Art, Architecture and the Duality of Luis Barragán.
Barragán’s buildings have a specific atmosphere. They elicit feelings we expe- rience more commonly from proximity to great art, which, of course, the best architecture is. They invite meditation and have an emotional resonance that is a powerful amalgam of their composite parts. The combination of natural and artificial light, of colors expertly and sensitively interpreted, and of a form and a division of public and private space that follows an ancient tradition amounts to something spiritual, something beyond the terrestrial. Josef Albers said that art was the “discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect.” Barragan’s masterpieces—built between the 1940s and the 1970s—succeed in a compa- rable discrepancy. Jardines del Pedregal, his own house and studio, the chapel at Tlalpan, the Gilardi House and, designed with his friend Mathias Goeritz, the monumental soaring Torres de Ciudad Satélite, all overreach their physical footprints, connecting to something deeper and higher than their bricks, mortar, and stucco.
It is this “high period” Barragán, photogenic and synonymous with a modern Mexico, that is best known, and where connections can most easily be seen with the international art movements with which he intersects directly and indi- rectly by way of shared values and aesthetic and contemplative synergies. Barragán’s pinks and terra-cottas, applied to his unique architectural vernac- ular, are immediately seductive. For all of his sophistication and the varied sources he drew upon—more complicated than his reductive use of space would imply—he enjoys a wide popular appeal. Here is something warmer than the utilitarianism of Le Corbusier or Bauhaus. Barragán’s aforementioned mature period works have in them a foundation laid by Le Corbusier (and indeed one born out of Mexican colonial architecture) but the temperature has been turned up, the hard lines softened by color of a specifically local patina, transfigured as if by the sun and the verdancy that surrounds them. Such an energy can be felt even in the photographs of these buildings, and it is through photographs— the best of which were taken by Armando Salas Portugal over a forty-year col- laboration—that Barragán, the most Instagramable of architects, is best known. Indeed, his 1976 MoMA exhibition was made up entirely of printed and pro- jected images, with no maquettes, drawings, or objects.
The exhibition of which this book is a record aims to go beyond the color and surface of his popular image, the Barragán of legend. architecture of color: the legacy of luis barragán attempts to marry the modernist, acutely “contem- porary” Barragán, who syncs with international artists, with the other man—one wholly Mexican, a lover of the forgotten qualities and past traditions and of the very sentimentalism that modernism, more broadly, tried to do away with. It is this duality that makes him so interesting. Here is a very human architecture— both in terms of scale and feeling. His “emotional architecture” hums at the same pitch as the emotional abstraction of which Josef Albers, Agnes Martin, and Sean Scully are masters, at their varied intensities. Here we wish to explore both. In the Mexico of Frida Kahlo and Luis Barragán myth can blur with reality. Barragán belongs to the Mexico of Orozco and Tamayo—their modernism was at odds with the leftist Diego Rivera, Kahlo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. By combining drawings and furniture by Barragán with works by other artists we can examine this duality, looking at both his “rose period” and its magnetism, as well drawing attention to his uncanny modernity and his love of the past, its templates and nuances.
In his Pritzker Prize acceptance speech (excerpts from which are published on page 7) Barragán avoided the technical detail that would have made up the bulk of his years studying engineering in Guadalajara. Instead he spoke of religion, myth, beauty, silence, solitude, serenity, joy, and death. It was through his technical skill and his virtuosity as a colorist and a designer of spaces that he was able to explore and interpret such themes. The technical part, the pains- taking process of drawing and redrawing, the plans showing where the pipes would go, are not revealed, though they survive in his archives, preserved by the Barragan Foundation, Switzerland, and will be included in their comprehensive publication of Barragán’s complete works (scheduled for publication in 2018).
