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Luis Barragán, Cuadra San Cristóbal, Los Clubes, Atizapán de Zaragoza, State of Mexico, 1966–1968. View of the horse pool and residence. Photo Armando Salas Portugal

© 2023 Barragan Foundation, Switzerland / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Architecture of Luis Barragán

 Magic, Myth, Mystery

By Nicolette Reim 

Luis Barragán (1902–1988), Barragán House, Mexico City, 1948. Roof terrace (undated photograph, ca. late 1960s).

© 2023 Barragan Foundation, Switzerland / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Past a bright green fence and down a vivid orange bridle path, a grove of mango trees opens to an elevated canal. The glistening water reflects sky and trees. Beside it, a magenta wall, heavily textured, captures wispy shadows of ever-changing, flickering foliage and bestows privacy. The height of a trough is perfect for the horses for which it has been created; riders can remain in their saddles. All seems in harmony; architecture and landscape in perfect equilibrium. This is Las Arboledas, an upper-class settlement created in 1957 by Luis Barragán (1902-1988), a late work that joins space, earth, wall and tree, for which the architect is prominently known. Modern by international standards, Barragán was also culturally sophisticated, and a devout Catholic. He received a college education, but developed his ideas primarily through discussions with others, travel, reading, observation and his own experiments. His degree was not in architecture, but civil engineering. Earlier projects restricted the element of landscape to patios or gardens and sought to resolve the conflict between the customary walled Mexican gardens and the open residential lots with lawns filtering down from North America to become the norm.


Luis Barragán (1902–1988), Gálvez House, Mexico City, 1955. View from the living room‘s antechamber towards the recessed fountain (undated photograph). Photographer Armando Salas Portugal

© 2023 Barragan Foundation, Switzerland / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Moving to Mexico City from the family home in Guadalajara in 1936, Barragán began to think of building sites as departures for personal, spatial and poetic investigations as he designed gardens for his personal use. He became more engaged and started shaping the land, particularly the gardens of the Jardines del Pedregal (1945-52), a residential development, the urban development Las Arboledas (1957-62), and the stables at Cuadra San Cristobal (1966-68). Pedregal (meaning "rocky place") was formed from a volcanic eruption by the volcano Xitle in the second century. The physical setting is unique in its flora, fauna and mythical associations––land that had been portrayed in painting and poetry as a truly Mexican location and had witnessed historical occupation by native peoples and Iberian conquerors, violent displacement, and isolation. Barragán did not divide the vast area into neatly packaged subdivision lots, but was guided by the flow of once molten lava, its enigmatic water pools and erratic crannies. Original flora and fauna remained. Pedregal was at the pinnacle of his architectural career and had made a significant contribution to landscape architecture. The home he created there for himself is now a museum.


The links that lead to Barragán begin in 1519 when the Spanish colonialist Captain Hernan Cortés and his eleven ships landed upon the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Within two years, the most powerful empire in all of Mesoamerica was vanquished, and less than two years after that, in 1521, the last Aztec emperor, Guatemoc, surrendered to Cortés in the rubble of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, a spectacular city of massive pyramids, elaborately decorated palaces, and vast marketplaces. Franciscan friars soon arrived and built Catholic monasteries, cloisters, and churches at a rate as high as one a week. By the end of the 10th century, almost all indigenous people had been baptized. Constructions were minimal in design and ornamentation was discouraged, reflecting the pious, solemn Franciscan devotion to a life without luxury or pretension. Barragán admired and identified with the geometric simplicity inherent in their configurations.


Luis Barragán  (1902 - 1988) photo: Rene Burri

The hacienda was the first and most authentically Mexican building to emerge in the post-conquest era. Landed estates, enormous in scale (some as big as Belgium), resulted from land grants awarded by King Charles V of Spain to loyal conquistadors. The feudal lord was the absolute master––great wealth accumulated through various businesses. It did not last. The People's Revolution of 1910 targeted haciendas as the embodiment of the vast gulf between the very rich and the very poor. Most were sacked, looted and burned to the ground. A series of land reforms followed that abolished the institution entirely. Barragán was a keen examiner of preserved haciendas that survived, noting use of volcanic rubble, old wood, and the play of light on wall surfaces that varied from very rough to ageless polished patinas. His interest in architecture flourished through visits to Mexican villages and their homes, as well as through memories of his childhood abodes in his native state of Jalisco.


