Tacubaya, Miguel Hidalgo, México City, July, 1981
By Christian Narkiewicz-Laine
Philip Johnson arranged this once in a life-time opportunity to interview one of the most influential architects of the 20th-Century. Luis Barragán was 80 years old and not in good health. I arrived in México City on a warm May afternoon and made my way to Luis Barragán’s private residence outside the historic town of Tacubaya, in the Miguel Hidalgo borough of México City, which also served as his atelier. The house was simple and austere, understated, as was in keeping with most of his designs. I was struck by the home’s unpretentious exterior, which did not scream “monument,” as in other houses I have visited designed by his contemporaries. The house was designed and built in 1947 for Luz Escandón de R. Valenzuela, but in 1948, Barragán decided to move into it himself, despite the fact that at the time he was developing the elite subdivision Jardines del Pedregal in the south of the city. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect made constant modifications to the house, functioning as a kind of experimental laboratory for his ideas.
I knocked on the door and a handsome, distinguished man in his 50s answered the door. I told him I was a journalist and architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philip Johnson had arranged for me to interview Mr. Barragán. The man looked somber and said, “I am afraid it’s not possible; Mr. Barragán is ill,” and he closed the door. Later, I understood the man was Raúl Ferrera, an architect and Barragán’s companion.
I returned to Chicago and called Philip Johnson. Two months later, Johnson again arranged a second interview. Another telegram from México City once again arrived and confirmed the appointment. Days later, I was on my way back to México City.
An unusual cloud-burst that morning splattered rain over the neoclassical monuments and soaked the urban islands on Paseo de la Reforma. The taxi driver had to stop and telephone the office of Barragán for specific instructions as to where Number 12 General Francisco Ramírez was located. He then hastefully sped down the polluted rain-drenched boulevards of the city. In minutes, we were in Colonia San Miguel, next to the dethroned Emperor Maximilian’s castle in Chapultepec. The taxi came to a halt in that same run-down, middle-class section of the city in the Miguel Hidalgo borough now becoming more and more familiar to me.
I knocked again on the door and this time a secretary answered. Again, she said, “I am sorry, Mr. Barragán is too sick to interview.” When she started to close the door, I inserted my foot between the door and the wall, preventing it from closing. “You don’t understand, I came from Chicago twice for this interview.” I had no idea what came over me; perhaps, just the determination to meet this great man.
“Very well,” she said, “please come in and sit down.”
Through the door, the secretary, who looked uncomfortable of what to do with yet another unwelcomed guest, ushered me to the architect’s office; and behind the door, there stood one large, familiar pastel yellow wall. Inside, she led me into a strange hall from where I stood with yet another wall of large photographic panels of Barragán’s most revered works and books on Japanese Art. It felt like a kind of cleansing process.
Suddenly, I found myself inside a magnificent poem. The inside of the dull, but colorful cubist exterior revealed a sublime aesthetic, like some kind of drifting, peaceful oasis. I sat in an elongated space with volcanic-stone floors and recessed walls; in front of me, was that famous wooden stair on winged ascent that was anchored on its side into a white-washed wall and magically floated, suspended in the air. Equestrian statues, Picassos, and old books filled the walls. Outside, the patio was punctuated by ancient Aztec urns.
Raúl Ferrera appeared in the room and took control, guiding me through the atelier and illustrating the latest Barragán project and first high-rise building, the new corporate headquarters of VISA in Monterrey, N.L. Ferrera then again disappeared.
“How was your trip from the States?” inquired Ferrera as he returned.
It seemed as if he had something critical to tell me, but had to maneuver within the confines of his very excellent Mexican manners. “Unfortunately,” stated a now more confident spokesman, “as you know Señor Barragán he has been ill for sometime; and today, he is very sick.” The shock must have registered: This was the second trip to México and I was determined not to leave without a complete assignment. Somehow, I convinced Ferrera to speak to Barragán on my behalf.
Luis Barragán, age 83, was trained as an engineer and proudly continues as such, alongside his architectural practice. His architectural and landscaping experience was learned; mostly through his artistic connections with the Mexican naïve painter, (Chucho) Jesus Reyes and the sculptor, Mathais Georitz, a German-born intellectual, who settled in Mexico during the 1940s. Indeed, his large pastel wall paintings reinterpret the same primitive art of México and the forms are sculptured from abstracted, historical styles and environmental and climatic influences.
Mathias Goeritz collaborated with Barragan on the monumental “Towers of Satellite City” on Querétaro Highway.
Luis Barragán’s most learned teacher, though, was the poetic, vernacular, and metaphysical art and landscape of Mexico—the ancient villages, haciendas, ranches, churches, and hollowed convents.
