Celebrated for the remarkable simplicity in his modernist designs, Mexican architect and engineer Luis Barragán (March 9, 1902- November 22, 1988), went on to become one of the most influential architects of the 21st century. His work has been featured in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and has also been awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1980 for his notable contribution to the world of architecture and design.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Luis Ramiro Barragán Morfín’s works often entailed vivid, colour blocked structures, planned around plants, and integrating the geography of his native country. Spearheading the Modernist movement in architecture in Mexico, his modest and creative works are widely recognised for his emphasis on light, shadow, form and texture. His residence and studio, Casa Barragán in Mexico City ( built 1948), incorporates all these elements in exemplary detail. Casa Barragán was converted to a museum after his death, and was later listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004.
Barragán was trained as an engineer, and travelled through Spain and France after his graduation. He chanced upon the writings of Ferdinand Bac, a German-French writer, designer and artist, and an entity who greatly inspired him and inclined him towards the arts. His voyage through Europe captivated him – the architecture, landscaping and urban planning spoke to him on a deep level. Upon returning to his birth town, he ventured into a conscious peregrination in architecture, starting off with a series of small residential works in Guadalajara.
In 1931, he once again travelled to France and then New York, where he actively pursued an education in modernist design. This journey brought him face-to-face with Mexican-mural painter José Clemente Orozco, the Austrian-American architect, theatre designer, artist and sculptor Frederick Kiesler and a few architecture magazine editors. This furthered his education and awareness in design. The journey was brought to climax when he visited the Swiss-French born architect Le Corbusier, who forever left an impact on his practice.
Now back in Mexico, filled with a poetic design sense, and obsessed with a notion of developing his own style of Modernist architecture, Barragán started to believe in an ‘emotional architecture’ as opposed to the thought that a house is built as a ‘machine for living.’
Also influenced by the European model of modernism, he designed buildings imbibing the characteristic, straight, clean lines of the Modernist movement, often using raw materials such as stone and wood. Bright shades of yellow and pink dominated most of his works, breathing life and personality into his structures. Unifying this with a purposeful and dramatic use of natural and artificial light made his volumetric forms sing in understated tones.
Remarkably, all his works have been realised in Mexico. In 1945, he integrated gardens into the layout of Jardines de Pedregal, emphasising the beginnings of his characteristic design language. Working in the local terrain, he sought to subsume native plants that masterfully complimented the natural, earthy colour palette of the region. This is also widely regarded as one of the most important works of modern architecture in Mexico, and for also being the turning point for Barragán’s career as an architect.
The Convento de las Capuchinas Sacramentarias in Tlálpan (1955) stands testament to the fact that Barragán had an acerbic sense of going beyond just serving aesthetics in his works. The convent skilfully incorporates natural light in its form, paying respect to the importance of light in theology. Torres de Satéllite (1957), created in collaboration with sculptor Mathias Goeritz, is an array of urban sculptures, designed with a perspective of being viewed from the inside of a vehicle while traveling to work, and was an attempt to infuse vitality to daily commutes in a city. The last design built by Barragán before his death in 1988, the Casa Giraldi presents a lively, pink facade to the street it is located in, while the glass in its interiors is painted a vivid yellow, emanating a divine glow inside the space.
His designs and work philosophy inspired the next generation of modernist architects – Louis I Kahn sought his advice, in the planning of the famous Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Barragán was the one who suggested that rather than placing a garden between the structures (as was Kahn’s initial thought), a wide-open plaza with water in the midst would showcase and hero the design to a greater extent. The concepts personified in his designs– simplicity, colour, modernism and pure genius – continue to live on.