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Architect of the intangible.

INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNIZED among artists and intellectuals, Luis Barragan (1902-1988) is revered as one of the masters of contemporary Mexican architecture. Barragan dedicated himself to a lifelong search for an artistic expression that would embody the poetic richness of Mexico's past as well as address current aesthetic trends. Utilizing his extraordinary talents as a landscape architecture, interior designer, real estate developer, and city planner, he masterfully combined the intangible essences of architecture--intimate spaces, mystical light, sensuous materials, and arresting color--into a new aesthetic, an "emotional" architecture of poetry and mystery. In accepting the 1980 Pritzker Architecture Prize (the profession's equivalent of the Nobel Prize), Barragan remarked, "I have devoted myself to architecture as a sublime act of poetic imagination. Consequently, I am only a symbol for all those who have been touched by beauty. The words Beauty, Inspiration, Magic, Spellbound, Enchantment, as well as the concepts of Serenity, Silence, Intimacy and Amazement, all these have nestled in my soul. Though I am fully aware that I have not done them complete justice in my work, they have never ceased to be my guiding lights."

Luis Barragan Morfin was born in Guadalajara on March 9, 1902 to a well-to-do family, and spent the first eight years of his childhood, with five brothers and four sisters, in the capital of the state of Jalisco. At the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, his family moved to their large ranch, Hacienda de Corrales, near Mazamitla in Jalisco. During this period, the youthful Barragan began a personal process of discovery that would last throughout his artistic career. As he traveled on horseback surveying the day-to-day workings of the hacienda, he began to understand provincial Mexican life and was inspired by its physical beauty and spiritual richness. Later he recalled, "My architecture is autobiographical. Underlying all that I have achieved are the memories of my father's ranch were I spent my childhood and dolescence. In my work, I have always strived to adapt the magic of those remote nostalgic years to the needs of modern living. The lessons to be learned from the unassuming architecture of the village and provincial towns of my country have been a permanent source of inspiration."

With the end of the Mexican Revolution and the reconstruction programs of President Alvaro Obregon, Barragan's youthful dreams of becoming an hacendado (an hacienda owner) faded as the government debated major agrarian reforms. These reforms included the potential redistribution of large tracts of land held by private individuals throughout Mexico. In 1922, following his mother's encouragement to pursue a more secure vocation, Barragan began an apprenticeship under his brother, an engineer in Guadalajara, and enrolled in the Free School of Engineering. But while completing a rigorous technical degree in civil engineering, Barragan developed a passion for architecture. He read endlessly and had long discussions with his friends Rafael Unzua and Ignacio Diaz Morales. After graduating in 1924, he embarked on a grand architectural tour of France, Italy, Greece and Spain. During his travels, Barragan was profoundly influenced by the works of the French landscape architect, Ferdinand Bac in Les Colombiers, and by an inspirational visit to the serene gardens of Spain's Alhambra. His tour came to an abrupt halt when he was notified of his mother's death.

When Barragan returned to Mexico in 1925, the nationalistic movement which had swept the artistic and intellectual circles during the period of reconstruction following the Revolution was in full swing. Mexican artists and intellectuals, such as Gerardo Murillo (Dr. Alt), Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Justino Fernandez and Carlos Pellicer were struggling to formulate a uniquely Mexican contemporary artistic expression. These artists developed a style rooted in Mexico's own rich cultural tradition, as opposed to imitating styles from abroad, as was the trend during the last decade of President Porfirio Diaz' regime when the French mode was popular.

In 1926, Barragan, along with Pedro Castellanos, Rafael Unzua, and Ignacio Diaz Morales established a group of nationalist architects with a renewed interest in the provincial architecture of the state of Jalisco. For most architects, that meant simply a revival of the Hispanic-Moorish styles, or an imitation of local convents and haciendas. But Barragan went much further than simple revivalism. He carefully defined a regional ideology and formal vocabulary that was grounded in the climate, culture and building traditions of Jalisco. The fourteen private houses built between 1927 and 1936 (including the Robles Leon house of 1927-28), with their traditional white wall courtyards, lattice covered verandas, and arched openings clearly reflect Barragan's attempts to construct a regional modern architecture. The houses are well-planned hybrids of formal elements borrowed from vernacular structures, Spanish haciendas and Hispanic-Moorish architecture. Through their intimately defined courtyards and enchanting fountains, they begin to evoke Bac's ideas of an "emotional" architecture.

After his father's death in 1930, Barragan decided to use his inheritance to travel to Europe and North Africa. He hoped to rest as well as to find intellectual inspiration for his work. In France Barragan met one of the great masters of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, whose book Towards a New Architecture opened the way for the "machine aesthetic." Barragan was inspired by Le Corbusier's lectures and by trips to the recently completed Villa Savoye in Poissy, and the Beistegui Apartment in Paris. Furthermore, through personal discussions with Ferdinand Bac in Menton, Barragan developed an understanding of the spiritual qualities that the elements of architecture could possess. According to Bac, "The garden holds within itself the whole universe, it is a prize of our work, and in the art of garden making we find the greatest sum of serenity of which man is capable."