Ferrera re-entered the library. “Señor Barragán will see you, but we must discuss conditions,” he said as he eyed the cameras and tape recorders I had assembled and tested on the nearby table. “First,” he continued, “there will be no photography and no tape recordings of his voice. Second, we must discontinue the interview if it become apparent that Señor Barragán cannot withstand the stress.” Understanding very well the shy and timid nature of Mexican people, I still protested the significant absence of tape recording materials. Ferrera explained that they were concerned about the physical voice of Barragán, obviously a result of his sickness and his desire not to have it recorded. “One other condition,” Ferrera continued, “the interview will be in French, since SeñorBarragán cannot speak English.”
As if some unearthly hand seized me to accompany Mr. Ferrera, we left the library and approached a set of stairs that led to the second floor. At the mid-landing level, I noticed a large, gold-gilt panel and searched my mind for a familiar reference. The same altar panel Matthias Goeritz painted for the Tlalpan Chapel. We continued into a hall from where different rooms found their entries. At once, I realized I was in Mr. Barragán’s bedroom.
The large, dark room was enclosed by walls and totally covered in their totality and mostly dominated by Byzantine and Russian icons. A sliver of light—the only illumination—fell into the room from an opened window shutter, reminiscent of the singular light source in Verdermeer’s paintings. The sunlight streamed in and found its way to its appropriate subject: Mr. Barragán sitting astute and noble and uncomfortably erect in a chair next to his bed.
The ironic absence of color is what first came to mind: the blackened room, the Titanium white illuminated El Maestro. The icons were aethetically darkened from centuries of fragrant sweet smoke and candle fumes in their churches. The same scent held in the air. Mr. Barragán was wrapped in bedding, white pajamas, a robe and wearing a beret; he watched me move strangely about to a chair in front of him and his table. On the table, a telephone, a pencil, and some paper at his side, and a black and worn set of rosary beads in his hand. A large-scale crucifix on a wall at the foot of the bed resounded the silent solitude and stated repentance and mysticism.
I felt awkward asking an old, sick holy man, now aware of my hesitations, senseless questions about architecture.
Christian Narkiewicz-Laine: Has anyone ever told you that you bear a striking resemblance to Le Corbusier?
Luis Barragán: Oui! Many people tell me this, especially when I wear my glasses. But do you think it is a more physical or mental resemblance?
CNL: Physical, yes. The eyes are the same. Of course, Le Corbusier was a slight man. By comparison, you are much taller and more powerful in your frame. But the intensity. It’s all there.
LB: Le Corbusier played an important role in my life, especially in my early work. I visited his atelier in Paris when I studied in France in 1930. I respect him as the man of the epoch; I respect his great sense of genius and invention. My early work, as I had said before, was influenced by him. But, never had I undone the importance of the wall. Non! The wall is the most important, more than the windows, even in that time.
CNL: What about the other modernist architects? Mies van der Rohe, for example?
LB: Non! Mies was a very bad influence.
CNL: And Alvar Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright?
LB: Unfortunately, I studied the work of Aalto quite late. I have a deep respect and affection for him. I love his work. He was very, very free to make or do whatever he wanted. Since he worked in the vernacular of his native Finnish tradition, his was not academic. He did not adhere to the Academy. He was most free. Wright, on the other hand, was not the same; not at all. I admire his Falling Water House as a modernist expression because the house did not spoil or interrupt nature. The house did not intrude on the water or the trees.
CNL: And any other Wrightian works?
LB: No, just details. The rest is details.
CNL: As an urban designer, what do you think of our modern 20th-Century cities, such as Chicago or New York?
LB: I don’t care for them at all. The majority of them are not even interesting. There are too many people. México City, by comparison, is the worst and the ugliest.
CNL: If you had to credit just one person or influence in your life and architecture, who or what would that influence be?
LB: Not one person. I have been influenced only by the grand and noble traditions here in México. That tradition is universal and international. In architecture, as I said before, I was influenced heavily by Le Corbusier, his works, and his ideas that he advanced in architecture.
CNL: You said that you are a devout Catholic. Is religion one of your influences?
LB: Oui, I am influenced by Catholicism. Do you see all the churches in México? And, the deep spirituality of the Méxican people? It’s the silence! Silence! And, the rituals and iconography of the churches and the saints!
The village churches have a great many images of Jesus—on the cross or covered with thorns and wounds—in which the insolent realism of the Spaniards is mingled with the tragic symbolism of the Indians. On the one hand, the wounds are flowers, pledges of resurrection; on the other, they are a reiteration that life is the sorrowful mask of death.
The Indian blends into the landscape until he is an indistinguishable part of the white wall against which he leans at twilight, of the dark earth on which he stretches out to rest at midday, of the silence that surrounds him. He distinguishes his human singularity to such an extent that he finally annihilates it and turns into a stone, a tree, a wall, silence, and space.
CNL: Would you say that your architecture is somehow a religious or spiritual experience?