Following the Mexican revolution, nationalistic struggles seized on the idea of modernity. From the mid-1920s to the 1950s, Mexican architecture responded to government projects of cultural patriotism by embracing the ideals of "International Style" Modernism championed by Le Corbusier and Philip Johnson, among others––rectilinear, undecorated, asymmetrical, and white. Around this time, Barragán, age 23, left Mexico to spend time in Paris as part of his education. Gradually finding affinities with Parisian cultural life, he became a student of Ferdinand Bac, a writer, architect, artist and socialite who was heavily involved in the concept of a garden and became his mentor. Barragán brought back to Mexico Bac's term, "Mediterranean," a description of an amalgamation of the light, colors and decorative arts of many cultures, in this case, particularly southern Spain and Morocco. The term provided a solution to Mexico's architectural identity dilemma by helping to break the heavy influence of Francophilia and the oppression of the "International Style." The obsession with all things French can be partly attributed to Mexico's brief period of French rule from 1863 to 1867 under the leadership of Emperor Maximilian. The most fashionable houses in Mexico City were built in the French style, and the children of any self-respecting family that could afford it were educated in Paris. "Mediterranean" enabled Barragán to give new legitimacy and authority to the aspects of Mexican traditions he instinctively loved. He was the first modern architect to introduce the colors of the Mexican marketplace into his work. He transferred the bright pinks, yellows and purples of toys, fruit, candies, candles and fabrics to vast expanses of wall. Color was used to give meaning to an area or to accentuate a space, never just to be picturesque. Everything previously dismissed as ranchero (unsophisticated) was newly conceived by Barragán as "Mediterranean."


Luis Barragán (1902–1988), Gilardi House, Mexico City, 1975–1977. Swimming pool with free-standing wall (undated photograph, ca. late 1970s).

© 2023 Barragan Foundation, Switzerland / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mexican modernist architecture set out to confirm a sense of identity by adopting an architectural style that could assert the nation’s postcolonial condition. In addition, the efforts of artists such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, and Jesus Reyes helped change the cultural profile of modern Mexico from that of a nation that copied and imitated to one that celebrated its own folk crafts, traditions, and the legacy of the pre-Hispanic civilizations. On-going archeological findings inspired new uses of decoration and the art of the wall mural. In his building plans, Barragán increasingly used abstracted forms derived from the Mexican vernacular and evoking a nostalgic sense of the rural past. This has been referred to as his "emotional architecture" of the 1940s. Mexican modernist architecture, rooted in an identity of place, seemed to invoke a lost Eden of primitive innocence. It created interest in a sense of primitive time and mysticism and quickly became affiliated with what has been extensively explored in Latin American literature as "Magical Realism." This literary form is thought of as eccentric, supernatural, and mysterious in contrast to rational, technical, systematic and scientific cultures of Western countries. Barragán never considered his work to be Magical Realism, nor Surrealism as others have suggested. He is closer to the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, unceasing in his quest to achieve "an architecture of the senses and emotions." Not driven by nationalism, his intent was never to present a "Mexican" architectural style per se. He meant to remind us of past times in Mexican villages, seemingly timeless and mystical. His enclosed spaces create intimacy through the controlled use of daylight and the way the garden is framed. Rooftops can seem to borrow part of the sky to create evocative environments. Nevertheless, association with "Magical Realism" helped stereotype architectural works of this period.


Mexican modernist architecture, once eagerly anticipated and studied, is not nearly so well known today. Some blame the takeover of the idea of modernism that became the only model taught in Mexican architectural schools. Students influenced by professors and making the contacts needed for employment and professional recognition are from upper classes that can afford to send them to school. Consequently, the model of Modernism presented to clients, also upper class, was embraced as an emblem of elitism and an indication of demarcation from their servants. Architectural plans include servant quarters that hide the help from the occupants of the house, but have access to service tasks. Their small living quarters are furnished minimally, lack decoration, and are completed with inferior materials. A feudal system of very rich and very poor continues.