In this same speech Barragán singles out his friend Chucho Reyes, twenty-two years his senior, for praise (he had by this point fallen out with Mathias Goeritz over issues stemming from the authorship of the Torres de Ciudad Satélite), acknowledging his “wise teachings.” Sheila Hicks, who knew many of the pro- tagonists in Barragán’s circle, described Reyes—an artist and antique dealer— as a “folklore colorist.” Indeed, besides the significant influence of Modern European art, Barragán’s palette especially owes something to Reyes’s interpre- tation of hues embedded in pre-Columbian and colonial art, architecture, and craft. Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s untitled (red graffiti: skull and heart),1960 (page 71) reminds us that some of the colors we associate with Barragán were pre-existing, visible in Mexico City and elsewhere. Just as the French painter Jacques Majorelle, active in the first decades of the twentieth century, adopted and adapted color present in traditional proto-modernist Moroccan architec- ture, Barragán made his own appropriations. Barragán talks about Morocco in his Pritzker speech; however, he did not visit Morocco until the 1950s. He must have seen qualities there that he, Albers, and indeed Martin (who designed her own adobe house in Cuba, New Mexico) loved in adobe architecture. Its sim- plicity, the nearness of its form and function, its dry materiality, and its dimen- sions—relating closely to a person’s height—were not far off Le Corbusier’s Modulor ideal. Chucho Reyes would have supported Barragán’s link to a local artisanal history—sharing with him a love not only of color but of religious art and artifacts. Barragán’s long walls and courtyards come not from some rigid modernist template but from the grand houses, haciendas, and convents he knew from his youth, private and elegant. It was his genius that married these two styles, creating, from this personal assemblage, something totally new and wholly his, even if it connects to other styles and diverse architectural histories both new and old.
The artist Mathias Goeritz, on the other hand, was more aligned to Barragán’s modernist and progressive persona. A German émigré, he settled in Mexico in 1949, and it was in 1953 that he published his manifiesto de la arquitectura emocional, articulating and giving voice to the sentiments present in Barragán’s buildings. Work by Goeritz was integrated by Barragán into projects from this period—most visibly the gold panel, hung flush with a wall, in the vestibule at the Casa Barragán. Goeritz’s own duality is evident in the works on pages 62 and 63. The architecturally inspired drawing is the work of a modernist, a promoter of and advocate for modern Mexican and international art and architecture. The salvador de auschwitz vii (1951) however, and the large, figurative, almost expressionist sculpture el ángel made by Goeritz in 1953 and later installed in the Casa Prieto López are quite different and hint at the struggle in mid-twen- tieth-century Mexico between the old and the new, the head and the heart.
It may well have been Goeritz who introduced Josef Albers to Luis Barragán in Mexico City in the mid-1950s. The artist and the architect became friends and discovered a shared love of color and its properties. In Albers’s “Adobe” screen print variant ix (1967) it is easy to see the synergy between Barragán and Albers, both in terms of form and the elastic properties of color. The pool in the Gilardi House is a delicate balance of color; the red and the blue would be very different were they not used together. Albers explores this idea in his 1963 book, interaction of color. Josef and Anni Albers first went to Mexico in the winter of 1935 and would make over a dozen subsequent trips, driving from Black Mountain College, and later Yale, as if drawn by gravity to Mexico’s ancient ruins—which Albers photographed extensively in the 1930s—and its colors. The heat of the Latin palette must have seemed so different from those they had left behind in Bauhaus-period Germany. Mexico was a revelation to the couple. In a letter to Wassily Kandinsky after their first trip Albers writes, “Mexico is truly the promised land of abstract art.” In the 1930s and the sub- sequent decades, the work of both husband and wife changed dramatically; Josef’s art and teaching practice had formerly focused on materiality, but he started to make color and its properties his focus. His homage to the square paintings (“palettes for color”), through which he could elicit an emotional and cerebral response from viewers, are connected spiritually, intellectually, and chronologically to Barragán’s high period structures. The architect had homage to the square reproductions in his home. Barragán’s buildings deliver color in a similar way, in a geometric vocabulary, although through a different means and materiality. Josef and Anni Albers collected pre-Columbian objects and textiles. Like Barragán, they displayed them at home in a way at odds with the minimalism of which Albers and Barragán are considered founding fathers. Anni’s weavings connect to a tradition very much alive in mid-twentieth-century Mexico; she was immediately and lastingly attracted to the patterns and colors she saw there, in both architecture and textile design. This is particularly evident in her prints, to which she dedicated herself from 1963. tr iii (1970) is one such example, combining a pattern and temperature that is, for all of abstraction’s universality, totally Mesoamerican.
