Luis Barragán’s Forgotten Works, Revisited

After moving to Mexico City in 1935, the architect set about designing a series of obscure functionalist residences that he would later disown.

LUIS BARRAGÁN’S INCLUSION in the pantheon of the 20th century’s most influential architects rests on a strikingly limited output: foremost his own house and studio in the west of Mexico City, a UNESCO World Heritage site, followed by a handful of standout residences created after 1945 for wealthy clients. The reception of Barragán’s work is similarly reduced to a concise class of qualities: In the global imagination, his architecture became synonymous with evocatively vague notions of silence, mystery, serenity and thick walls in sensual colors considered to be redolent of some absolute sense of Mexican tradition.

No less an authority than Octavio Paz, the Mexican writer and Nobel laureate, summed up this reputation in 1980, on the occasion of Barragán winning the Pritzker, architecture’s top prize: “The art of Barragán is modern but not modernist … His architecture was inspired by two words: the word magic and the word surprise … The roots of his art are traditional and popular … stemming from Mexican pueblos where walls are painted in vivid colors — reds, ochres, blues — unlike those of Moorish and Mediterranean towns which are painted white.” If the encyclopedic mind of Paz, known for nuanced assessments, could help cement a selective, idealized version of facts around Barragán, why wouldn’t everyone else blithely accept this new, more streamlined historiography?

In 1931, Barragán, a then unknown architect from Guadalajara, traveled for the second time to Europe, where he visited several recent projects by Le Corbusier, including the Villa Savoye in Poissy, France. In notes from that trip, Barragán described the paradigmatic residence, which epitomized Le Corbusier’s radical theories for a new international architecture — characterized by whitewashed, rational “machines for living” with flat, terraced roofs, purist forms and long horizontal openings — as “very modern, like a beautiful sculpture.” The young Barragán, who was deeply affected by the Swiss father of Modernist architecture, does not fit so tidily into today’s prevalent reading of him as the author of introverted, almost fortified domestic sanctuaries known for their rich color schemes and locally inspired, joyfully inefficient touches.

But in fact, traces of Le Corbusier’s influence would remain present throughout Barragán’s oeuvre. He starts incorporating Corbusian elements here and there upon his return to Guadalajara, where until now his work had consisted of Spanish-looking houses with round-arched openings, rustic woodwork and other distinctly pre-Modern details. Nods to the European master can even be found, albeit in more subtle manifestations, in the Mexican’s late heroic houses — the famous floating staircase at Barragán’s own home, which he moved into in 1947, had its obvious precursor on the roof terrace of a Champs-Élysées penthouse Le Corbusier designed for a rich client. But Barragán’s interest in Corbusian ideas is nowhere more evident than in a seminal body of work he created in the immediate years following his move to Mexico City in 1935.

For the first five years after arriving in the booming capital, where he hoped to improve his prospects and would later stake his reputation, Barragán designed almost two dozen apartment buildings and houses in up-and-coming neighborhoods. Sometimes called Barragán’s functionalist years, these works have become unfairly forgotten footnotes in his storied career. Barragán distanced himself from his early Mexico City output. In a telling 1962 interview, he refers to his creations from this period as “edificitos” (little buildings), “nothing great.”

Last fall, I traveled to Mexico City to look at this unspoken corner of Barragán. What could these buildings — to the extent that they survived — tell us about the genesis of Barragán’s mature phase that followed? Were they really as insignificant as their hidden condition suggests?

Not all of these buildings are masterpieces. A rental project Barragán designed for his brother lacks the attention to detail and emotional resonance of the rest of his work, its only point of interest a little roof terrace featuring an unglazed stripe window to frame distant mountains. A heavily modified apartment building on Calle Estocolmo, where the architect doubled as landlord, is similarly anodyne. But most of them contain elements — a meticulously modulated staircase, strategically placed skylights, in some cases just a simple, unnecessarily elegant metal mail slot — that speak to Barragán’s genius for imbuing space with wonder and enveloping even the most pragmatic projects in a thought-out sort of invisible parallel function: to provide the user with the most agreeable spatial experience possible.

Visiting these often unassuming buildings, one senses the architect’s inner conflicts and his unwillingness to compromise, endowing even the most prosaic of works with extraordinary angles, emotionally affecting progressions between rooms, abundant natural light and a wealth of other sensory gratifications that no one asked from him, least of all the people who employed him at this stage of his career.