Historically, architecture in Mexico, as in many countries, has been dominated by men. Mexico's women are working for more inclusion and architectural designs that reflect changes in gender roles. Magazines and books are the historic means architects had to become known in other countries (when considering Barragán as a candidate for the Pritzker Prize, most of the members of the adjudicating committee viewed his work via photographs). The number of English translations of books and articles on Mexican architecture has greatly diminished, a huge professional handicap.


Luis Barragán (1902–1988), Gilardi House, Mexico City, 1975–1977. Swimming pool access (undated photograph, ca. late 1970s). Photographer Armando Salas Portugal

© 2023 Barragan Foundation, Switzerland / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Successive Mexican governments incorporated the concept of Modernism into various building projects that fed into post-colonial fantasies about the country's cultural identity. One proposal introduced the idea of "mestizo" (mixed race) in a futile attempt to unite the heterogenous composition of the Mexican nation that ultimately highlighted diversity among its ethnic groups. On a global level, Mexican architecture still tends to be thought of as "the other"––typecast as belonging in the realm of the emotional, colorful, hand-made and low-cost. Much of this is determined by its relationship to the United States. Mexico, like the rest of Latin America, switched from dependency on Europe to the United States as part of Westernization. The United States came to be seen as rational, brutish, technically oriented and pragmatic in contrast to Latin American aesthetics, idealism and sacrifice. The question of what is "Mexican-ness" persists today, and preoccupies modernist architectural discourse.


Luis Barragán is no doubt the most mythical figure in Mexican architecture. Although his architecture is personal, he created a colorful and emotional language in contrast to--even in protest against--the modern commercial world and its dehumanization. He is the only Mexican to be given architecture’s most prestigious award, the Pritzker Prize. Receiving it in l980, he said, "Only in intimate communion with solitude may man find himself," and "In the gardens and the homes I have designed I have always tried to allow for the interior murmur of silence, and in my fountains, silence sings." Despite his sympathy for society as a whole, his true focus was the individual, and the seclusion needed for a contemplative life. He remains a model for Mexican architects of how one can be redefined, not as a part of "the other," but through one's own architectural identity.

Luis Barragan Jardin.jpg

Luis Barragán (1902–1988)

Luis Barragán (1902-1988) was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. His professional training was in engineering, resulting in a degree at the age of twenty-three. His architectural skills were self-taught. In the 1920s, he traveled extensively in France and Spain and, in 1931, lived in Paris for a time, attending Le Corbusier's lectures. His time in Europe, and subsequently in Morroco, stimulated an interest in the native architecture of North Africa and the Mediterranean, which he related to construction in his own country.

In the late 1920s, he was associated with a movement known as the Escuela Tapatía or Guadalajara School, which espoused a theory of architecture dedicated to the vigorous adherence to regional traditions. His architectural practice was based in Guadalajara from 1927 until 1936 when he moved to Mexico City and remained until his death. His work has been called minimalist, but it is nonetheless sumptuous in color and texture. Pure planes, be they walls of stucco, adobe, timber, or even water, are his compositional elements, all interacting with Nature.

Barragán called himself a landscape architect, writing in the book, Contemporary Architects, (published by St. Martins Press, 1980), "I believe that architects should design gardens to be used, as much as the houses they build, to develop a sense of beauty and the taste and inclination toward the fine arts and other spiritual values." And further, "Any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake."


Nicolette Reim is a poet, artist and translator published in  Mojave River Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Poetic Sun, The Rail, Glint Literary Journal, recent anthologies Border Lines, Poems of Migration and Rumors Secrets & Lies, Poems About Pregnancy, Abortion & Choice, and other publications. She studied art at The New York Studio School and holds a Master Degree of Fine Arts in Poetry with a Concentration in Translation from Drew University. She exhibits abstractions based on writing and topography at NohoM55 Gallery, NYC and lives and works in NYC and Atlanta, Georgia

Nicolette Reim photo: Elias Maus

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