The Mexican minimalist with an eye for color
Volumes of color meet monolithic shapes in the experimental work of Luis Barragán, one of the most influential architects of the 20th-century. The first Mexican to win the Pritzker Prize, Barragán is an emblematic figure who contributed to Latin America’s Modernism movement with his minimalist, spiritual architecture. His designs are expressive releases of emotion and exuberance, they are places of contemplation and musing. While respected by his peers at the height of his career, his legacy has taken on an iconic status since he passed away in 1988. The internet age has revitalized interest in his bold and raw philosophy and his prowess when it came to unifying art with architecture elevated him into a contemporary, yet arcane status within Latin American architecture.
Born on March 9, 1902, in Guadalajara, Barragán studied civil engineering before embarking on a life-changing trip to Europe in 1924. His travels introduced him to avant-garde architecture, which was burgeoning with Bauhaus in Germany and Le Corbusier in France. He also visited the influential Parisian Decorative Arts Exposition in 1925, one of the first monumental displays of both decorative art deco and radical Modernism. This was when he saw Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau Pavilion and Konstantin Melnikov’s constructivist Soviet Pavilion. He also met Ferdinand Bac, a prolific landscape architect, and writer whose work was exhibited at the exposition. Having made the most significant impression of all on the young Mexican architect, Bac was even mentioned by Barragán in his 1980 acceptance speech for the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
The avant-garde movement in Europe was not the only influence on Barragán during these formative years. He was also galvanized by traditional Mediterranean architecture, visiting Alhambra in Spain and other Moorish monuments in North Africa. His interest in ancient architecture was enriched by his memories of the landscape and vernacular ranch architecture of his native land. This unique mix of influences created a highly sensitive and spiritual architect, who became a true pioneer of Latin American Modernism.
Upon his return to Mexico in 1926, Barragán began the first phase of his architectural education. Between 1927 to 1936, he was still strongly influenced by Spanish colonial architecture with roots in his Mexican heritage. In 1936, he began to adopt a rational and functionalist style, designing several houses and apartment buildings, such as the 1936 Duplex in the Colonia Hipódromo and the 1939 Four Painters’ Studios on Plaza Melchor Ocampo.
But it was during the 1940s that Barragán arrived at the height of his original style; the culmination of all of these influences. His own house in the Tacubaya district of Mexico City—which was completed in 1948—is emblematic of his signature style and is today under UNESCO protection. Arguably the perfect symbol of what he stood for, the house is an amalgamation of tradition, modernity, and modesty with architectural generosity. It is the celebration of emptiness, silence, minimalism, light, color, and general poesy of architectural form. While the street façade is imposing and austere, the house opens toward a private garden in the rear and toward the sky on its roof terrace. Plain, unornamented walls create a place of peace, symbolically frozen in time.
He also used a bright Mexican pink in the home, a color that became his signature in many projects to follow. Traditional wooden furniture sits around minimalist, custom-made designs that include a striking wooden staircase. At the same time, Barragán designed several houses within an experimental residential subdivision in the southern part of Mexico City. The rocky terrain, known as El Pedregal, was bought by Barragán and his friend José Alberto Bustamante in 1945. It grew to be a playground for the Mexican modernist movement over time. The harsh landscape had been considered uninhabitable since pre-Hispanic times, after the eruption of the nearby Xitle volcano. Barragán built several houses there, some of them in collaboration with Max Cetto.
The most remarkable project was the Prieto López House. Built between 1947 and 1951, it was recently restored to its original modernist glory. El Pedregal was a laboratory of Mexican Modernism, where young architectural talents followed Barragán and Cetto to build steel and glasshouses in the dramatic volcanic landscape through the late 1960s.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Barragán also built several public projects. His Torres de Satélite in Mexico City, built-in 1958, was a collaboration with sculptor Mathias Goeritz and became a symbol of modern Mexico City. The striking monumental towers in the middle of the highway pay tribute to the geometry and colors of the modernist movement. In 1967, he created one of his best-known works, the Cuadra San Cristóbal equestrian estate.
Built for the Egerstrom family, the Los Clubes complex in the suburbs of Mexico City includes stables, a house, and a pool, all done in a bright palette of pink, violet, and orange. The architect created a serene architectural landscape, a minimalist sculptural celebration of elementary forms and senses that has attracted the public since its inception. Famous photographer René Burri took photos here, and Louis Vuitton shot an advertising campaign within the space in 2016.
His color palette also holds a strong presence in his last residential project of 1977, the Gilardi House in Mexico City. In this project, colors become an essential quality of the architecture itself, creating a luminescent work of art. The Gilardi House showcases the architect’s original and dramatic use of light, both natural and artificial. His preference for hidden light sources gives the interior a particularly subtle and lyrical atmosphere—a true contribution from Barragán to the world of modern architecture.
The work of the Mexican master architect also influenced the work of contemporary artists in very controversial ways. While conceptual artist Jill Magid created a diamond ring from the architect’s real ash, his signature pink color was the main feature of a satirical political statement of Mexican firm Estudio 3.14. The studio designed a utopian vision of Donald Trump’s planned wall between Mexico and America in the style of the famous architect.
When Barragán passed away in 1988, he left more than a legacy of geometric buildings and colorful spaces behind. His raw approach to design and lust for materials became a burning flame of inspiration to architects in Latin America and around the world. Over time, his hometown of Guadalajara grew into a creative epicenter of Mexican design and thought—with many homes resembling sanctuaries to the style set by the late Barragán. Throughout his life, the relationship between art and architecture was a balance that he sought to perfect with every new project. "Art is made by the alone, for the alone," was his conformity principle toward intimacy and how he hoped an individual interacted with his creations. Silence and mystery surround his oeuvre of iconic designs, but their intimacy and opportunity for self-reflection might be his greatest gift to humankind.
Visionaries and thinkers ahead of their, Inside Utopia is a visual tribute to the architects and interiors designers that daringly challenged the norm and reshaped the future of design.