Eduardo Terrazas, an architect and artist whose friendship with Barragán began in 1966 when he moved back to Mexico to work on the 1968 Olympic Games, designed the square in which Barragán’s monument Faro del Comercio sits in Monterrey. It was Barragán’s last large-scale built project and was completed in 1984. Terrazas continues to be interested in the power of pattern, repeating it and varying it ad infinitum. The works on page 81 are made from wool yarn, dyed locally, attached to wooden boards with Campeche wax. Again, here are shapes that are ancient yet make up much of twentieth-century modern art, rendered here in traditional materials and colors.
Sheila Hicks, who studied with Josef and Anni Albers at Yale in the 1950s, is perhaps the most significant artist working today in textiles. q u a t r e t e m p s (2014) (page 79) is made from a bleached linen that has no place in the tra- ditional Mexican craft practices Hicks first encountered in the late 1950s. The linen used here is from Northern France and chimes with a divergent yet com- parative local textile history. Removed geographically, this side of Hicks’s work, which emerged after her move to Paris in 1964, nonetheless relates to her more organic and technicolor work. Here wehave an artist appropriating and makingmodernafoundworkingpracticeandpalette.Theformofquatre temps has, according to its maker, nothing to do with the temples of the Yucatán, but is taken from parquet de Versailles. This sameness and difference underlie the fundamental truth and universality of what Barragán and the aforementioned artists did so sublimely.
It is easy to tell emotional abstraction and minimalism apart from their more contrived and technically constrained counterparts. Dan Flavin’s neons, for all their reduction of form, have the gravitas and energy of stained-glass church windows, the same ability to lift up the viewer, combining pure light with pure color, producing a spiritual effect that is both architecture and art. Donald Judd too was a maker, like Barragán, of moments of contemplation and meditation. Marfa is a secular church, with pilgrims seeking and finding abstract icons in the desert. Judd visited and photographed Mexico, though his work doesn’t directly connect to Barragán’s. Of course his simple furniture—all color, pol- ished metal, or wood—is Barragán-esque. At his studio and home in SoHo there is an atmosphere that one also finds at the Casa Barragán, one consistent with the tenets laid out in Barragán’s Pritzker speech.
Agnes Martin painted “with her back to the world” and much of her prac- tice was deeply private. Barragán’s high walls create a similar privacy. Her late paintings and watercolors, made in New Mexico, diverge in terms of palette and template from her 1960s output, though a work such as friendship (1963) prefigured the warmth that characterizes what was to come. From 1970 onward this change of tone was increasingly apparent, adhering less closely to the rigidity that governed her earliest grids. Her last work, made in 2004, was a simple line drawing of a plant. For an artist who destroyed many of her early figurative paintings and drawings this is a poignant talisman of the very real and very human emotionality that is present in much of her best work. Sean Scully’s 1970s practice had the same rigidity as Martin’s, though with greater dynamism and taped off impasto. It was only later that he allowed himself to give in to an emotional abstraction that has more in common, in terms of tenor, with Wagner and El Greco than Mondrian, whom Scully cites as a formative influence. Of this change and this softening of “the grid” Scully says, “A person can’t really avoid making a certain kind of art, you can’t get away from what you believe in. You are what you believe and your world view will condition what you make, there is no way around it.” Barragán’s journey as an architect mirrors that of these artists. He first had to learn to create structures in a tradi- tional, then a modern, style. Finally, he had to “unlearn” those same rules and constraints, coming ultimately to his own true stylistic and spiritual apex. His best known mature work is all the more moving for its trueness to himself.