Learning of President Lazaro Cardenas' agrarian reforms upon his return, Barragan decided to move to Mexico City. In the late thirties the capital was in the grip of modernization and rapid expansion, and its artists and intellectuals were anxious to become part of the international avant-grade. Barragan developed professional relationships with painter Jesus (Chucho) Reyes, sculptor Mathias Goeritz, and historian Edmundo O'Gorman. The leading architects Jose Villagran Garcia, Juan O'Gorman and Juan Legarreta were deeply entrenched in the imported European Bauhaus Functionalism or International style. The houses and apartment buildings Barragan completed between 1936 and 1940, reflect his struggle to define for a second time a modern architecture for Mexico. He moved away from the universalism of the International style, and looked instead to the poetics of Le Corbusier's work. The result can be seen in the Casa Pizarro Suarez of 1937 and the Plaza Melchor Ocampo Apartments (with Jose Creixell) of 1936-40. Both are comprised of an architectural promenade of interlocking sequential spaces and abstracted white wall planes, carefully composed and detailed. During this period Barragan focused on the production of buildings which featured a series of unfolding spaces, volumes and light, not merely white wall surfaces or sculptural forms. Yet in the final analysis, this functionalist style did not satisfy him aesthetically, nor was it lucrative. Barragan decided to leave architecture aside for a time and pursue the real estate business. With a good economic base, he was then at liberty to create as he pleased.

In the early 1940s Barragan inaugurated a third architectural phase in which he totally rejected the International style. Instead he developed a synthesis of the Greco-Roman concepts of engineering and construction; the Arab traditions of sensuality, intimacy and mystery; and the elegance of popular architecture from Mexico, Morocco and the U.S. southwest, especially New Mexico. Like any great artist, Barragan created his own vocabulary of forms, and the process of developing and augmenting that vocabulary went parallel with the process of crystalizing those elements into specific architectural solutions. The foundation for his later masterpieces was established by three major works of this period: the Jardines del Pedregal de San Angel (1945-52), the Casa Luis Barragan (1947) and the Casa Prieto Lopez (1943-49).

The union of environment and architecture expressed in the Jardines del Pedregal de San Angel, known today as El Pedregal (the Rocky Place), reflects the political tone of the mid-1940s. During this time the government of President Manuel Avila Camacho initiated conservation legislation and began establishing national parks. El Pedregal is an 865-acre residential subdivision, which was financed, developed, designed and built by Barragan on lava terrain created by the extinct Xitle volcano in southern Mexico City. What resulted was a magical juxtaposition of a residential complex with a rugged primitive landscape, set off by the introduction of a series of gardens, elegant pools and phosphorescent-colored walls. In describing the space, Barragan said, "when the garden was created apart from the trees and lawns, I discovered that the places where you could better feel the magic and mystery were in the gardens formed directly on the rock. More precisely in the contrast between grass and rocks."

These ideas are developed further in the Casa Prieto Lopez (1943-49), the first house completed in the Jardines del Pedregal. Here Barragan created spaces evoking intimacy and connected to both the Mexican architectural traditions and the surrounding volcanic landscape. One enters the house from the suburban street into a square courtyard, which is dominated by a series of monumentally scaled planer walls of white and luminescent yellow. Brilliant light and soft shadows play on the plaster walls and the rough cut lava stone paving of the court. Upon entering what appears at first glance to be a group of individual rooms based on traditional hacienda construction techniques, one discovers the massive walls and beamed ceilings have been transformed. A linked series of identifiable figural spaces, split floor levels, and fragmented wall planes of varying scale, texture and color encourage movement through a family of spaces modulated by light and then out into the landscape framed by large window openings. In the private garden, with its view of the rolling hills beyond, huge lava outcroppings interrupt the linear quality of the lava stone terraces and the stillness of the swimming pool, emphasizing the ultimate power of nature over man.

In the early 1950s Barragan began to place greater emphasis on abstraction, bright color, tactile materials and light to develop an individual expression of Mexican life. His previous style, as exemplified in the Casa Prieto Lopez, 1943-49, was replaced by a new vocabulary of simple walls, plazas and fountains. Two major works of this period--the Chapel for Capuchinas Sacramentarias del Purisimo Corazon de Mario in Tlalpan, Mexico City (1952-55) and the San Cristobal horse ranch (with Andres Casillas) in Los Clubes (1967-68)--reflect Barragan's quest to merge the spirit of modernism with tradionalism through the subtle juxtapositions of architecture and landscape.

Barragan traveled again to Europe, North Africa and to remote areas of Mexico in 1951, further refining his knowledge of Moorish, Spanish and Hispanic architectural traditions. He was fascinated with the Islamic garden, as well as with the colonial architectural heritage of Mexico. As he observed "I have frequently visited with reverence the now empty monumental monastic buildings that we inherited from the powerful religious faith and architectural genius of our colonial ancestors, and I have always been deeply moved by the peace and well being to be experienced in those uninhabited cloisters and solitary courts. How I have wished that these feelings may leave a mark on my work."