LB: This relates to my experience as being a Catholic. I would frequently visit the now empty monastic buildings we have inherited from the power of México’s religious belief and the genius of our colonial ancestors. I have always been moved by the peaceful well-being of those uninhabited cloisters and the monumental, empty courtyards. I earnestly strived to have these same sentiments mark my works.
In alarming proportions, beauty, silence, astonishment, inspiration, magic, sorcery, enchantment, and also serenity have disappeared from architecture entirely; however, all of these have found a familiar place in my soul.
Architecture is an art when one consciously or unconsciously creates aesthetic emotion in the atmosphere and when this environment produces well-being, particularly a spiritual well-being.
Architecture is a refuge, an emotional place in my heart, not a piece of convenience, not a work of engineering, not just simply a place to live.
CNL: Refuge is a wonderful term to define your famous haciendas.
LB: The courtyard has been an integral focus of my work. The courts are so predominate in our Pre-Hispanic architecture of places. Moorish gardens, another cultural milestone, are lush enclaves hidden away. Most intense are the patios, both spatially and in their place as the heart of any building. Yes, refuge.
I learned from Ferdinand Bac that the soul of the garden is the greatest sum of serenity at man’s disposal.
The perfect garden, no matter its size, should enclose, nothing more, nothing less, than the entire universe.
CNL: How do you define beauty?
LB: I have said, often enough, beauty is an oracle that speaks to all. A life deprived of beauty is not worthy of being called human. Any work of art that does not express beauty is not worthy to be considered a work of art. Architecture is an art that creates, outlines, and contains aesthetic emotion in the atmosphere and only then does it become an environment.
Beauty has never ceased to be my guiding light.
What religion are you?
CNL: Russian Orthodox.
Oui, you have the exactness of an icon, the same icons here in my room. The light! Perhaps, the deepest expression of Orthodoxy that I can remember is the Russian cathedral in Paris. The garden, the chants, the rituals, the candles. As a student, I frequented this church. I loved this cathedral. It is invested in my dreams of Paris, a long and contemplated memory.
CNL: Mr. Barragán what kinds of dreams do you have?
LB: Tales from my childhood, mostly. Also, Arabian gardens are dreams of dreams in and of themselves. I fly from one mystery to another.
CNL: What, Mr. Barragán, will be your legacy?
LB: My legacy are my dreams. I dream of wild horses in an empty landscape roaming free.
My earliest childhood memories are related to my father’s ranch near Mazamitla, a remote pueblo with hills, houses with tiled roofs and cantilevered eaves to protect you from the heavy rains and the intense sun. The color of the red earth stands out predominately. In the village, water runs through a system of gutted logs, formed by large troughs and supported by a structure of tree forks several meters high. This aqueduct crossed over the town and reached the patios where great stone fountains received the water. These gutted logs, covered by moss, dripped with a constant stream of water. A liquid treasure delivered by rainbow ribbons of waterfall. These gave the appearance of some kind of dream-like place, the atmosphere of a beautiful fairy tale.
This memorable epiphany has always been with me.
The lessons learned from the unassuming architecture of our Méxican provincial towns have been a permanent source of inspiration. The white-washed walls, the solitude of patios and orchards, the colorful walls of houses in the streets, the popular feasts and payasos, the subtle sound of fountains, the humble simplicity of every zócalo surrounded by darkened shadows from open corridors.
While awake or while dreaming, the sweet memory of a fountain has always accompanied me throughout my life.
It would be difficult for me to design anything without the experiences registered in my memory. All memories provide inspiration and a mark for evaluation. Empowered by memory design reveals its special qualities.
My work is the magic of reliving those remote nostalgic years.
(The telephone rings; Mr. Barragán slumps into his chair and looks exhausted. Raúl Ferrara reaches for the telephone and converses in Spanish. At which point, Mr. Barragán picked up a book on the bed, a book of poetry by Baudelaire, and started to read me a poem.)
CNL: This interview has given me impressions that will remain with me forever. Engraved in my memory. That you so very much. And now, I will allow you to resume your important work. Thank you, Señor Barragán.
LB: It was my humble pleasure. Do you think, in the near future, you will be in Paris?
CNL: Yes, as a matter of fact, this fall.
LB: And will you go to the Russian Cathedral there?
CNL: Yes, most likely I will and when I hear the liturgical chants I will contemplate your same dreams, and I will think of you.
LB: Will you pray for me?
CNL: Pardon? Yes, I will. I will pray for you El Miestro Barragán.
Quickly leaving the house, I thanked his companion, Raúl Ferrara, and went to a nearby restaurant, and swiftly, without the convenience of a tape recorder, but with notes hurriedly committed to paper, I wrote down all that I remembered from the interview.
The next day, Mr. Barragán generously arranged for me to visit and photograph San Cristóbal Estates, Fuente de los Amantes, Casa Giraldi, Jardines del Pedregal, and Tlalpan Chapel.
Copyright ©2015 Metropolitan Arts Press Ltd.