Barragán’s most important work from this period, Parque Melchor Ocampo 38, in the neighborhood known as Colonia Cuauhtémoc, has recently undergone a sensitive yet liberal restoration in the hands of Luis Beltrán del Río and Andrew Sosa, two of the young architects that are remaking the erstwhile neighborhoods of Mexico City’s bourgeoisie for a new generation. Even before this, Melchor Ocampo 38 was the most interesting building Barragán designed during this early period, mostly for its striking Cubist appearance on the outside. The building is also noteworthy for its illustrious inhabitants, among them the artist Juan Soriano and the Cuban-born designer Clara Porset, whose furniture designs were part of a recent exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (another Porset show, this one focused on her writings, opened at Mexico City’s Museo Jumex on March 7). Pablo Neruda and Tina Modotti are said to have visited at this address.

Porset and her husband, the painter Xavier Guerrero, lived and worked in one of Melchor Ocampo’s four apartments for close to three decades. It’s likely it was here that Porset designed the Butaque chair that now sells for upward of $10,000, and a leading Porset scholar told me the couple’s apartment was physically surveilled by the F.B.I. in the 1950s and ’60s because of their Communist affiliations. Adding to its mystery, Melchor Ocampo 38 forms part of a block of landmark Modernist buildings that has somehow managed to withstand the turmoil surrounding them — earthquakes, traffic, corruption — relatively intact, as if frozen in time.

ONE OF MEXICO CITY’S central neighborhoods, the Colonia Cuauhtémoc is of exceptional architectural significance. Developed to a great extent in the 1940s, it is bordered to the south by Paseo de la Reforma, the boulevard once lined by stately mansions that have gradually been replaced by ever-taller office towers. While it lost some of its cosmopolitan feel to a transient office population, the area retains some of the discrete, slightly gloomy character that has always made it a favorite of architects and intellectuals. Octavio Paz lived in the area almost until his death, in 1998, as did the Swiss architect (and second director of the Bauhaus) Hannes Meyer during his Mexican years (from 1939 to 1949). Wondrously, the streets of Cuauhtémoc are littered with early buildings by Modernist masters — José Creixell, Mario Pani and Enrique del Moral, to name a few.

It was here that, beginning in 1939, Barragán designed Melchor Ocampo 38 for a pair of sisters, Carmen and Paz Orozco, about whom little is known besides the fact that the architect had already designed a since demolished house for one of them in Guadalajara. From the onset, Melchor Ocampo 38 was intended to contain four studio apartments for painters. It is possible that the idea for the building — and its strangely specific purpose — was Barragán’s, and he somehow convinced the sisters that it would be a good investment and source of income for them.

But Barragán didn’t design Melchor Ocampo 38 alone. A frequent corollary of the Barragán myth is the assumption that he created without help. In fact, throughout his career, he relied on a series of collaborators, business partners and creative friends who served as soundboards and executors of his vision, but also often gave him ideas he wouldn’t have had without their input, shaping his work in significant ways. Most notably, Barragán’s acclaimed sense of color and use of colonial objects and folk art as counterpoints to modern spaces was directly indebted to his close relationship to the artist and antiquarian Jesús “Chucho” Reyes.

In the case of the Four Painters’ Studios, as Melchor Ocampo 38 is known among architecture historians, Barragán shared design responsibilities with Max Cetto, a German émigré whose contribution to mid-20th-century Mexican architecture culture has yet to be fully recognized. The Koblenz-born architect had just arrived in Mexico, likely recommended by Richard Neutra, with whom he had worked in California. Before that, Cetto studied under the Expressionist Hans Poelzig in Berlin and was part of Ernst May’s groundbreaking New Frankfurt affordable-housing initiative. (Also a vocal critic of the Nazi regime, in 1933 Cetto penned a letter to Joseph Goebbels that remains a fascinating document of creative political engagement.) In Mexico, Cetto’s varied training and personal ideology alchemized into an unusual appreciation for craftsmanship, site, local natural building materials and the visible hand of his adopted country’s highly skilled manual labor.

Among many things that remain puzzling about Barragán and Cetto’s Melchor Ocampo project, strangest may be the choice to develop an impractical piece of land for the most impractical use imaginable. This didn’t stop the two architects from investing an extraordinary level of thought and detail in the building. Faced with a small, irregularly shaped site, they devised a parti of astounding complexity. Rather than standardize the unwieldy plot, the architects decided to match its irregularity: The four apartments are stacked in two pairs on each side, with two different floor plans per level and services clustered with Teutonic efficiency around a central well that contains the communal terrazzo stairs. Indeed, the strongest influence, besides Le Corbusier, seems to be Germany’s prototypical housing estates of the 1920s, where a modern sensibility of space and living were combined with a pronounced emphasis on optimization.

If such an elaborate layout is unexpected in so small a space, the details were equally nonstandard, from custom cabinets to invisible golden ratios and the uncanny fact that the building contains almost no right angles. The stairwell alone is a symphony of jagged corners, as Barragán and Cetto sculpted the stone to appear dynamic, enhancing the effect by subtly but precisely deploying shadows and small optical illusions at every turn.

