Longing for Barragán

It is during the summer months that I feel most Mexican. My skin deepens to its ideal olive shade and relaxes into perpetual heat. I have the benefit, if you can call it that, of wearing my ethnicity lightly. It is just one generation away on one side, two generations away on the other, and always just beyond my reach. Through years of vacations to the motherland I never felt the desire to bring Mexico home with me, to claim it as my own, as fiercely as I did when I discovered Mexican architect Luis Barragán. He has haunted me ever since.

This was three years ago, when I was two months pregnant with our son, Jasper. Lane and I took our last child-free vacation to a particularly challenging locale, Mexico City. The highlight of this trip was a visit to Barragán’s former home and studio, now a museum, in the neighborhood of Tacubaya. The museum includes the adjoining garden of the Ortega house next door, where Barragán first lived, and the Gilardi House, a few blocks away.


One of the features of Barragán’s work that most intrigues me is the way he created smaller rooms within rooms, like cells in a cloister, for contemplation. In the image above you can see an example. On the landing is a painting that consists simply of gold paint on a wooden panel (possibly by his friend and collaborator, Mathais Goeritz). The light from the nearby window above sets the painting on fire, creating a flashing scene of nearly blinding glory, all while the direct light source hides just above your head. Below there is a quiet vestibule. Barragán has given the stairs tall ceilings but covers the vestibule with a lower ceiling, creating an intimate space. Similarly, he divided the library into smaller spaces through a labrynth of screens.

Space, furniture and architectural elements are reduced to their essentials not for a hard, intellectual ideal (as with many other practitioners of modernism from the same time period) but for spiritual edification. Hence a flat, reflective garden pool is softened by a parade of mis-matched planters with varying vegetation, some trailing, some spiky. A low-lying, spare sofa whose form could easily be paired with the Finnish-fetish signatures of chrome and white is here warmed by native wood and a nubbly, mustard-colored wool.

Architect Guillermo Eguiarte Bendimez puts it this way: “Barragán’s house is the most intimate manifestation of his quest to create the most appropriate setting possible in which to carry on his life. Each domestic object concentrates in itself an intense burden of reflection which confers on it an extreme specificity, charged with a singular significance.”

The Gilardi House was built around a jacaranda tree. The entrance of the house is a hall of white stucco with a series of long, deep, narrow windows with panes of yellow glass; the windows bathe the entryway with such light that it looks as if the entire hall has been painted yellow. It reminded me of the work of Dan Flavin. An indoor pool is visible from this hallway. As you move further into the house you will see the way it is subdivided by a flat, red pillar.


As an impressionable young architect, Barragán traveled to Europe and became acquainted to practitioners of the “International Style,” an approach to architecture that erased national identities in favor of spare, functional, and seemingly neutral spaces. But Barragán’s work is nothing if not specific to location, Mexican and especially, in his earlier work, Guadalajaran. He used local materials, like sabino wood and volcanic rock. And his use of color comes from the vivid adobe washes in provincial villages throughout Mexico. His use of colored light comes directly from the cloisters and chapels of Mexico, with windows made from panes of colored glass.

Barragán’s work has been linked with neoplasticism, a form of minimalism intended to erase the human, the emotional (much as Judd’s work does). And the modernists and Barragán were both influenced by the minimalist forms of Mediterranean architecture. Yet again Barragán borrows the forms of an aesthetic movement but to completely different ends. He references the human in his work, the sensory, emotional, and subjective. Though he did go through a functionalist period, his use of color and texture aimed to feed his soul. He once said, “Any architecture that does not express serenity is not fulfilling its spiritual mission. This is why it was a mistake to substitute the shelter of walls for the exposure of windows.”

Barragán’s travels to Paris brought him to a garden designed by Ferdinand Bac, and to his published works, Jardins Enchantes and Les Colomieres. Bac had fallen in love with the beauty of the square, whitewashed buildings of Morocco, especially the way they gleam against clear blue skies. Barragán, too, became enchanted when he finally traveled there, saying “The popular architecture of of the Mexican provinces, its white-washed walls, serene courtyards, brightly colored streets — there exists a profound connection between these things and the villages of North Africa and Morocco, which have also made their mark on my work.”

Barragán’s transplantation of Mediterranean forms to Mexico was more successful than the early modernists’ attempts to do the same in their native Northern European climates. The white cube looks forlornly alien under, as Buendía puts it, “the Celtic mists, the leaden skies, and the long, wet winters.” If only one could transport climate as well. John Ruskin once said, “All beautiful architecture was destined for cities under clear skies. Is it not so?”

