Luis Barragán is a world renowned Mexican architect and engineer. Most of his work remained in Mexico during his career, which left a significant imprint on the development of modernism in that area. Keep reading to discover his most incredible designs and what makes them so special.
Luis Ramiro Barragán Morfín’s (March 9, 1902 – November 22, 1988)work has influenced contemporary architects visually and conceptually. Barragán’s buildings are frequently visited by international students and professors of architecture. He studied as an engineer in his home town, while undertaking the entirety of additional coursework to obtain the title of architect. Barragán won the Pritzker Prize, the highest award in architecture, in 1980, and his personal home, the Luis Barragán House and Studio, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
“The Art of Seeing. It is essential to an architect to know how to see: I mean, to see in such a way that the vision is not overpowered by rational analysis.”
– Luis Barragán
Luis Barragan’s Life
Barragán was born in Guadalajara, graduating as a civil engineer and architect. Two years later in 1925, he started on a journey of two years in Europe, where he was impressed by the beauty of the gardens of the cities he visited and the strong influence of Mediterranean and Muslim culture, and above all of the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts. It was on this trip where his interest in landscape architecture began.
Barragán, who was born into a wealthy family, grew up on a ranch near Guadalajara, Mex. He attended the Escuela Libre de Ingenieros (Free School of Engineers) there, taking a degree in civil engineering in 1923 and continuing his studies in architecture. In 1924 he began to travel, mostly in Spain, France, Italy, and Greece. During this period of extensive travel, he first came across the published works of the German-born French landscape architect and illustrator Ferdinand Bac. When Barragán returned to Guadalajara, he began to work with his brother Juan José and completed his first project in 1927. Four years later he again went to Europe, where he met Bac and Le Corbusier, both of whom were to have a profound influence on his work.
On his return to Guadalajara, Barragán began to conceive new methods by which he could create what he called an “emotional architecture,” one that would encourage meditation and quietude. In 1935 he moved to Mexico City, where he began to apply the principles of Le Corbusier and the International school. With the evolution of his own ideas, his works began to take on the elements that characterize his mature period—natural siting, simple surfaces (slabs of concrete, immense walls of stucco), water features, the use of colour, and so on. Until this point, 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. Then, from roughly 1943 to 1952 he developed El Pedregal (“The Lava”) as a subdivision of Mexico City, taking great care to incorporate intact its volcanic outcroppings and other natural formations.
Barragán’s output was not large. The majority of the structures he built are in Guadalajara and Mexico City. Among his notable works are the house he created around existing buildings at 20–22 Calle Ramírez in the Tacubaya district of Mexico City, where he lived beginning in the 1940s; numbers 10 and 12 Avenida de las Fuentes, among the first houses to be built in El Pedregal, and the Prieto López House there; the San Cristóbal Stables/Egerstrom House; the Gálvez House; and the Gilardi House. The Barragan Foundation (1996) is located near Basel, Switz.
Luis Barragan’s 5 Most Iconic Buildings
1. San Cristóbal Stables/Egerstrom House
Luis Barragán loved horses. And in the late 1960s, the architect was commissioned to design an equestrian compound near Mexico City with stables, riding paddocks, and a four-bedroom house for the Egerstrom family.
The project that Luis Barragán, in collaboration with Andrés Casillas, designed in 1966 and built between 1967 and 1968 for Swedish-born Folke S. Egerström (1921-2002) and his family captures the atmosphere of a palazzo with its main house, a two-bedroom guesthouse, stables, and two L-shaped swimming pools: one for people and one for horses. It is, however, in many ways unassuming. The material are a basic stucco, and the colours pop but are not ostentatious. The house is formally conceived as a multi-layered series of planes of different heights defining a volume. One of its most accomplished features is the relationship between the interior and the exterior. At the entrance, the exterior space between the house and the street is divided by a long wall with a garden on one side and the service wing on the other. The house presents a blind façade to the street, defined only by high wooden doors, a garage, and other hidden services. In the garden, it connects to the pool through a porch, at the end of which is a dressing room for bathers. The project blurs outdoor and indoors, not only through conventional methods but also by the interplay between light and shade, between covered structures and uncovered areas. The front of the facade is dotted by small windows covered with grates. The home itself is highly practical in many ways.
Water is a recurring motif in the architect’s work as a result of colonial influence. In the San Cristobal project, each space flows seamlessly, aided by abstract structures and the use of water. The water is used as a continuity device, and it is a way to bring a sense of calm. Throughout the site, fountains and serene azure tones contrast with the terracotta, crisp whites, and pink exterior walls. At the same time, the fountains and the water features serve as a horse pool.
Architecture is an art when one consciously or unconsciously creates aesthetic emotion in the atmosphere and when this environment produces well being.
