- Keith Eggener
Updated in this version
updated and revised
Mexican architect. Recipient of the Pritzker Prize, he was the most celebrated of Mexico’s modern architects, known for his regionally inflected designs. Born to a wealthy, devoutly Catholic family, he earned his degree in civil engineering from Guadalajara’s Escuela Libre de Ingenieros in 1923, and soon after completed his course in architecture (though the school closed before his degree could be awarded). On trips to Europe and the USA in 1924–1925, 1930, and 1931 he was impressed by the Alhambra and by the work of Le Corbusier; he also made important contacts with muralist José Clemente Orozco, Architectural Record editor Lawrence Kocher, French author, artist, and architect Ferdinand Bac (1859–1952), and Le Corbusier himself, whose lectures he attended in Paris in 1931. Barragán is best known for a small group of gardens, houses, and subdivisions built around Mexico City between 1945 and 1976 that blend Modernist minimalism with brilliant colors and elements drawn from Mexican colonial and vernacular buildings. Called Arquitectura emocional (“emotional architecture”) by some—a term invented by sculptor Mathias Goeritz, with whom he collaborated on the Torres de Ciudad Satélite (a promotional symbol for Mario Pani’s Satélite subdivision) in 1957—Barragán preferred the label “autobiographical” and spoke of his work in terms of memory, mysticism, silence, solitude, beauty, and his affinity for books by Bac, Proust, and Cyril Connolly.
In Guadalajara between 1927 and 1935, Barragán built a public park (Parque Revolución 1934–1935) with his brother Juan José, and designed or remodeled about twenty houses on his own or in collaboration with other local architects. With their tile roofs, stucco walls, arched openings, triangular chimney caps, and Moorish style woodwork and ceramics, these houses—built for clients such as Guadalajara mayor Gustavo Cristo (1929) and lawyer and politician Efraín González Luna (1930)—combined elements from the Jaliscan vernacular with Bac’s prescriptions for a new “Mediterraneanism” and traces of Art Deco. During the 1930s, several of them were published in Architectural Record and House and Garden.
Post-Revolutionary land reforms caused Barragán deep financial losses, and so he moved to Mexico City in 1935. Over the next four years he built several speculative residential buildings in the Colonias Hipódromo and Cuauhtémoc, including apartments in collaboration with German-born architect Max Cetto, fresh from Richard Neutra’s office in California. Breaking with his earlier work, Barragán’s new buildings featured the lightweight ferro-concrete frames, steel-sash windows, unornamented facades, and roof terraces favored by Le Corbusier and Mexican followers such as Juan O’Gorman. In Barragán’s case, the Corbusian turn was motivated less by progressive politics, as it was for O’Gorman, than by profit potential. Barragán’s buildings were cheap to construct, appealing to the city’s burgeoning middle class, and highly profitable.
In 1940 he bought and remodeled a house in Mexico City’s Tacubaya neighborhood (next door to the more famous house and studio he built in 1947–1948). He began working on small garden projects there and on land he acquired at the city’s southern edge, at the northern border of the undeveloped lava fields known as El Pedregal. Between 1945 and 1953, he produced his breakthrough project, the 865-acre Parque Residencial Jardines del Pedregal de San Angel. With assistance from Cetto, city planner Carlos Contreras, artists Goeritz and Jesús “Chucho” Reyes Ferreira, and realtors Luis and José Alberto Bustamante, Barragán planned gently curving roadways adjusted to the land, flat-roofed houses nestled between native rock and vegetation, walls and gates and public plazas, and an extensive advertising campaign. The latter was indebted to photographer Armando Salas Portugal (1916–1995), who worked with Barragán for more than thirty years, helping craft the evocative images through which the architect became known. Subtle and austere, reminiscent of paintings by de Chirico, Barragán’s Pedregal designs contrasted with the more strictly Miesian or exuberantly historicized modern architecture then rising elsewhere in Mexico City, especially at the nearby Ciudad Universitaria (1947–1954). The project was a critical and economic success, signaling the peculiar but effective blend of artistic and commercial impulses seen in much of Barragán’s work. Many of the capital’s wealthiest and most powerful residents built houses there, employing several of the country’s most prominent architects. Though the Pedregal remains a fashionable address, much of what Barragán built there is gone.
One exception is the house completed in 1950 for Eduardo Prieto López. Impressed by Barragán’s 1948 house in Tacubaya, Prieto López asked for something similar and Barragán obliged. Set on a large, rocky, wooded lot behind high stone walls, the house is a rambling, introverted structure. The brightly tinted but austere facade has few openings. Inside, huge windows offer views of pool and garden. The plan twists and turns, with changes in floor and ceiling height and dramatic light effects that charge one’s movement. Right angles predominate. White stucco and polished wood surfaces are paired with pink, burnt orange, red, and yellow highlights. Echoes of colonial architecture appear in the labyrinthine plan, the high, beamed ceilings, the deep window reveals, and the thick, roughly plastered walls. Subsequent designs all follow this model, including the Convento de las Capuchinas Sacramentarias (1953–1960) in Tlálpan; the fountain plazas of the Las Arboledas (1958–1961) and Los Clubes (1963–1964) subdivisions; and houses for Antonio Gálvez (1955), Folke Egerstrom (1967–1968, with Andrés Casillas), and Francisco Gilardi (1975–1977).
Long neglected by critics, Barragán in 1976 was the subject of a small exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), accompanied by a short book from curator Emilio Ambasz. Ambasz praised his work as modern yet “deeply rooted in [Mexico’s] cultural and religious traditions. It is through the haunting beauty of his hieratic constructions that we have come to conceive of the passions of Mexico’s architecture” (1976 exh. cat., p. 5). Once dismissed by architects José Villagrán García and Juan O’Gorman for his picturesque, “un-Mexican” designs, after the MOMA exhibition Barragán became the face of Mexican architecture, father to a family of followers including Ricardo Legorreta (1931–2011). This position solidified in 1980 when he received the Pritzker Prize. In 2004 UNESCO named his Tacubaya house and studio a World Heritage Site.
- The Architecture of Luis Barragán. Edited by E. Ambasz. New York, MOMA, 1976. Exhibition catalog.
- Luis Barragán: Ensayos y apuntes para un bosquejo crítico. Mexico City, Rufino Tamayo, 1985. Exhibition catalog.
- Noelle, L. Luis Barragán: Búsqueda y creatividad. Mexico City, 1996.
- Riggen Martínez, A. Luis Barragán: Mexico’s Modern Master, 1902–1988. New York, 1996.
- Rispa, R., ed. Luis Barragán: The Complete Works. London, 1996; rev. New York, 2003.
- Eggener, K. Luis Barragán’s Gardens of El Pedregal. New York, 2001.
- Zanco, F., ed. Luis Barragán, The Quiet Revolution. Milan, 2001.
- Zanco, F. and Valente, I. Barragán Guide. Mexico City, 2/2011.
- Díaz-Borioli, L. “Collective Autobiography: Building Luis Barragán.” PhD diss., Princeton, NJ, Princeton U., 2015.
- Hernández Álvarez, M. E., ed. Luis Barragán, Colección Arquitectura y Humanidades, vol. 15. Aguascalientes, 2015.