Still, the pair saved Melchor Ocampo 38’s double pièce de résistance for the inside of every apartment: Upon entering, a small vestibule, deliberately compressed on all sides, opens up unexpectedly to a double-height space dominated by a single large frame-like window articulated with a grid of slender mullions. On most days, the north-oriented ventanal bathes the studio in an inordinate amount of sunlight, making it feel twice the size it actually is. When the building was completed, it faced open fields, a situation that has radically changed. Still, the positioning of the windows manages to erase the urban chaos outside, and the main view is the abstract greenery of tree crowns. The sculptural spiral stairs — cast in concrete with volcanic rock steps — that lead to the mezzanine are another highlight, and a Cetto trademark.

On the outside, like the rest of the block, the building bends softly to follow the edge of the park that it gets its name from, while its asymmetric inner logic is hinted at in the purist, switchboard-like front, a play of voids and solids dominated by the four large windows. In line with Barragán’s lifelong love of two-dimensional abstractions of his work, the facade reads as an autonomous form as much as it does a diagram of what is behind it.

AS MEXICO CITY has found itself in the middle of another wave of unbridled construction, a lot of it speculative and poorly regulated, it’s miraculous any of the early Modernist buildings in Colonia Cuauhtémoc survive. With a thriving real-estate market, investors have been buying up entire swaths of buildings in historic Colonias that trace the evolution of Mexican society and its design tastes.

Melchor Ocampo 38 illustrates the dilemma the booming Mexican capital faces two decades into the 21st century. Overburdened with physical riches spanning seven centuries, chronically lacking in resources and systemically bogged down by bureaucracy and corruption, the overdue rehabilitation of its Modernist heritage both poses a strain and isn’t an official priority. Any real chance to preserve these valuable buildings depends on the good will of investors, who, in most cases, are buying them for profit, not out of civic duty.

In the hands of the wrong buyers or architects, Melchor Ocampo 38 could have been lost. As it stands, its exterior is newly radiant, clearly recognizable as Barragán and Cetto’s work, while the inside spaces are also largely preserved, with the exception of minor contemporary modifications, including new, decidedly 21st-century baths and kitchens.

The property manager says that from time to time a guest rents an apartment in the building specifically for its architectural pedigree, but more frequently, people — young professionals, often foreign — are simply drawn to Melchor Ocampo’s prime location and its airy, light-filled interior, whose design remains conspicuously modern, especially considering the building’s age.

Seen from any angle, Melchor Ocampo 38 is revelatory. It proves that even at his most commercial, Barragán was trying out essential hallmarks of what would become his signature vocabulary: scenic framing, dramatic changes in scale and other minimal gestures with maximum impact, all while displaying unusual brilliance in handling space, light and volume with a poet’s precision and, perhaps above all, towering ambition.

So why has his early Mexico City work effectively been denied, and why does most of it remain stuck in neglected anonymity? It’s easy to assume Barragán, who would edit his Wikipedia entry from his grave if he could, wanted it this way. It may be more that we have wanted it this way.

One reason, perhaps, is that to talk about this phase of Barragán, or really to talk honestly about any phase of Barragán’s productivity, means to acknowledge him as a visionary salesman as well as a prodigiously gifted architect. The myth of Barragán often tends to leave out his sharp entrepreneurial instincts. In truth, the monk-like aesthete was also an avid businessman who engaged in speculative real-estate development for most of his career and made no secret of it. Even his greatest creative and aesthetic success, the exclusive residential subdivision known as Jardines del Pedregal de San Ángel — envisioned in 1945 as a collection of Modernist homes designed to both complement and contrast with the native vegetation and rock formations of a millenary lava field — was conceived of by Barragán as a business opportunity.

Barragán didn’t discover El Pedregal, which had enchanted travelers and artists before him for its dramatic, purplish-black wilderness, but he was the first to realize its commercial potential through a highly refined Gesamtplan, which encompassed selling it to the right people before it even existed. Barragán cocreated (with Cetto) the initial template for an innovative type of residence that integrated signifiers of modern affluence and high-end architecture with an unusual respect for the existing landscape, and oversaw the development’s defining design details — high walls, winding roads that followed the natural terrain, de Chirico-like plazas — which together converted the inhospitable terrain into one of the world’s most spectacular residential enclaves. But his achievement consisted just as much in finding the right business partners to execute his brilliant bigger-picture vision: To purchase inexpensive land with the intention of selling it for a profit after dividing it into large parcels and maximizing their perceived value through an elaborate promotional campaign — masterminded by Barragán himself — that emphasized an aura of exclusivity and otherworldly beauty. As Keith Eggener, a renowned scholar who has written extensively on the subject, told me, “I don’t see anything preventing one from being a soulful, sophisticated artist and savvy businessman. The peculiar way in which Barragán combined these is at the heart of what I’ve long found so fascinating about him.”