– Luis Barragan
2. The Gálvez House
After his stay in Morocco in 1952, Barragán returned with the intent to recreate spaces and colors that he marveled at during his stay in Senegal. The first approach was blank space for the Capuchin convent. The Galvez house was to be built in the Chimalistac neighborhood, one that is fantastically under-represented in guides to what international visitors should see. In a deep fold on the edge of Álvaro Obregón, it’s often mistaken for a part of Coyoacán. The neighborhood land was a stretch of orchards and gardens operated by the magnificent Carmelite monastery just up the hill to the west.
Antonio Gálvez knew about Barragan’s house, and was impressed by the originality of it. When he approached him, Barragán developed a project that bears much resemblance to their home areas in Tacubaya, but achieves a brighter atmosphere, with more light and colour. The house has a visual contact with the outside, creating a poetic dialogue between the two. In 1954 the Chimalistac area still had the colonial character, tradition and nostalgia of a small town in Mexico City, with cobblestone streets, narrow and picturesque.
In the construction of the house Galvez, Barragán sought to introduce a modern building into traditional Mexico. However, he built with natural and local materials, creating a sense of comfort and making the building down to earth amongst its surroundings, where a glass and steel building would perhaps stick out like a sore thumb. The interior corridors of the house are an evocation of the madrassas in northern Africa that permeated the spirit of Luis Barragán. There arose a synthesis between the indigenous and Spanish, modern and tradition, regional and Internationally, geometric rigor and poetic sensibility, reason and feeling.
3. The Gilardi House
The Gilardi House was commissioned by advertising executive Francisco Gilardi to be built on a plot in a densely populated area of the capital, south of Bosque de Chapultepec park and not far from Barragán’s own residence, 82 Calle General Antonio León, Colonia San Miguel Chapultepec, Mexico City.
After first considering a refurbishment of the extant dwelling on the site, the client ultimately decided to construct an entirely new structure suited to his personal needs and wishes. A bachelor with an active social life, he wanted appropriate spaces for entertaining guests and an indoor swimming pool for his daily use. The resulting design became one of Barragán’s most appreciated works. A third of the rectangular plot, measuring ten metres wide by thirty-five metres deep in total, was originally occupied by a two-storey dwelling dating from the 1930s. This structure stood directly on the street frontage and was flanked by neighbouring houses. A large patio at the back was partially occupied by a pool. The elongated shape of the plot and the programme specified by Gilardi led to an introverted spatial composition for the new design, centred on an existing jacaranda tree.
The general organization of the site was outlined by Barragán in a series of preliminary sketches. These schematic plans show a three-storey house set along the street, a pool contained in a separate volume at the back of the plot, and a patio in the middle. The jacaranda tree stands on the east side of this central open space, while a narrow longitudinal block runs along the west boundary, connecting the residence with the pool. Between September and November 1975, Barragán progressively defined the functional and internal layout, mainly in plans, but complemented by a few alternative elevations. The client participated in the design’s evolution, as evidenced by handwritten notes appearing in the margins of several studies.
Although Gilardi approved the volumetric configuration, he expressed concerns regarding the internal arrangement, finding it overly formal. The rather unconventional decision to merge the dining and pool areas not only simplified the spatial organization of the upstairs living room and library, but also triggered a radical transformation of the structure at the rear of the plot. What had originally been conceived as a purely functional space became the focal point of the house, and Barragán devoted all of his sculptural and chromatic skills to its composition. Covering a total area of approximately 430 square metres, the definitive house design comprises a garage, kitchen, service rooms and swimming pool with dining area on the ground floor; a living room and library on the first floor; and two additional bedrooms on the top storey. The interior articulation is simplified according to rational criteria, while the building features a bold colour palette consisting of bright pink for the front and rear facades, light purple for the eastern boundary wall and white for the auxiliary volumes. Particular attention was given to the colour of the gallery leading to the swimming pool, where the bright yellow hue on the internal walls and ceiling was also directly applied to the unframed panes of glass inserted in the vertical openings of the patio wall, thereby reinforcing and intensifying its vibrant visual effect. The view from the central hall to the open door at the end of the corridor is suffused in a yellow glow that frames the back wall of the pool beyond it, painted a bright blue. This wall surface is enlivened by the reflections of light in the water at its base, and also by the radiant magenta colour of the free wall element that conceals the skylight. Presumably providing an additional structural support for the roof, this partial wall also functions as a chromatic and compositional gesture.
4. The Luis Barragan House and Studio
Casa Luis Barragán, built in 1948, represents one of the most internationally transcendent works of contemporary architecture, as acknowledged by the UNESCO when included in their 2004 World Heritage list. It is the only individual property in Latin America to have achieved such a distinct honor, being — as stated by the UNESCO itself — a master piece in the development of the modern movement that merges traditional and vernacular elements, as well as diverse philosophical and artistic currents throughout time, into a new synthesis. Luis Barragán’s influence in global architecture is still in constant growth; and his house, faithfully kept just the way it was when inhabited by its author until his death in 1988, is one of the most visited sites in Mexico City by architects and art connoisseurs from around the world. This museum, which encloses its creator’s residency and studio, is property of the Government of the State of Jalisco and the Fundación de Arquitectura Tapatía Luis Barragán.Luis Barragán house and workshop rises on two adjacent lots, numbers 12 and 14 of General Francisco Ramírez Street in the Daniel Garza sector of Mexico City. The façades of this double plan form a single unit facing southeast.
