If you’ve come across any of Luis Barragán’s works, you might find yourself wondering if they actually exist. Is it merely a trick of the camera or paintbrush? Did Barbie’s Dreamhouse get a modernist makeover? The works of this Mexican architect—which are real buildings, all brought to life in his native country—seem other-worldly. This was intentional, of course; Mr. Barragán believed that “the ideal space must contain elements of magic, serenity, sorcery and mystery.”
It's impossible not to love an attitude like that. So in celebration of Barragán's inimitable style—a warmed up and emotional version of modern architecture—here's a little more about his work.
As you'll soon understand just by looking, few architects have such a recognizable and easily distinguished style as Barragán. His individualism stems perhaps from the fact that he was never formally trained as an architect, but as an engineer. (And he himself claimed that philosophers, painters, and poets were his primary influences.)
When Barragán traveled to Europe as a young man, however, he encountered one architect who proved to have a lasting impact on his style: Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French designer who pioneered what we now call modern architecture. Barragán attended Le Corbusier’s lectures and learned of the new International Style taking hold across Europe at the time.
Though “Barragán Pink” was his signature color, it wasn’t always his hue of choice in a given project.
Upon returning to Mexico, Barragán started implementing this style—but not as a carbon copy of what he had seen. Instead, he adapted the rectilinear, minimal look of the International Style to a distinctly Mexican vernacular, designing large volumes comprised of ninety-degree angles and then “softening” these hard lines with an injection of vibrant colors associated with Mexican heritage and textured adobe walls more akin to traditional haciendas.
In all his works, Barragán focused on experience. He manipulated environments with a dramatic use of light and shadow, and was able to blend interior and exterior spaces so seamlessly as to be disorienting. The results are living works of art, often likened to master Cubist and Surrealist paintings.
The property that perhaps best represents Barragán’s ideals and aesthetic is his 1967 San Cristóbal Estates (a property which also happens to currently be on the market for $13 million).
Barragán’s background as an accomplished horseman influenced his design decisions in the four-bedroom home, guest house, and stables—a 7.5-acre equestrian oasis. Along with a signature use of color and large volumes, Barragán's San Cristóbal Estates also exhibits his influence on the field of landscape design. (In that realm, interesting, he was influenced by Islamic tradition, where the garden and courtyard are so central and primary that they can take precedence over the house itself).
At San Cristóbal Estates there are two large pools, one for humans and one for horses. Horses enter their designated pool through large-scale gates cut out of a large horizontal pink wall.
Barragán designed the property so that the horses could roam freely about the property, as they would in nature. (Wandering horses combined with pink walls makes San Cristóbal Estates my 8-year old dream house, as well as my 28-year-old dream house.) Even though it's a private property, the implication is that people are invited to roam freely, as well.
Though he was undeniably influenced by Le Corbusier, Barragán came to reject the modernist dogma that form must always follow function, that homes are "machines for living," saying that “any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake.” The use of water, both flowing and still, was used in virtually all his projects as a way to convey tranquility and refuge from the outside world.
Hay que recrear y renovar la nostalgia, volviéndola contemporánea, porque una vez que la arquitectura ha cumplido con las necesidades utilitarias y de funcionamiento, tienen todavía delante de sí otros logros que alcanzar: la belleza y el atractivo de sus soluciones, si quiere seguirse contando entre las bellas artes - Luis Barragán
Though Barragán once stated that the only group of people he felt uncomfortable around were architects, the architecture world did embrace his work—though not until late in his life and career. In 1975, he was awarded a retrospective solo show at MoMA in New York City and in 1980, while suffering from late-stage Parkinsons, he was awarded architecture’s finest honor, the Pritzker Prize. Unable to attend due to poor health, Barragán wrote a letter of acceptance that rejected the arrogance that had become so pervasive in his field: “I am only a symbol for all those who have been touched by beauty.”
Pink walls: Would you or wouldn't you? Tell us in the comments.