landscape architect, Ferdinand Bac, in Paris – that Barragán settled in Mexico City and developed his own take on modernism.
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 (Barragán loved horse riding) and the 1975-77 Francisco Gilardi House framing an indoor pool.
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 – a post-volcanic lavascape – 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. His working day began with a 7.30am breakfast with his assistants, and ended at 4pm when they left the studio and he then moved to the house to spend his evening buried in art and architecture books. 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.
Thanks to the MoMA exhibition and the Pritzker Prize, Barragán enjoyed a few years of the admiration and attention he deserved before his death in Mexico City in 1988. Yet for an architect of his gifts, he left a disappointingly small body of work.
1902 Born in Guadalajara. Barragán is brought up in his family’s house there and their country estate in Jalisco.
1919 Studies engineering in Guadalajara, then switches to architecture.
1924 Travels through southern Europe before settling in Paris in 1925. Visits the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs there.
1926 Works for several years with his architect brother, Juan Jose, in Guadalajara mostly on family homes.
1931 Spends three months in New York where he befriends the artist, José Clemente Orozco. Returns to Paris and meets Le Corbusier and landscape architect, Ferdinand Bac.
1935 Moves to Mexico City after four frustrating years in Guadalajara.
1940 Over the next five years, Barragán plans and designs seven gardens including one for his own house on calle Francisco Ramirez.
1945 Plans a new development in El Pedegral, a lavafield outside Mexico City: highly influential in architectural circles, but commercially unsuccessful.
1952 Returns to Guadalajara to build a house for his friend, Dr Arriola.
1954 Begins a four year project to build the Tlálpan Convent, a masterly example of his use of colour and light.
1957 Designs the Torri Satélite, a cluster of towers on a traffic intersection in Mexico City.
1966 Starts work on the Folke Egerstrom House and Stables with the horse pond and fountain.
1975 After a fallow period in Mexico, a book by the architect, Emilio Ambasz, restores Barragán’s international reputation.
1977 Exhibition of Barragán’s work at MoMA, New York.
1980 Awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize for Architecture.
1988 Luis Barragán dies in Mexico City and is buried in Guadalajara.