It was also during this period that Barragan became interested in the work of the metaphysical painters Giorgio de Chirico, Carlo Carra, Giorgio Morandi and the magic realist painters, Paul Delvaux, Pierre Roy, and Balthus, and their abilities to convey subconscious dreams and emotions in their work. Intrigued by their use of contrasts (vast empty spaces with intimate bright places) and by their ability to portray the subconscious, Barragan grounded his new architecture on the emotional aspects and rituals of Mexican life. For example, his San Cristobal horse ranch (1967-68) captures the essence of equestrian life and the beauty of the thoroughbred horse, through the creation of a poetic balance and tension between horse, rider and the native landscape. Influenced by the equestrian religious pageants performed in the atrios or walled courtyards of seventeenth century Mexican open air churches, Barragan transformed the equestrian complex of stables, paddock, dressage fields and owner's house into an animated spatial ensemble. It was his desire to create an "architecture for horses, which celebrates their shape and movement." In effect, "the horses become actors, inhabiting a new mythological stage." As one moves through the masterful sequence of interlinking spaces occupied by these majestic creatures, one discovers the heart of the complex: the horse scaled paddock. One is immediately confronted by a world of seemingly inexplicable juxtapositions of architectural elements.

Walls of brilliant pink, mauve and violet define the paddock and create a place of silence and mystery for the single shade tree and the fountain with a pool. Openings in the walls frame views of the surrounding landscape and allow riders on horseback to pass through as they leave this precinct for the adjoining dressage fields. The walls can be viewed as strong symbols of Mexican popular culture--monumental, brightly colored, modern--and the space they create may be a reference to a bygone time--the central plaza of a rural village with animals surrounding a simple fountain. Thus, Barragan connects the viewer spiritually to the past, present and future of Mexican life.

In the late seventies, entering the final stage of his career, Barragan shifted the emphasis of his design to an architecture based entirely upon celebrating the Mexican spirit through the symbolic qualities of space, color, material and light. In Casa Gilardi (1976-80), the last house designed and built by Barragan (with Alberto Chauvet), one clearly perceives Barragan's ability to express the passion of the Mexican people through architecture. Upon entering this house, located in Tacubaya, Mexico City, one discovers a sequence of spaces defined by richly colored horizontal and vertical planes animated by the careful modulation of light, reflection and shadow. Barragan said, "In the house I made for Mr. Gilardi, colors play an important role. The patio is a vibrant lilac, the color of the flowers of the giant Jacaranda tree. The corridor (with its yellow light) prepares the voyage through the house to arrive at an important space, a dining room with a pool. Suddenly, from the pool a magenta wall cuts the water and almost touches the ceiling. The wall gives a sense to the space, makes it magic, creates tension over the space. From the ceiling a light well bathes that wall, emphasizing its role."

For Barragan color was the essence of the Mexican spirit, the only luxury in the provincial home, and timelessly linked to Mexico through its iconographic references. But Barragan also viewed color with a practical eye. As he once elaborated, "I consider color to be functional. It can make a house peaceful or joyous or erotic. It is useful to enlarge or shrink a space. It is also useful to add that touch of magic a space needs. I use color, but when designing I do not think in it. I define it when the space is built. Then I visit the place continuously at different times of the day, and start to imagine color from the most wild and incredible tones. I go back to books on paintings; I see the work of Surrealists, in particular those of Giorgio de Chirico, Balthus, Rene Magritte, Paul Delvaux and Chucho Reyes. I go about the pages, looking at images and paintings and suddenly I identify some color I had imagined. I select it. Later, on large pieces of cardboard I ask the master painter to reproduce them and tape the cardboards to the unpainted walls. I leave them for a few days, changing the tones and contrast, finally I select the most appealing one and order it painted."

Luis Barragan's development and reformulation of Mexican architecture was an endless artistic search for a contemporary expression of Mexican culture. When he died on November 22, 1988, the world lost one of its greatest modern architects. The power and originality of his work influenced three generations of Mexican architects during his lifetime and continues to inspire the work of architects such as Ricardo Legorretta and Manolo Maestre. In a time of much cultural, social and economic confusion, Barragan's architecture remains an important statement. It cuts through the current artistic rhetoric with an approach that does not rely on literal meaning or overt historicism; rather, Barragan's work becomes a spectacle for our senses and a mystery for our intellect. Most importantly, it is an architecture for all time.

Max Underwood is an architect in the Southwest and associate professor of architecture at Arizona State University, Tempe. Quotes on pages 8 and 12 are from The Architecture of Luis Barragan, by Emilio Ambasz, [C] The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976.
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Title Annotation:Luis Barragan
Author:Underwood, Max
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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