Learning about Luis Barragan – the great Mexican Architect

Luis Barragan is the only Mexican Architect who had won the acclaimed Pritzker Architecture Prize. He won the award in 1980 and was the second architect to win this award after Philip Johnson won it in 1979. His house in Mexico City is a museum that can be visited for 200pesos.

To get to House Barragan you take the metro line 7 to Metro Constituentes. From there you need to walk down a dodgy tunnel under the highway to reach the house on General Francisco Ramirez street. This mural is close to the house:

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I struggled to find the house, because there are no sign outside on the plain facade and high walls to indicate that you are in the right place.

Our friendly tour guide, Chak took us first through the entrance hall and then up the stairs to the living room and study. You are not allowed to take pictures inside, so I stole this picture of the internet:

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The entrance space is unusual with the bright pink wall and black volcanic rock floor and tiled staircase. Luis Barragan used natural light and the position of windows expertly to provide different light effects throughout the day. There is no need for artificial light during the day. There are artworks by Mathias Goeritz like the golden canvas at the top of the stairs, throughout the house, emphasizing the Barragan’s focus on colour.

Barragan lived alone in his house with a garden and roof terrace of more than 1000 square meters. The house does not feel that big – each room has an intimate scale. Our guide told us that Luis Barragan was not religious and that the many crucifixes on display showed Barragan’s love to collect artifacts.

The living room area looks out over the lush garden. Notice the height of the curtains in the picture below:

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The picture below shows how the door becomes part of the wall plane, but also part of the staircase, as it is of the same wood.

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This photograph of Luis Barragan on his cantilevered staircase is on display in his house:

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It interesting to note that he was an unusually tall man, but the door heights in his house are lower than the normal standard.

This beautiful photograph by artist Marc Foxx shows how the heavy timber shutters over the window creates different lighting effects:

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We were allowed to take pictures of this water feature in the patio of the pots:

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The high walls surrounding the house keeps out the urban chaos:

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The rooms of the house are at different levels. I got confused climbing stairs and passing through doorways. Before we went out on the terrace we each had to take a moment to look through the door with a red screen behind, to experience the orange light passing through the door. The door looks quite ordinary from the terrace:

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The roof terrace feels like one open space or two corners, depending where you stand:

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In the house there is a model of a chapel, the Capilla de Capuchines (in Tlalpan, a nearby neighbourhood) designed by Luis Barragan. After the house tour, I wanted to see more of Barragan’s architecture, so Chak phoned the Chapel and made an appointment for me. On the morning I took the metrobus and walked a short distance to get to Hidalgo 43. Again I struggled to find the address, because there was no sign, but also because I expected to see the steeple of a chapel. Eventually I realised that I mustn’t look for a church, I must look for minimalist architecture…

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The doorknobs indicated that I was in front of the right building! In Casa Barragan I had noticed that the doorknobs and cupboard handles were all square and custom made. The door leading to the chapel had the same doorknob:

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This is the facade of the chapel that does not look like a chapel at all:

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After knocking on the door and waiting, a nun appeared and said I had to pay 100 pesos to view the chapel. I don’t know if this is always the case, as Chask, our guide, didn’t mention it. But, I had to walk to find an ATM to draw money for entrance to the chapel. After paying, I was allowed inside and the nun showed me around. I was not allowed to take pictures inside; below are vague photos that I took of the pamphlet that the nun gave me.

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No photograph would be able to capture the experience of light and space inside the church. It was a bit awkward for me to walk around behind the nun. I felt like I had to ooh and aah and say ‘Que lindo’ (how nice) in a respectful way to show my appreciation (of God and of architecture).

Instead of the usual ornamentation, there is one large red cross to the side in front of a red wall with a floor to ceiling window shining yellow light on the cross and wall. The wall where the priest would stand is covered with a golden block that looks like Mathias Goeritz painting. A lot of wood is used throughout the interior. In the areas used for admin and storage the same pink paint is applied to some of the walls.

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Outside a yellow screen creates a cubic light effect over the water feature on the one side and the walkway on the other side. As with the house, no artificial light is necessary during the day.

I feel very fortunate that I was able to visit both the house and the chapel as both of them are UNESCO heritage sites. Luis Barragan had a practical and poetic approach to architecture and the spaces he created are happy spaces.

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