The decision to build the house on a small street in the old Tacubaya working class neighborhood is by itself one of the first declarations of the work’s manifesto. Despite the pressures of urban development, this popular neighborhood struggles nowadays to conserve part of its singular character. It was composed of modest, small-scale houses, particularly vecindades: a traditional housing typology of Mexico City. Construction of the house (1947) began at the same time that Barragán was carrying out the first stage of Jardines del Pedregal, the most successful residential development for the elite in Mexico City’s real estate history. It is remarkable his choice to build on Tacubaya, not the more upper class neighbourhood: a testament of the urban values that lay close to his heart. The main façade of the house is aligned with the street and preserves the appearance of the neighbouring constructions. Due to its austere, almost unfinished expression, the house would almost be unnoticed, except for its scale, which contrasts the rest of the buildings in the neighborhood. The house announces the dwelling of an artist, and at the same time, its materials speak of an introspective and intimate nature, paradoxically humble and intentionally anonymous.
The translucent, closed reticulated library window is the single item projecting over the plane of the façade. Almost the entire exterior conserves the colour and natural roughness of the plastered concrete, as only the pedestrian and automobile entrance doors and the window’s ironwork are painted. As it has been stated before, any chronology of the house and workshop of Luis Barragán must visit the house next door, which can be considered as a first experimental model or an embryonic state of a project that continues in its neighbouring lots. The proximity of two works is due to their intimate link in the same creative process, representing a singular case in modern architecture’s history.
An educated man, who found many times his own echo searching in the work of others, Luis Barragán left testimony of his closeness with the Surrealist Movement, particularly with the metaphysical work of Giorgio de Chirico. More than a mere coincidence of imagery, the terrace is reminiscent of the Italian artist’s reflections when admiring ancient painting: “The outline of a window framing a square sky is another dramatic ensemble with the basic setting of a painting, so when the eye finds those greenish surfaces, many disturbing questions arise: What lies beyond that window? …Does that sky cover the sea, the desert or a populated city?… Does it extend, perhaps, above a free and disquieting nature, over mountains and deep valleys, over plains furrowed by mighty rivers?” There is a combination of stark lines and open empty spaces with the warmth of materials and textures, weaving together to form an intriguing space, inside and out.
5. El Pedregal
The home’s pink palette, revealing the architect’s predilection for intense and vibrant colors. Even in its grandeur, Casa Pedregal reveals itself little by little: pastel-colored walls, slices of protruding light, and an emanating aura of peace. It’s as if the metropolitan madness beyond has ceased to exist. And yet, the home is located in one of the most highly populated areas of the world: Mexico City, or more precisely, a stretch of volcanic stone that spans over 80 m2. Untouched until the ’40s, the dark and rocky terrain is owed to the Xitle volcano, whose red hot ashes settled over the area some 1600 years earlier. “El Pedregal”, locals call it, the peripheral zone marked by rocky and uninhabitable landscapes. The house itself is a gestalt of forms, dark volcanic rock oozing out of the sides of the pink angular building. At the time, the celebrated architect no longer accepted private commissions. But for his friend Prieto-López, Barragán would make an exception, where the man’s family lived up until the new millennium (hence the home’s original name, Casa Prieto-López, which was only recently changed to Casa Pedregal). On average, the architect produced one residential project every ten years. It’s not that Barragán disliked designing homes, but rather because he felt they couldn’t be dealt with superficially. Nothing is more sacred than the location where a family chooses to settle down and where important life moments are centered. And so, to create such a space, each detail had to be curated with a maniacal attention.This is why Barragán didn’t design at his desk, but directly on site, with life-size models, touching the elements with his own hands. The stone, light, air — all of these pieces to the puzzle were sewn together within the project. It becomes evident when you see the house, as it integrates with the space around it in a way that it only could with an architect that took the land as his blueprint.
Luis Barragan is perhaps not one of the most famous architects in the world, when held up against the reputations and oeuvre’s of Buckminster Fuller and Le Corbusier. It is often the case that architects who mostly design in their home countries, outside of the west, garner less overall attention. However, despite his relatively modest set of works, he is a darling of the art and architecture world, and known as one of the best Mexican architects. His works are striking, yet subtle in many ways. They reveal more and more the closer you inspect them, and truly live in the places they were built: accruing sun stains, dirt, and moss: and it seems that is the way they were supposed to live.