Pioneering Modernist: Luis Barragan


In contrast to the Corbusian “machine for living,” Luis Barragan described his house as “my refuge … an emotional piece of architecture, not a cold piece of convenience.”  This post salutes Barragan, an influential modernist who dared to deviate from the glass, steel and concrete of his contemporaries.  

Is it any wonder that we like a designer who combined modernist forms with natural building materials?  This seems, in fact, much like what we try to do ourselves!

A Mexican Modernism

International Modern (you might guess from the name) was disseminated all over the world. The ideas that began with a few designers at the Bauhaus art school in Germany, spread to the whole world in the decades before and after World War II.  When it caught on in different countries dramatically affected the way it was used in each place, however.  

The International Style arrived nearly simultaneously (in the 1920’s and 1930’s), in Africa, Japan and Mexico, while it was introduced much later (after WWII) in India and Australia.  Each nationality carried slightly in each according to the people who designed it (and the patrons who supported it).

In Mexico, the style of modern architecture was closely linked to the idealism of the reform party in the wake of their revolution.  Beaux Arts was associated with the decadence of European culture and control.  Even after political shifts, modern buildings continued to be seen as a new Mexican cultural statement and the Mexican modernists incorporated historical indigenous materials and forms into their design language to strengthen that psychological linkage.  

UNAM library

A non-Barragan example (above) is the Juan O’Gorman University Library at UNAM in Mexico City (1953) – a modernist building covered in colorful mosaic murals.  Mexican modernism picked up both the massing – overall shapes – and the imagery – patterns and colors – of the Pre-Columbian landscape.  It used the squared off modern building shapes to reference a connection to its national and regional history, rather than to set a tone of something completely new.  

The Architecture of Luis Barragan

Most representative of this marriage of Modern and Mexican Nationalist design was Luis Barragan.  His residential designs are clearly International Modern but without the sleekly machined finishes found in the US or Europe.  He made use of Mies van der Rohe’s long planar walls and reflective still water elements but instead of reveling in sleek, monochromatic surfaces, he turned to vernacular Mexican building materials and startlingly bright colors in his designs.

Key among Barragan’s design tools are  the ideas of compression and release, intermediate planes to highlight depth, and intense color play.  His buildings can be instantly recognized by their carefully created textures on uninterrupted walls, saturated in color.  

His Mexico City houses are also similar in many ways to the vernacular of the city around them: turned inward from the street onto interior courtyards and full of transitional spaces open to the sky.  The photos below show his final built work, Casa Gilardi, located in Mexico City only a few blocks from his own home at Casa Barragan.

  barragan stairs

Barragan featured artisanal artwork, pulled from local sources in his buildings.  He embedded rough hewn beams above doorways and planed locations to highlight local art pieces chosen for their contrast to the sleek modern forms of the buildings.  

His interest in local techniques led him to study the construction methods and art work of Mexican buildings.  His brightly painted exterior and interior walls may startle an American viewer but they hardly stand out from the houses around them.

barragan yellow light hallway

barragan window light

Barragan experimented with different methods of adding pigment to plaster or sometimes simply colored walls with light.  Both of the rooms shown above have white walls but appear to be a deeply saturated yellow thanks to the stained windows which light them.  In the second room, a library, the yellow window can be shuttered to create an eye-friendly reading light, or opened to create a more meditative space.

Ex Post Facto Recognition

When we think of modernist buildings, we tend to jump to the more well known examples.   Its easy to picutre the works of Le Corbusier who pioneered Brutalist concrete structures and famously said “a house is a machine for living”.  Especially in Chicago, we might default to Mies van der Rohe who designed and taught at the IIT campus.  Less often do we recognize the achievements and contributions of more nationally based designers like Barragan.  That doesn’t mean his designs are of lesser importance.

Luis Barragan recieved little international attention until the end of his life.  Finally, in 1980 he won the Pritzker Prize (the second ever awarded).  Now his home and studio are a UNESCO World Heritage site and a point of pilgrimage for architects and students, alike.