“All the Ideas in My Head”

Luis Barragán, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century (Photo: Rethinking the Future)
Luis Barragán, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century (Photo: Rethinking the Future)

When Martin Luque and Francisco (Pancho) Gilardi in 1975 asked Luis Barragán to design a studio space and party house for the advertising agency they co-owned, Mexico’s legendary architect had been retired for a decade. He declined to take on the project. Then fate intervened, as our guide, Eduardo Luque, told us. (He’s Martin Luque’s youngest son, an architect himself who grew up in this house and still lives in it.) MoMA awarded Luis Barragán a retrospective. Needing new work for his solo show in New York City, Barragán called the ad agency and asked to visit the site.

“Don’t chop down this tree because the house will be built around it,” Barragán told Luque and Gilardi, impressed by a remarkably beautiful jacaranda tree in the centre of the lot. He had one other request. Free reign over everything. “I want you to let me do all the ideas I still have in my head.”

Until Ignacia Guesthouse sent us a list of things to see during our stay in Mexico City, we had no idea Casa Gilardi existed. The cultural introduction to our seven days in CDMX, Casa Gilardi was the ultimate experience. Gail felt even stronger, saying, “Casa Gilardi is maybe my favorite experience in Mexico. That might be because I always wanted to be an architect or a designer.” The dramatic play of light and shadow, the liveliness of interior and exterior spaces, the exuberant planes of vivid colour, the serenity of contemplative spaces—express the emotion of amazement, like seeing a virtuoso painting, reading an astonishing poem or receiving a surprise gift. The Casa is a living work of art.

“Architecture is an art when one consciously or unconsciously creates aesthetic emotion in the atmosphere and when this environment produces well-being,” Barragán said in accepting architecture’s highest honour, the Prizker prize in 1980.

It wasn’t surprising to hear that Barragán, a civil engineer and self-taught architect, claimed philosophers, painters and poets as his primary influences. Eduardo told us that when Barragán began working on a commission, the first thing he presented to his client was a “novel-poem dissertation about what the place would feel like;” for his dad and Gilardi, Eduardo said the piece was about fifteen pages long.

Colour!

Colour was Barragán’s trademark. He used it to stretch perception, to create illusion, tension and serenity. “Barragán Pink,” still refreshingly modern and fashionable after fifty years, is the Double Bubble colour that greets you on the outside facade.

His fearless palette of colours originated in the Mexican landscape: “his pink comes from the bougainvillea, his red-rust color is extracted from the flowers of tabachin, and his light-purple is the color of the jacaranda flowers. Blue is the color of the sky and yellow ochre that of the earth. Despite the brilliance of colour, there’s a sense of austerity,” said the Japanese architect Yutaka Saito. The colours Barragán used were also influenced by the paintings of Mexican artist Jesús Reyes Ferreira and the adjacent colour theory of his friend, Josef Albers. Others liken his architecture to the masters of Cubist and Surrealist paintings.

The texture of his vivid colours, rough or smooth, changes how sunlight and shadows played together throughout the day. Barragán believed shadows were “a basic human need” and it seems he was most infatuated with the hour before noon, because Eduardo told us that’s when he came for his daily visit to Casa Luis Barragán, while his health allowed.

I can’t say for sure when our group was most overcome with the silence of utter amazement: when Eduardo showed us the pool, or when we followed him into the narrow corridor that leads to the pool, the doors closed on both ends, and his request to “shush.”

But I do know that when he ushered us into the low-ceilinged passageway suffused with a dazzling glow of yellow from the warmth of the dandelion colour applied to the walls and ceiling, its intensity extending to the unframed panes of tainted glass in the vertical openings of the patio wall, I was…speechless. For Barragán, the colour yellow reflected spirituality; the illuminating corridor evoking the nave of a church.

“The ideal space must contain elements of magic, serenity, sorcery and mystery.” Luis Barragán.

Opening the door from the corridor, you are at once immersed in the deep-azure blue vibrating from the walls, enlivened by strobes of sunlight and flashy reflections from the five-foot-deep pool where Eduardo and his brothers learned to swim. Eduardo explained that the pool wall extends further than the ceiling to make way for concealed lighting.

As Magellan said, the house is minimalist, while natural light, both direct and indirect, is used to maximum effect. Artificial light is present, but as Eduardo pointed out, there are neither ceiling nor wall lights in Casa Gilardi. An article I read describes Barragán’s style: “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 house is about 450 square metres, the private areas in the front and on the second storey (which we didn’t see: the garage, kitchen and maid’s quarters and bedrooms), and the common areas in the back are connected via a courtyard around the huge jacaranda tree and a corridor off the entrance.