Upon my return I wanted to recreate the Barragán spirit in my own home. (Don’t we always want to bring a bit of our travels home with us? I guess that’s what souveniers are for, though they’re always inadequate.) My family is currently under the spell of an enchanting but small, one-bedroom apartment we cannot bear to leave. We make it work because Lane and I are not collectors of stuff. There is not a stick of superfluous furniture in our home. Items not regularly used are thrown out or put in storage. The windows and ceilings are tall, so we do not feel as cramped as we otherwise might. In these ways we had already put some Barragán principles in practice.

But I cannot transplant that Mexican golden light to New York City, any more than the neoplasticists could transport Moroccan clear skies to Dusseldorf. I cannot paint my walls Mexican pink; it just looks pitiful and ridiculous in our northeastern light. How then to learn from Barragán, to borrow from his philosophy of space? How to create rooms within rooms without disrupting the fine proportions of our apartment, maintaining harmony with the ceiling and window heights? How to find locations for contemplation, spaces to dream? How do I make the chilly colors of this northern climate, greys and greens, warm enough to defrost my chilled Mexican blood?

I’m not the only one asking these questions. Here in Brooklyn I am surrounded by immigrants from warmer, sunnier climes, all trying to transplant parts of their original homes in this cold, concrete moonscape. In the winter their skin turns ashy. But we are lucky enough to be living in a climate with seasons. For in the summer, when we finally see enough of the sun, when the humidity awakens damp smells from the earth, a set of salwar kameez makes sense, the taste of tamarind is not so out of place, the scent of the Alhambra’s myrtle is not so foreign.

Images by Sebastián Saldívar and quotes from The Life and Work of Luis Barragán, Rizzoli International Publications, 1997.

9 responses to “Longing for Barragán”

  1. this was a lovely post, adriana.

  2. JaneAnne says:

    Sigh. I long for that kind of architecture, too, Adriana, and I sport not one drop of Mexican blood (nor of any other kind that comes from some place actually, you know, SUNNY). It’s why, try as I might to hate it, I just love LA.

  3. Dave says:

    I loved this post, Adriana. Those pictures are gorgeous. I didn’t know anything about Barragán.

    My objection to modernism in a hot climate is that it doesn’t provide enough shade. But I suppose you can solve that with really thick, cool walls or something. Still, the brutalism that was merely ugly in Birmingham was downright hostile in the Albuquerque civic plaza of my youth.

  4. Diana says:

    Try as I might to feel some bond with sunny climes and attendant aesthetics, I just never have been able to. Although I come from LA, I don’t like it much aside from the fact that it feels like home to me, more than anywhere else ever has. Similarly, I can’t get overly excited by architecture that emphasizes bringing the outdoors inside, or focused all on natural light and windows. But that picture and description of the stairway with the gold canvas at the top, reflecting into a tucked-away alcove, is breathtaking and compelling to me. And I can feel the pull of the warmed-up modernism of the nubbly sofa of mustard. Your writing and your love of your subject just pulled me in. Lovely.

  5. Sylvia says:

    Adriana, I enjoyed your essay very much. Such a wonderful convergence of memory and identity and cool buildings! Unfortunately for the Philippines there’s a preference for wavy socialist concrete architecture so I can’t be inspired in the same way you were.

  6. Janet says:


    Having lived in California, I’ve fallen under the spell of Mexican architecture with its bright exteriors and cool interiors. Since returning to the East Coast, I’ve found most architecture here stuffy and rigid. But then you’re talking about mostly English and French influence on this coast. Part of what compelled us to buy the house we finally chose was its openness and brightness. Your article conveyed the simplicity and complexity of architecture–the challenge to create a space that is both warm and cool, spacious and intimate, open and reflective. And I love the golden painting and the cozy alcove. I wanted to brew a pot of tea, slice a piece of something with chocolate, pull up a chair, fetch my favorite book, and enjoy the quiet.

  7. Mary Ellen says:

    Delicioso! I love the Spanish/Mediterranean architechture in Los Angeles and the neigborhoods where the vivid colors on houses belie the Mexican heritage of their occupants.

    In contrast, the house I grew up in was nothing but white walls, neutrals and regions of clutter. I thirst for riotous color and clean lines. Thank you for the introduction to Barragan and for the written helping of soul food.

  8. Ro byn says:

    I just bought a (mental) ticket to Mexico City. Already an avowed fan of modernism, am newly infatuated with modernism meets Mediterranean. Wondering how to transform my abode in Little Armenia into a place of usch charms.

  9. Marleyfan says:

    Note, if you see a couple of comments here from me, I’m using this old post to practice putting a link to, since, I’m obviously a loser, and can’t do it right.