The show had toured a number
of venues before arriving in Mexico, but there was a particular appeal
in the idea of seeing an exhibition of Barragán’s work in his own
country during the centenary of his birth. "Don’t ask me about this
building or that one," Barragán once said. "Don’t look at what I
do. See what I saw". Here was the perfect opportunity to do both: to
see a little of Mexico and also, finally, to experience the work at
first hand, to walk through spaces I had previously visited only in the
pages of books.
‘The Quiet Revolution’ is not the first exhibition of Barragán’s work. In 1976 New York’s Museum of Modern Art held a one-man show. This was followed by a retrospective at the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Mexico in 1985. In the interim Barragán was awarded the Pritzker Prize – architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. It is striking that in spite of these public acknowledgements, Barragán has remained little known to a wider audience. Even at the height of his career, he was never really at the very center of the architectural establishment. He lived in relative seclusion and the majority of his work was small-scale and private. In recent years his influence has grown - Ando and Holl are prominent admirers - but he has not had the widespread impact of the so-called ‘form-givers’ of the past, such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. For me, beyond the attraction of work of such extraordinary discipline, grace and simplicity, Barragán’s architecture embodies a rare connection between the sacred and the everyday. I might add that more than once I have thought that I have found the right expression for an idea, only to find that Barragán had done something similar forty years earlier.
If you ask someone what they require of a house, they will usually embark on a long list of functional specifics – a shower as well as a bath, a cupboard for the dog’s hairdryer, wooden floors. Barragán’s house is a potent reminder that what is truly important is nothing like so tangible, but has to do rather with the qualities of sanctuary, surprise and visual comfort.
A man of passionate and intense relationships, Barragán nonetheless chose to live alone. He was not someone who feared isolation. "Only in intimate communion with solitude may man find himself”, he wrote. “Solitude is good company and my architecture is not for those who fear or shun it." His words remind me of Agnes Martin urging her fellow artists to "give up having pets and unnecessary companions". His house is resolutely inward looking, with monumental walls carving out private territory in the heart of Mexico City. While the closure of the outer boundaries is emphasized, everything within is opened up: conventional distinctions between outside and inside dissolve, gardens become rooms whose ceiling is the sky and rooms become secret gardens. One has a powerful sense of being cocooned at several layers’ remove from the world outside. The design encourages you to look out and up, but through a series of precisely framed views, with nothing visible beyond the comforting enclosure of green planting and blue sky.
The house looks startlingly contemporary for a building designed in the 1940s, with flush glass windows and the simplest of mullions. Only the technology has dated, most noticeably the majestic 1950s record players. Walls are variously thin or thick, uninterrupted or perforated, full-height or freestanding, used to conceal or reveal and constructed in adobe, concrete, wood and even canvas. These simple, even austere materials and forms are rendered rich and suggestive through light and color – vibrant colors taken straight from the jacaranda and bougainvillea outside. As Barragán’s designs characteristically control the views out of the building, so there is nothing indeterminate in the way they allow light in – whether as a blade of sunlight or a haze of luminescence. Water, too, is used to create a series of exact effects: as a surface on which light will play, as a source of sound and as a means to manipulate the way a space reads, confusing our sense of where the solid ends and the fluid begins.
The house divides into two main elements: living quarters and architectural studio, with a combination of double and single height spaces creating vertical as well as horizontal zones. Dimensions of doors and ceiling heights are set not by convention but by the function of a given space and the particular state of mind Barragán was looking to engender within it. The same timber is used for wide floorboards, beams, shelves, cantilevered tables and benches and for small, pleasing details like the square hooks and handles. I found myself instinctively warming to a character who mixed rooms of almost monastic utility with the indulgence of a drench shower and a dressing room used only for riding kit – Barragán’s boots are still there, as though he has just stepped out of them.
Everywhere there is that
exciting – and often elusive – quality of space which feels good to be
in. This is not because every thing is perfect, because in a
conventional sense it isn’t. The grids of floorboards and window do not
exactly correspond, for example, unlike Mies’s St Savior Chapel at the
Illinois Institute of Technology, where the floor grid exactly bisects
a stainless steel rail. The spatial quality derives from the degree of
visual comfort. Barragán mixed Mediterranean vernacular furniture –
designed once by somebody, but now so familiar as to appear
‘undesigned’ – with his own designs, including some reworkings of
classic Butaca pieces. Nothing jars. Each space reads as a whole,
without the distraction of objects with individual signature identities.
Such visual comfort is perfectly compatible with the capacity to astonish. "A visitor to my house is anxious to discover where the floating staircase in the library leads or, arriving in the seemingly wild garden, to ascertain what is hidden beyond the green shrubs and hanging vines”, wrote Barragán. “Where will the narrow path take him? It is this sense of mystery that captures our imagination and holds our attention." This is a place of theatre - quiet theatre, but no less dramatic for that. The famous cantilevered staircase is less functional object, more monumental, abstract sculpture. Walls screen the subdivisions of the interior, preserving the secrets of the floor plan. The effect is of a systematic and staged unveiling.
The moment of supreme drama is reserved for one’s arrival on the roof. At the top of a narrow staircase lies a vast landscape of walled terraces open to the sky. It is like walking through a series of man-made canyons. And just as the contours of nature change, so Barragán redefined this roof-top territory, progressively adding walls until the only remaining views are of the sky and his own monumental planes of color. This is characteristic of his way of working. He would continue to revise and refine his work as his ideas evolved, both at the construction stage and beyond – one of his clients, Francisco Gilardi, recalls coming back one day to find Barragán taking a pickaxe to one of the floors of his nearly completed house.
Barragán’s determination to bring every detail of a building perfectly in line with his vision lies behind the strong individual character of his work. We might see in it a number of influences – of Moorish and Mediterranean detailing, of the ideas of the landscape architect Ferdinand Bac – but the process of trying to identify the various strands only gets you so far. When you are in one of Barragán’s rooms, it is the Barragán-ness of it which strikes, not echoes of other buildings or vernaculars.
I remember the writer Bruce
Chatwin telling me that his own trip to see Barragán’s house was a
disappointment: he liked the photographs, but was disappointed by the
reality. I had wondered whether a similar experience was waiting
for me. In the event I found the place even more powerful than the
pictures and the intensity of the visit has stayed with me. This is
partly due to the talent and sensitivity of Catalina Corcuera, the
director of the museum. It also, I think, because, as one of his
contemporaries Ignacio Diaz Morales put it, Barragán "made us feel at
home". I did feel at home, in this house of a man who, like me, never
formally qualified as an architect and who drew up a prototype for a
store for Calvin Klein in New York in 1982, eleven years before I began
work on the Manhattan store. I found myself half-expecting to see
Barragán appear from the next room and sit down on one of his club
Eventually the party moved from the house to the convent Barragán designed in the 1950s. The convent lies in an extremely built-up area of Mexico City. One of the nuns opened the door and we passed from the sensory chaos of the street into a courtyard of absolute stillness. I was instantly calmed, aware only of the sound of trickling water and the vividness of the bougainvillea. We wandered around the quiet spaces of the convent, visited the tiny but perfect chapel. The tranquility was suddenly and unforgettably shattered by the arrival of a mariachi band hired by the nuns, presumably with the idea that we required additional entertainment. With three trumpeters and the acoustic consequences of enclosed space, the sound was breathtaking. In the midst of all the surreality, the feeling that Barragán was just around the corner persisted, I found myself wondering what he would have made of it all.