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The Technicolor Corners of Barragán’s Mexico City

Destinations, Architecture, Destinations, Guide

001 Louis Barragan Casa Barragan Header Agnieszka Owsiany
  • Words Vidula Kotian
  • Date 27 January 2021

“The ideal space must contain elements of magic, serenity, sorcery and mystery.”
Luis Barragán

 

Dubbed the artist among architects, Luis Barragán is one of the most famous architects of the 20th century. Revered for his geometric, brightly colored buildings, the Pritzker Prize-winner is known for blending vernacular hacienda elements with modernist influences from Europe and America. After studying engineering, he then traveled around Europe admiring buildings and attending design fairs. After returning to Mexico, he got his first architectural commission and practiced in Guadalajara for almost a decade. In 1936, he moved to Mexico City, where he designed his most iconic works. Here, we take you on an architectural pilgrimage of five of his masterpieces.

Torres de Satélite

Designed in collaboration with painter Jesús Rayes Ferreira and sculptor Mathias Goeritz, this sculptural marvel marked the sparkling future of a new district, Ciudad Satelite. Out of the five isosceles pyramids in a central avenue, three are painted in the prime colors of red, blue, and yellow and accompanied by two neutral white icons. The concrete blocks of varying heights—the tallest being 52 meters—are totally hollow buildings with no roof. 

Set on a slightly inclined plaza, the towers extend upwards as the viewer approaches; its verticality accentuated like needles that are cut out in the sky. They’ve also undergone a few color transformations: originally white, yellow, and ocher in 1958; then orange to contrast with the blue of the sky on the occasion of the 1968 Olympics; and to its current colors in 1989.

002 Louis Barragan Torres Satelite 1 Adlai Pulido

Original design The initial plan was composed of seven towers

003 Louis Barragan Torres Satelite 2 Adlai Pulido

Emblems of modernity One of the country's first urban sculptures of great dimensions

Casa Barragán

The architect Louis Kahn called Barragán “completely remarkable” and praised the home that he designed for himself in Mexico City as “not merely a house but House itself.” A 12-minute drive from Torres de Satélite, Casa Barragán was built in 1948 and included in 2004 by UNESCO in its World Heritage list—the only individual property in Latin America to have achieved such a distinct honor.

Located in the working-class neighborhood of Tacubaya, this building-turned-museum showcases all of Barragán’s trademarks: an emphasis on color, light, shadow, form, and texture. The unimposing façade facing the street humbly blends in with its neighbors, giving no hints to the personality of it's interior. The most prominent aspects of the design of Casa Barragán are the use of flat planes and light, both natural and artificial. The skylights and windows allow for visual tracking of light throughout the day; the floods of natural light and views of nature are the key purposes of the windows.

004 Louis Barragan Casa Barragan Exterior Agnieszka Owsiany

A horizon that speaks It poses questions and responds with forms

005 Louis Barragan Casa Barragan Interior Agnieszka Owsiany

Central focus of the house A large garden in the back

006 Louis Barragan Casa Barragan Detail Agnieszka Owsiany

Home studio to design mecca Casa Barragán was converted to a museum in 1994

007 Louis Barragan Casa Barragan Stairs Agnieszka Owsiany

Monastic inspiration Barragán cites the cloisters throughout Mexico as an important influence

Opening up into the garden, the back of the house creates a visible and physical relationship between the lower level and the backyard. Barragán often called himself a landscape architect because he believed that architects should make “houses into gardens, and gardens into houses.” He made blueprints premised on surprise and an almost perverse protraction of pleasure. Low, dark corridors open into blindingly bright rooms with church-high ceilings. Floor plans only gradually make themselves evident to the visitor. He called it “architectural striptease.”

Barragán had a fascination with animals, particularly horses, so many relics of popular culture and symbols are found throughout the house. Crosses can also be found in multiple rooms, which, coupled with the bold colors he used, create a mythical and spiritual architecture. He found many of his furnishings at craft markets and antique shops, all true to the cultural identity of Mexico. This cultural flare is also apparent in the bold pink, yellow, and lilac colors chosen by the architect. The minimalist style underlines the significance of detail, every aspect of the house has its purpose and the architect’s intentions are made starkly clear.

Keith Eggener, an architectural historian who made a pilgrimage to Barragán’s house soon after he died in 1988, recalled his impressions: “Even when it was run-down, it was a ravishing house,” he said. “I remember having this feeling of really wanting to spend the night there—not just to sleep in the house but to sleep with the house.”