“I don’t divide architecture, landscaping, and gardening; to me, they are one.” Luis Barragán

Eduardo started the tour on the first floor in the living room and library, intimate spaces with built-in components, understated furniture of local Sabio wood that Barragán commissioned or contributed from his own collection, and decorative flourishes of folk art, modern pieces and pre-Colombian artifacts that personalize the space. As Gail noticed, there is no wall art. From there, Eduardo returned us to the ground floor to the swimming pool and dining area, the only space from which you can access another spectacular courtyard, an example of how Barragán intentionally restricted flow.

“Any work of architecture that does not express serenity is a mistake.” Luis Barragán

“Did you notice the small window openings that don’t allow passersby to see in?” Eduardo asked us. Barragán was interested in conveying a sense of repose and tranquility inside the house, drawing attention to the sky, the jacaranda and the light, not the urban bustle on the street.

Barragán (1902-1988) married twice but preferred to live alone, his view being that,

Only in intimate communion with solitude may man find himself…Serenity is the great and true antidote against anguish and fear, and today, more than ever, it is the architect’s duty to make of it a permanent guest in the home, no matter how sumptuous or how humble.

Mexico’s only Pritzker Laureate, he has been described as revolutionizing the world with “geometric, brightly coloured buildings, all of them in Mexico, which blend vernacular hacienda elements with modernist influences from Europe and America.” In 1980, unable to attend the ceremony to accept the Prizker because of his poor health, Barragán wrote a humble letter of acceptance:

I am only a symbol for all those who have been touched by beauty.

At the time Casa Luis Barragán was designed, Luque and Gilardi were bachelors in their early twenties who often travelled for projects, so it was mainly a house for parties. Can you imagine a party in springtime when the jacaranda tree is in bloom, its flower petals matching the purple wall behind it?

In 1995 Gilardi passed away, leaving the house to Luque, who moved in with his wife and children and renamed the Casa in honour of his partner. The Luque family has lived there ever since, dedicated to the Casa’s meticulous preservation. When his mother Alcira began offering tours in 2000, Eduardo was just a six-year-old running up the stairs, climbing the jacaranda and jumping into the pool with his brothers. Eduardo now manages the public life of the Casa, which is also occasionally open for art exhibitions and other events.

And yet, it is a private space where you feel at one with your thoughts.

The poetic words on Barragán’s philosophy from Gestalten capture that sentiment:

Art is made by the alone, for the alone. It 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.

Pure delight.

Navigation

Barragán Foundation. While we had heard of this famous architect, without Ignacia’s recommendation we would likely have gone to Casa Barragán, recommended in the Monocle guide, in which Casa Gilardi gets only a wee mention. We’ll go there, next time.

Blanck, Nili. “Life at the Museum: Dreaming of Luis Barragán’s Casa Gilardi.” Garage, August 28, 2020.

Borawski, Zygmunt, translated by Anna Blasiak. “Building with Colour: The Work of Luis Barragán. PRZEKRÓJ Foundation. Dec 19, 2020.

Casa Gilardi.

Dvorak, Amy. “The Untold Stories Behind the Legendary Homes of Luis Barragán.” Dwell. February 6, 2019.

Eifler, Emily. “Luis Barragan, Architect of Color—Life in Color.” Colour Studio. March 25, 2013.

Luis Barragán’s Spiritual Spaces of Serenity.Gestalten. March, 2021.

Howarth, Dan. “Movie explores Luis Barragán’s colourful Casa Gilardi in Mexico City” Dezeen. October 13, 2016.

Photo Credits: Martin Luque and his sons: Garage. Stairway: Karol Dabbs.

“Casa Gilardi by Luis Barragan: The Last Masterpiece by the Architect.” Rethinking the Future.

“Luis Barragan: The controversial life and works.” Rethinking the Future.

Schielke, Thomas. “How Luis Barragán Used Light to Make Us See Color.” ArchDaily. July 12, 2018.

6 Responses

  1. The characteristics; shape, value and especially movement, of shadows, that are generated by sunlight or moonlight (reflected sunlight), I find fascinating to observe and also think about separately from observation..

    Barragan’s dramatic ‘yellow corridor’ makes me think of Robert Irwin’s ‘dawn to dusk’ at Marfa. It plays with some of the same ideas.

    Great write up – thanks…

  2. Interesting article and the first time I have heard the thoughts/words of the architect in describing what he his/her work is trying to portray to the public.
    This adds a great deal to the work as it provides insight as to what we are seeing, more or less from the minds eye of the creator.
    Perspective and thoughts are seldom melled into one
    collective to help us enjoy someone’s work, makes perfect sense and needs to adopted by others trying to explain what they want us to see or feel.
    Excellent article and story.

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