One could (and should?) entitle this column “Mexico’s Barragán.” He is still the “Maestro.”
A few bored critics (probably not Mexican) inexplicably seem too eager to tear down those whose reputations they cannot hope to “acercar” (approach). But the consensus is in. The master is Luís Barragán (1902-1988).
A major piece on Barragán’s life and legacy recently appeared in the U.S., where he has received too little notice (Alice Gregory, “Body of Work,” New Yorker, August 1, 2016). The legend was raised on Jalisco ranches. He brought to Mexico City his memories of those evocative regional images and revolutionized private and much public architecture in Mexico. He received the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s “Nobel” prize, in 1980.
He was self-taught and preferred company of poets, philosophers and sculptors to that of architects. (This may be the reason for some of the carping). Yet, his actual designs owed a debt to Le Corbusier, with whom he studied, and Mies van der Rohe. He abhorred the glassiness of most modern architecture that was taking over Mexico City. (Think of flashy Avenida Reforma).
Barragán was devoted to the Mexican vernacular. His position can be seen in much the same way as, say, a Diego Rivera, reaching back to Mexico’s roots. Yet, he was able to reconcile tradition with modern internationalism. I just returned from Mexico City, staying with family and friends in Pedregal, an area on the way to Cuernavaca. It was planned by Barragán.
Many homes in Pedregal were inspired or designed by Barragán; they are integrated among ancient lava fields. I am fortunate to have a niece who is an architect. She and her colleagues included me in a visit to Barragan’s famous “Establos” (stables, built 1966-68), north of the city, in the Estado de Mexico.
There, his sheer white “cubistic” planes, massive walls, surrealistic (or minimalist?) structures are surrounded by giant Pirule trees and Mesquites. They blend with the pastures, pools, cascades and “Persian” gardens. Bold use of his signature Mexican colors – magenta, “Rosa Mexicana,” yellow and sky blue—are accented with natural woods on the doors of each stable and the harness room.
Barragán was a horseman and the Stables still house stately “Salto” (High Jump) horses. Cuadra de San Cristobal is an oasis freeing one, temporarily, from the “phantasmagorical” city of 21 million outside (Guy Trebag, “Finding Barragan,” New York Times, June 13, 2014). My young niece, her companions and I were the only guests that morning in this home/ranch in Atizapan of Zaragoza, Mexico. We were honored and humbled to enter and meditate in that Zen-like retreat.
We were helped by a hard-working, informative stable hand from Leon; his love of the horses was obvious. We were guided by the hostess who lives in the private estate, elegant Dona Mia Eglestrom. The almost eight acre Stables, owned by her fascinating family, friends of Barragan, is for sale – for a mere $10 million. I think it a bargain, perhaps for a B and B? My cuñado was doubtful, worried about possible new government regulations.
The vast storage and service areas seem a “proscenium from a de Chirico painting.” Trebag added, with humor: “it was so like Barragán to introduce elements of theatre in a space for stable hands hauling loads of feed and manure.” I agree. The uncanny touch with Mother Earth is pure Barragán, who, in his Pritzker acceptance speech, noted “myth and religious experience are the fountainhead of all acts of creation.”
Barragán said “I don’t divide architecture;” for him homes, patios, gardens, light and landscape were all one. The viewer cannot fail to see the over-arching humanity that encompasses the stunningly Mexican sensuality. Our group was inspired. Among them may be a future Barragán in training. Certainly Barragán’s influence can be seen through much of the rest of the city.
Perhaps you have already had the pleasure of seeing or staying at Hotel Camino Real, near Chapultepec Park, which Barragán created in tandem with architect, Ricardo Legorreta (architect of MARCO, the modern art museum in Monterrey). The hotel was featured in the film, “El Matador,” with Pierce Brosnan. Its magnificent fountain creates waves as high as those in a rough sea. You may have seen the artist’s own Casa Barragan with its famous floating wood staircase. Driving into Mexico City from Queretaro, you cannot miss his looming, colorful, mid-highway, high-rise towers near Satelite.
The point is Mexico City and much of the rest of Mexico owe a great deal to Luís Barragán, this genius who loved art, architecture and the Mexican people. There were other options for me. On another day my family and I visited again Carlos Slim’s homage to his deceased spouse, the Soumaya Museum. Across the street, in Polanco, we toured the newer, more critically acclaimed Museo Jumex (with a current exhibit of Swiss artists Fishli/Weis). But, for me, there is nothing like the combination of indigenous Mexican art and colors blended with the functional warmth of Barragán’s creativity.
I fell in love all over again with the museums (more, per capita, than any city in the world), the saga and the scenery that pervade Mexico. Mexico City (at least) is safe now. It is time to return or go for the first time. Be brave. Be entranced. See the art and artists, both folk culture and contemporary culture, which fill the landscape with exquisite details. They fill, in so many ways, so many of your esthetic and spiritual needs. I can only say they did that for me. Viva art, light, sound, space and sensuality! Viva Mexico!
Editor’s Note: The main image and the photos in the slideshow were taken by the author of this column, Dr. Gary Joe Mounce.