Standing in a quiet humble suburb of Tacubaya, Mexico City, from the street Casa Luis Barragán looks unremarkable; another concrete-like fortress that, along with the contrasting beautiful bright colonial residences, seems to define the urban landscape of Mexico City. But step inside and you will understand why this building is considered a modern architectural masterpiece meriting its inclusion on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2004.
Built in 1948 the private residence of Mexico’s most renowned architect, Pritzker Prize winner Luis Barrágan, epitomizes the mastery of colour, light and shadow, and form for which he was so widely acclaimed. Walking into his home is like walking into a sculpture or a modernist painting. Colour punctuates every room like an exclamation mark.
The first thing that hits you is the bubblegum pink entry hall, reflecting its warmth across every plane. It’s vibrancy and cheerfulness are disarming. Not what you expect of a modernist masterpiece. A bannister less staircase leads up to a landing where a gold leaf painting by Matthias Goeritz speckles across the surrounding stone and concrete surfaces. The din and buzz of the outside world is nowhere to be heard in this cloister of a home, but the play of natural light across objects and surfaces in the house and the colours on the wall creates drama and atmosphere in the rooms. It is no wonder that after visiting it, English architect John Pawson called it, “a place of theatre, quiet theater, but no less dramatic for that.”
The 1,161sqm home consists of a ground floor and two upper storeys, as well as a small private garden which Barrágan designed for himself. The antithesis of sterile, cold modernism, Barrágan fused modern design with traditional Mexican elements resulting in a style that was true to his roots, but one that has also come to be endlessly emulated and influential in architecture and design. A total of 45 doors throughout the home give the impression of a far more complicated maze-like structure than it is. Simplicity is at the heart of Barragán’s designs, but like a module, rooms can be partitioned by low walls and screens, or closed off or opened up at the whim of its inhabitant. It is a house full of surprises.
Volcanic rock is used inside the hallway giving the space a patio–like feel and bringing a sense of the outdoors indoors. This same rock is used in the garden, bleeding the outside and inside spaces seamlessly into one another. It is a motif that reoccurs in Barragán’s work. “Build a garden like a house and a house like a garden,” was said to have been his mantra. Electric light is non-existent in the house; only a few floor and table lamps scattered here and there provide night time lighting. Barragán’s insisted on natural light through use of numerous windows and skylights. The overall effect is one of architecture and nature working in harmony.
Because this was Barragán’s private residence, it reflects much of the architect’s personality, and is infused with memory and experience. A pared back and severe monastic aesthetic in the furniture and architectural design is evident throughout, an influence of his Franciscan upbringing. Religious icons and crucifixes break up the flat planes of colour across the walls in the bedrooms and dressing rooms. A golden religious sculpture set against a bright yellow wall is brilliantly illuminated from an overhead yellow skylight. The result is a halo of golden light that would inspire the envy of the most dedicated lighting designer.
The rooftop, consisting of yet more planes of colour, is completely devoid of furniture or decorative objects. Against a pink wall a cascade of green vines tumbles down from an overhanging tree. This is where Barragán came to seek spiritual communion and be closer to God. It was intended as a place for meditation and spiritual contemplation, bathed in light, immersed in nature, yet completely cut off from the noise of the outside world. The house is a calm hidden oasis in a middle of a bustling, chaotic city of some 21 million people.
We didn’t make it to Barragán’s other masterpieces dotted around Mexico City, including Gilardi House, Cuadra San Cristobal, and Galvez House but they’re definitely on the list for next time, and I strongly recommend you visit them if you get the chance.
Casa Luis Barragán
Visits are by appointment only: +52 55 5515 4908
© Diana d’Arenberg and post-ism, 2014.