“The Art of Seeing. It is essential to an architect to know how to see: I mean, to see in such a way that the vision is not overpowered by rational analysis.”
Luis Barragán

Casa Ortega

In 1940, Barragán bought a 4,000-square-meter plot of land in the Tacubaya neighborhood of Mexico City and divided it into four parts. In three of these lots, he designed an extensive garden with multiple stacked terraces that compensate for the unevenness of the terrain. The remaining lot was divided in two for the construction of Casa Ortega and eventually, Casa Barragán. Built in 1943, Casa Ortega was the first residence designed by the architect, and a prelude to what would one day be his home studio.

This former residence is defined by an opulent, almost wild garden that evokes ancient orchards where vegetation has a life of its own. According to photographic documents and descriptions made by Barragán, the garden originally contained larger lawn extensions, which he typically allowed to grow more freely. It is an oasis in the middle of the urban desert that Mexico City has become. This oasis is essentially monochromatic; save for the white or orange jasmines and narcissus. It is composed of several shades of intense green, a color never used in Barragán’s palette.

009 Louis Barragan Jardin Ortega 2 Adlai Pulido

Blueprint for the future The architect's first residence

008 Louis Barragan Jardin Ortega 1 Adlai Pulido

The landscape architect The garden was as much a part of the masterplan as the structure

Casa Gilardi

Casa Gilardi was Barragán’s final residential project, constructed in 1976 when the architect was 80 years old. This relatively small, pink home was built around a large Jacaranda tree that is today the focus of the central terrace. Colors and light play a central role, both acting as fundamental elements of the space’s architecture. Barragán once told a journalist that as a schoolboy, while out riding, he would notice “the play of shadows on the walls, how the afternoon sun gradually got weaker—although it was still light—and how the look of things changed, angles got smaller and straight lines stood out even more.” 

Like at many of his projects, such as his own house and studio, bold hues plays an important role at Casa Gilardi, inspired in this case by paintings of Mexican artist "Chucho" Reyes Ferreira with whom he collaborated on the Torres de Satélite. While the patio is a vibrant lilac, the dramatic yellow corridor prepares visitors for a very important space: the dining room and striking indoor pool, known for playing with light and color in a remarkable way. The house is still furnished with pieces chosen by Barragán, from antiques to designs created specifically for the spaces.

010 Louis Barragan Gilardi Pool Michal Scigaj

The indoor pool Light and bold color make for striking interiors

011 Louis Barragan Gilardi Ceiling Window Michal Scigaj

Onsite studio The architect would spend days on the plot studying the movement of light

012 Louis Barragan Gilardi Facade Michal Scigaj

The star of the show The jacaranda tree convinced Barragán to take on the project

Casa Prieto-López

Our last stop is Casa Prieto-López, which was designed in the late 1940s and is widely recognised as one of his most iconic residential projects. Painted vividly in a pastel color palette, with small doors and windows in ratio to the walls, this house emits an aura of peace. Built on the volcanic rock expansion of Pedregal, the house wasn’t designed by Barragán at his desk, but directly on site, with life-size models, touching the elements with his own hands. The stone, light, air—all of these pieces of the puzzle were sewn together within the project, adapting his drawings to the mutating conditions of the landscapes. Only in this way could he fully understand the nature and architecture of the home he had envisioned.

From the outside, the structure is linear, sober, square, following in line with the Modernist canon. A green pool reflects the modeled volumes dressed in limestone—a base often used by Barragán to stucco walls through a pre-hispanic technique of days long past. Other local elements such as volcanic stone, natural pigments, ceramics from Oaxaca, and native wood known locally as sabino or ahuehuete, lend a typical Mexican warmth to the austere purity of the structure. The same goes for color, which inside spans between beige, celeste, pink, and soft grays, bringing things together along with golden accents found in the wood of the parquet and custom-made furnishings.

The house was restored by the current owner—businessman and art collector César Cervantes and renamed Casa Pedregal. Cervantes worked with Barragán’s student and co-founder of local studio Parque Humano, Jorge Covarrubias, giving life to a meticulous restoration more akin to a modern archaeological enterprise than a residential home.

014 Louis Barragan Prieto Facade Adlai Pulido

Pre-hispanic technique Barragán used limestone to stucco the walls

013 Louis Barragan Prieto Interior Adlai Pulido

A natural palette Soft grays come together with the golden tones of the flooring and furniture

Header and Casa Barragán images courtesy Agnieszka Owsiany
Torres de Satélite, Casa Ortega and Casa Prieto-López images courtesy Adlai Pulido
Casa Gilardi images courtesy Michał Ścigaj

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