Casa Luis BarragánArchitecture of Solitude
That physical and emotional dynamism — which is also a sort of stillness — is present from the moment one enters the house. Crossing the threshold from the blind, barred exterior, we enter a narrow passageway of tinted, yellow light, which turns the volcanic tiles pitted and soft.
To live is to learn to die. A statement freed from its morbidity, here, on the roof terrace at Casa Luis Barragán. A statement contained between the sky and the clay tiles, and the high walls which conceal the rest of the city from view.
On the roof it is hot and harsh, and later there will be shade. Vertical planes of persimmon orange and medicinal pink combine in the eye to create an abstract composition; beneath my feet, a de Chirico grid extends and hits the wall at a right angle. Perspective, but no sense of scale. No furniture, no signs of life but the vines which spill across a corner. Barely visible, a simple cross casts a shadow on the wall.
This is a place of constructed horizons. An acknowledgment of absolute solitude.
Solitude — soledad — is both the origin and the end point of the architecture of Luis Barragán (1902— 1988). In his Pritzker Prize acceptance speech in 1980, the Mexican architect cited solitude as a defining principle of his practice, along with light, beauty, joy, and death — death, which, in Mexico, is intertwined with life. If life and death exist as a continuum, then solitude can be understood as the point of intersection, a state in which someone might meet and make peace with themselves, thereby preparing both to enter the world, and to leave it behind. As such, the spirit of solitude pervades every one of Barragán’s constructions, whether the lava gardens of El Pedregal, the stark and sublime pools of Los Clubes, or a humble chapel, designed for a convent of Capuchin nuns.
Nowhere is solitude more viscerally felt than in the house Barragán built for himself in 1948, located in the former working class district of Tacubaya in Mexico City. Nowhere more so than on the empty roof terrace, the culmination of all the house contains. Here, the building turns outwards like a glove, casting the visitor into a paradoxical state of enclosure and exposure, a sudden awareness of the smallness of the self in relation to the outside world.
The rest of the house is an ascent to this moment, when we might, as Barragán put it, ‘take communion’ with our solitude, bearing witness to the paradox of what it means to be alive. As a devout Catholic and adherent of Franciscan philosophy, Barragán believed that the dual nature of life — as both a heaven and a hell — was god’s will, and should be accepted with love and dignity. Moreover, if heaven and hell exist here on Earth, then we are already living the afterlife. We therefore have no choice but to live in the moment: a moment split between air and earth, light and darkness, self and other.
The house can be read as a testament to the split self, to the life of a bachelor who existed “either completely surrounded by people, or completely alone.” It was Barragán’s peculiar power, both as a man and an architect, to be able to synthesise apparent contradictions into an aesthetic and spiritual whole. He was, after all, a monastic dandy who had made the leap between Mexican vernacular architecture and European modernism, a feat of supreme architectural acrobatics, which could only have been achieved by a maverick autodidact. This is not to say that Barragán was solely self-taught. He had trained primarily as an engineer, and his architectural education was drawn from personal experience: from memories of the adobe structures and aqueducts he had known as a boy in Guadalajara, and the influence of the modernist architects he encountered during his travels in Europe.
Free from attachment to a particular school or set of conventions, Barragán’s approach to architecture was closer to that of the poet who creates a bricolage of disparate elements. In his hands, the puritanical rigour of the International Style was strengthened by the aesthetics of Mexican necessity: by the use of natural materials such as wood, stone, and clay; thick walls to protect from the heat; strength of colour to compete with the sun. And just as he was free to take on different influences, so was he free to discard them. Barragán later rejected the idea of a Le Corbusian ‘machine for living’, advocating instead an ‘emotional architecture’, an architecture driven by a belief in the power of beauty to move the body and mind.
That physical and emotional dynamism — which is also a sort of stillness — is present from the moment one enters the house. Crossing the threshold from the blind, barred exterior, we enter a narrow passageway of tinted, yellow light, which turns the volcanic tiles pitted and soft. Ahead, the thick adobe walls compress the space still further, impelling us towards the central vestibule, where we are assaulted by a brash, euphoric, Barragán pink.
Here, where Barragán used to sit and make phone calls, every horizontal and vertical is designed as part of a precise line drawing. Light falls in a perfect square on the desk, while the black stone steps rise like Jacob’s Ladder. And yet, all it takes is an open door to transform the vestibule into an epicentre of motion, splitting the stillness into multiple directions. Doors open onto the kitchen, the library, the dining room. A staircase leads to the bedrooms and the roof.
Already, we are freed from functionalism, from the ‘cold convenience’ of fashionable modernism. But if Barragán intended beauty to move us toward a state of spirituality, it is a beauty neither clean cut nor wholly monastic. Instead, it is closer to what the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘pied beauty’, a paradoxically pure mixture of ‘all things counter, original, spare, strange’. The phrase might also be used of the devotional objects Barragán accumulated on his travels — a haphazard hoard of polychrome effigies, memento mori skulls, and gilded angels. These objects of gold, blood, and thorns find their most minimal and most excessive expression in a canvas by Mathias Goeritz, which hangs at the top of the stairs. Covered entirely in gold leaf, it plays the role of the sun which fuels all movement. It is every altarpiece from every Spanish baroque church, melted into a single square.
There’s no doubting Barragán’s spiritual sincerity, but his expressions of monkish values aren’t devoid of irony. In the reception rooms, asceticism is performed as a bachelor’s caprice: a modernist version of a monk’s lectern is used to display paintings, and the dining room is arranged so that the host might preside like a dean at a monastery refectory. There’s something melancholic about these spaces — a self consciousness which makes them seem like display cabinets for showpieces. In the sitting room, Barragán’s famous cantilevered staircase rises weightlessly up to the mezzanine; in the dining room, a painting by Jesús Reyes Ferreira precisely matches the colour palette of the house. The effect would be claustrophobic if it wasn’t for the floor to ceiling views of the garden — a garden carefully tended by Barragán to appear the very image of natural abandon.
In the garden, the house connects as a whole. A goldenbell tree stretches up to the roof terrace, and a small shaded courtyard leads to Barragán’s studio. Leaves press against the windows of the most private spaces, rooms we never should have entered. The hidden mezzanine, where the gramophone played, and the shutters of the window close to form a cross. The study where mirrored pulcheria orbs ward away flies. And the bedroom with the painting of the Annunciation — the room where Barragán spent his final hours.
To return to life.
Downstairs in the kitchen, someone has been cooking. Barragán’s housekeeper still lives here, and the room retains the scents of champurrado and anise. This is a working domestic space barely touched by Barragán’s perfectionism; the wooden table is worn, the light fittings are exposed, and homely ceramics are arranged on the sideboards. We are a world away from the roof terrace — and yet, the kitchen might also be understood as its mirror image. A painted plate bears the word soledad. A wooden cross rests at a right angle on the door frame. This was the room Barragán reserved for a different kind of solitude — a solitude without transcendence, as irrefutable as the need for food and shelter.
Perhaps now, we are ready to leave. Having arrived, already enclosed. Ready to see life in relation to death, vertical to horizontal, wall to window. To enter, and to walk outside.