A Mexican architect and landscape architect, Luis Barragán (1902-1988) sought to reconcile traditional Mexican architecture with international modernism. Barragán has been termed a Surrealist, a Minimalist, and a Post-Modernist, yet his works are personal and evocative and often defy classification.
Luis Barragán was a 20th-century Mexican architect and landscape architect of vigorous and refined originality. He was born in 1902 in the state of Jalisco, where his family were builders by profession and also owned ranches. Growing up in Jalisco provided Barragán with a reserve of evocative regional images that would stay with him for the rest of his life and would appear with regularity in his designs.
Barragán was trained as an engineer and was entirely self-taught as an architect and landscape architect. This placed him outside the architectural mainstream and left him suspicious of architectural education, which, he felt, "estranged [architects] from their own emotional and intuitive capacities." Barragán once admitted that the only place he felt like a stranger was among architects. He worked for the most part in professional isolation, and a sense of this isolation comes through in his mature works, which are pervaded by a mood of quiet solitude.
Not surprisingly, then, it was not architects who were Barragán's greatest heroes, but practitioners of other creative professions: poets, philosophers, painters, sculptors. This is not to say that other architects did not have an impact on him. His Mexico City works of the 1930s owe a certain debt to Le Corbusier, whom he met on a European sojourn early in the decade. His emphasis on walls as planes in space also owes a debt to Mies van der Rohe. But Barragán was one of those rare creative personages who could borrow from diverse, and sometimes aesthetically contradictory, sources and bring the parts to a point of resolution that seemed to owe little to anyone. His unique goal was to reconcile international modernism with the Mexican regional styles he remembered from his youth.
Barragán was not a builder of skyscrapers; indeed, it is difficult to imagine what they would have looked like considering his abhorrence to the glassiness of modernism and his devotion to the Mexican vernacular. Many of his best known works consist of private residences and their gardens, with the relationship between the two being of prime importance. Barragán's conception of the garden, in which running water usually plays a significant role, has been described as "Persian" or "Islamic, " with the garden conceived of as the primary living space and the house itself as an adjacent area of retreat. An early visit to the Alhambra, with its compartmentalized and successive garden spaces, and the ideas of the French painter and landscape architect Ferdinand Bac, who ascribed a mystical, magical power to gardens, played seminal roles in Barragán's ideas about gardens and their relationship to houses.
Barragán's earliest Guadalajara works, such as the villa of G. R. Cristo of 1929, show quite literal references to Islamic architecture. The buildings of Morocco, which he learned of through books brought back from his first European journey in the early 1920s, were particularly influential.
In 1936 Barragán relocated to Mexico City, where his work underwent a transformation and became more in tune with the International Style. The new modernism had already been firmly established in the more cosmopolitan national capital, but it was not a style that was completely foreign to the newcomer from Guadalajara. Barragán had been in Paris in 1931-1932 and had attended lectures by Le Corbusier. Designs such as that in the Avenida Parque Mexico of 1936 have a markedly Corbusian feel, complete with ribbon windows, rooftop solaria, and machine-like interior fit and finish.
By the end of World War II Barragán's International Style phase had passed and he had returned to a more regional site-specific aesthetic. El Pedregal, for instance, is a housing development near Mexico City which Barragán laid out on a plateau of desiccated lava beds. Houses here were to be enveloped by lava rock walls in order to preserve the visual integrity of the site. Barragán's contributions include the master plan, demonstration gardens, entrances, and a fountain plaza.
Barragán's own house in the Tacubaya section of Mexico City was erected in 1947. In this work Barragán first successfully reconciled indigenous Mexican forms with the modernist aesthetic. The house looks inward to a courtyard, recalling provincial designs, while speaking in the rectilinear, austere language of the International Style.
Brilliant colors had become a Barragán trademark by the 1960s. His own previously stark-white house fell under the palette. New works as well, though Minimalist in form, were enlivened and humanized by the addition of color. The importance of color also comes through in Barragán's "equestrian trilogy, " which consists of two housing developments and a private estate. The architect, an avid horseman himself, conceived of the subdivision of Las Arboledas, begun in 1958, with horseman in mind. In this design Barragán provided special paths for horses and gathering places for riders where water, rectilinear planes, and brilliant colors come together with nature to form a surreal, and yet serene, environment. The Los Clubes subdivision, begun in 1964, follows a similar formula. Here, in 1967-1968, Barragán erected San Cristobal, a private estate consisting of a stable, horse pool, swimming pool, and house. Color also plays an important role in this ensemble, with pink, red, and purple drawing attention to the Minimalist elements of the design and at the same time providing relief from their starkness.
Barragán has been placed in many categories over the years: Surrealist, Minimalist, Post-Modernist among them. His compositions often do suggest the paintings of de Chirico, and he does reduce the elements of his structures to the bare essentials. He has more recently been called a Post-Modernist due to his emphasis on the wall over the void (he disliked window walls because they lacked the "serene, " protective quality of masonry), his use of sometimes quite brilliant color, and the site-specific, regionalist quality of his works.
In 1980 Barragán's long years of faithful, unassuming devotion to his art were given international recognition with the award of architecture's highest honor, the Pritzker Architectural Prize, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for architecture. He died on November 22, 1988, at the age of 86, after a long bout with Parkinson's disease.
Further Reading on Luis Barragán
The Barragán bibliography is quite extensive and consists mainly of journal articles. There are two monographs on Barragán: The Architecture of Luis Barragán by Emilio Ambasz (1976) and Luis Barragán by Wiel Arets and Wim van den Bergh (Rotterdam: scheduled for 1990). The Ambasz book provides an illustrated listing of Barragán's work through 1976, as well as a lengthy bibliography of articles from both English and Spanish language journals. The entry on Barragán by C. Ray Smith in Contemporary Architects (1987) provides a chronological list of Barragán's works through 1984 as well as an updated bibliography. "Luis Barragán: The Influential Lyricist of Mexican Culture, " an article by Mario Schjetnan G. in Landscape Architecture (January 1982), provides a particularly insightful interview with Barragán in which he discusses his design philosophy.