BEFORE I LEFT Mexico City, I visited Tacubaya, once a separate town and weekend retreat on the outskirts of the capital, now a bustling barrio fully incorporated into the metropolis. In contrast to Colonia Cuauhtémoc — with its cultured luster and proximity to high finance — Tacubaya offers a more modest and traditionally Mexican streetscape of large, neglected 19th-century houses mixed with more recent, anonymous working-class construction and a sprinkling of Art Deco gems. This is where Barragán’s own UNESCO-inscribed house and studio, Casa Barragán, is located, rightly revered among architects and architecture lovers from around the world for its alternatingly muted and startling, exquisitely calibrated composition of fluidly connected, distinctly appointed rooms, which together create a rich sensory whole that seems to lock out the city. A conversation with Catalina Corcuera, Casa Barragán’s longtime director, opened my eyes to an oft-overlooked fact: Before this iconic residence, there was another significant, now semi-forgotten Barragán house in the area — the missing piece to the puzzle of Barragán’s early work.

It intrigued me that at the same time Barragán was actively engaged in impeccably Corbusian experiments, his attention seemed to already be in a different place — figuratively and literally. I felt the key to understanding Barragán’s thinking around 1940 wasn’t just in the white apartment buildings of Colonia Cuauhtémoc. In fact, even before Melchor Ocampo 38 was completed, around 1940, the architect had bought several pieces of land in Tacubaya.

The first of these plots is now known as the Ortega house and garden, after the family he eventually sold it to. While his focus at this site initially was to design a rambling, multilevel garden, gradual additions to an existing structure slowly coalesced into an expansive T-shaped house. The project marked a decisive turning point for Barragán, the place where his longstanding ideas and influences started being fully expressed. Here, pared-down volumes in Mediterranean hues, loggias and subtle references to the Alhambra — which Barragán visited on his first trip to Europe — meet a desire to express something specific to place and tradition, resulting in a complex succession of indoor and outdoor spaces that combine textures, changes in height, exactingly placed objects and other optical tricks to direct the visitor’s eye and create atmosphere. He moved into the completed building in 1943, signaling the start of the phase of Barragán that everyone knows well, the one that produced the works Barragán didn’t dismiss as little buildings.

The most lyrical phase of Barragán’s career began here, at the architect’s first Tacubaya house, which became a laboratory of sorts, where forms were tested and concepts explored. It’s all a bit less perfect and coherent than at the house-studio he moved to in 1947 — on the plot directly adjacent to the Ortega grounds — which also made it more intimate. It is here that Barragán started to reincorporate the vernacular nods of his private dwellings in Guadalajara, to experiment with the use of a precise shade of pink and to tinker with the sophisticated synthesis of memories and references — from the haciendas of his childhood to gardens in the South of France — that is, in essence, the late style everyone associates with Barragán today. Importantly, his Corbusian experience stayed with him — under its traditionalist trappings, Casa Ortega’s sense of space is fundamentally Modernist.

The majority of the hordes of tourists that have descended on the Mexican capital in recent years have left the city without knowledge of the existence of the Ortega house and gardens, which don’t get even a fraction of the attention its uber-famous neighbor receives. Not realizing Barragán’s architecture isn’t always made of walls — in fact, he cared as much about garden design as he did about physical rooms — when people do come, many skip the garden. It’s their loss. Encompassing terraces and lawns on various levels, hidden paths, different types of vegetation, sculptures, multiple sets of stairs and underground remnants of the Tepetate quarry Barragán found when he arrived, the Ortega garden is a self-contained territory designed to get lost in. It’s Barragán’s best-kept secret.

Paradoxically, visiting Casa Ortega made me look at Melchor Ocampo 38 and the other buildings Barragán made between 1935 and 1940 in a new light. Often treated as a parenthesis, Barragán’s functionalist work now revealed a continuity with what preceded it and what came after. I realized that the vision of Corbusian Modernism Barragán expressed during his first five years in Mexico City is as deeply personal a body of work as are his earliest creations in Guadalajara and the iconic postwar output.

In 1940, Barragán wrote a letter to his clients, informing them he was quitting his profession as an architect. Years later, in the same 1962 interview in which he belittled his functionalist work, he explained how the decision to step away had been motivated by feeling “enormously demoralized and humiliated by clients, who didn’t pay my fees and treated me patronizingly.” Exhausted, and maybe a little bored, Barragán longed for greater financial and creative freedom.

Seeing the Ortega property, and knowing that the year he started working on it was the same year he temporarily retired as an architect, it’s impossible not to wonder how much his discovery of Tacubaya had to do with his willingness to forsake a burgeoning career for an uncertain but more satisfying future.


News – Luis Barragán’s Forgotten Works, Revisited

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