Saturday, July 31

The secret garden of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán

The secret of a corner in a working-class neighborhood of Mexico City, an unnoticed corner away from the capital’s famous museums or large parks, was for decades very well kept in a winery on the other side of the Atlantic, in Switzerland. “Did you know that this garden was built by the famous Mexican architect Luis Barragán?” Incredulous, Francisco Pérez, administrator of the garden on that corner and of the residential complex that surrounds it with five buildings, called Cobre de México, is surprised by the question. “What? No, no, I have lived here all my life, ”replies Pérez, a 47-year-old man who was born and raised in this group of 128 apartments. “This was built by the owner of a copper factory for his workers, Raúl Cano, but I have not heard from Barragán,” he says, while carrying a garbage bag full of dried leaves that he collected that afternoon in the garden. Of that open space, built in 1965, he only says that he takes care of it with particular attention because “it is one of the only green areas in my neighborhood.”

Pérez, the second generation of a family of workers, and who insists on being called Paco, burst into laughter when he first saw photos of the garden on the new website of the Barragan Foundation, the organization that keeps the thousands of archives of the iconic architect since 1995. There is also an original plan of the old garden that Paco cleans and cares for every day. “I didn’t know, and if I had known, I would have presumed it,” says Paco, who is also a representative of his neighborhood. “If last year I had to fight in the council for them to assign us more budget, I would have told them that the garden belongs to Luis Barragán!” Paco, astonished, asks one of his assistants named Antonio if he knew that the garden was built by the most important of Mexican architects, the second in the world to win the Pritzker architecture prize in 1980. “No,” he said. Antonio responds, also surprised to see the photo of the garden on this web page. “But last week a group came to ask if I knew where Luis Barragán’s garden was. I told them no. I thought they were lost ”.

Gardens of the El Cobre Housing Unit in Mexico.
Gardens of the El Cobre Housing Unit in Mexico.Nayeli Cruz

26 years ago, the representative of a furniture factory in Switzerland acquired most of the architect Luis Barragán’s documents: some 13,500 drawings, 7,500 photos, 3,500 negatives, and many more documents such as manuscripts, letters or newspaper articles. But, except for a few exhibitions, access to the archive has been very difficult for researchers or fans of the architect (in a well-known controversial act in Mexico, in 2016 an artist offered the director of the Barrangan Foundation the remains of the architect, in the shape of a ring, in exchange for returning the archive to Mexico. The director declined the offer, but appreciated the gesture.)

Two weeks ago, the Barragan Foundation launched a new website where you can read, for the first time, a list of the 170 works that Barragán drew in his 86 years of life (he died in 1988), some of these accompanied by photos and original plans. “The list presented on the website is the result of 25 years of work,” Federica Zanco, who has directed the Foundation in Switzerland all this time, told EL PAÍS. “These 170 entries represent almost all of the projects developed by Luis Barragán. This includes some works where Barragán’s intervention could have been marginal but substantial and documented, such as, for example, the advice that Louis Kahn asked him about the patio of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California ”.

Luis Barragán is known throughout the world, above all, as the architect of huge mansions – owned by him or commissioned by rich men from Mexico – in which he transformed gigantic spaces into beautiful games of light and shadow with colored walls, and in the that he worked his gardens as if they were the heart of architecture. “I believe that architects should design gardens to be used as much as the houses they build, to develop a sense of beauty as well as a taste and inclination towards fine arts and other spiritual values,” Barragán once said.

Gardens of the El Cobre Housing Unit in Mexico.
Gardens of the El Cobre Housing Unit in Mexico.Nayeli Cruz

But unlike other architects of the 1950s and 1960s who worked on huge projects for the state — like Mario Pani — Barragán did not usually work on government or social interest projects. “Barragán was not very interested in that,” explains the architect Enrique de Anda, one of the few who knows the entire archive in Basel, and founder of the Archive of Modern Architecture and Mexican Visual Culture. “He did not like very much that there was a bureaucrat giving him orders, or that he had a boss who told him that he had so many square meters on the ground floor of a building that was designed for government offices, for example. He needed more freedom ”.

Having the freedom to change the walls or the colors while observing the development of a construction is a luxury that Barragán was not willing to give up. “What the historiography tells us is that he never had a definitive project, because when a client told him to work at home, as he was building, he was also designing,” explains architecture professor Gonzalo Mendoza. “If he didn’t like a wall he had built, he made it smaller, or bigger, and not every client accepts those changes.”

That is why the small garden for the workers of the copper factory is a rarity in Barragán’s work, one that took 25 years to complete. Barragan Foundation decipher, contrasting the drawings they had in the archive with what their researchers were exploring in Mexico City (initially they thought it was a sketch for the most luxurious residential project in Lomas Verdes, in which Barragán was working with Juan Sordo Madaleno) .

“It is necessary to understand that in the Barragán archive one rarely finds dated drawings, project header data, or precise indications of their location,” Zanco explained to EL PAÍS about the enigma of the garden map. When the researchers finally arrived at the Cobre de México Housing Unit, in the neighborhood north of the city known as Obrero Popular, miles from the iconic Barragán houses, they had no doubt: it was Barragán’s drawing come true.

“Although modest in size and scope, this project offered Barragán the opportunity to apply his principles in landscape design to a spatial and social context that differed substantially from his previous work”, says the foundation page about the discovered garden. In the original plans, the concrete garden in the center of the five residential buildings takes the shape of an L, a space divided into squares by long red-painted concrete benches and spaces for children to play or plant trees (in Barragan’s imagination, there would be weeping willows or ash trees. Paco, the administrator, has peach or orange trees).

Gardens of the El Cobre Housing Unit in Mexico.
Gardens of the El Cobre Housing Unit in Mexico.Nayeli Cruz

Some of the corridors that Barragán designed as part of the garden are now closed (the neighbors, Paco says, put up railings when the neighborhood became very dangerous), but the administrator has managed with a tiny budget to prevent the entrance walls from collapsing , benches for the rest of the elderly and green spaces for children. “This place withstood the tremors of 1985 and 2017,” says Paco, proud of the small play area for the children of the Obrero Popular neighborhood, which does not keep the glamor of the monuments of Barragán nor does it have a single plaque remembering what happened there. the hand of the famous Mexican architect.

The new website with the 170 entries does not yet have all the photos or maps that support each of the projects (“little by little more information, content and images will be uploaded,” Zanco told EL PAÍS), but only with the On the list is another aspect of Barragán that is less well known than its beautiful colorful houses and gardens: the projects it never did.

From the list, almost 50 unbuilt projects appear, especially between 1971 and 1986: a project to make a Calvin Klein store, a house for the film director Francis Ford Coppola in California or a store for a fast food chain called Chick n ‘Taco. “The decade of the seventies is a very difficult one for Barragán. In this he begins to have some health problems, ”explains Zanco about the list of projects that, many for unknown reasons, failed. “In addition, at that time in Mexico it does not seem to be very favorable for the type of commissions and clients that traditionally flocked to Barragán.”

Faced with the economic crisis in Mexico – and the dramatic fall of the Mexican peso and the debt crisis in 1982 – Barragán and his partner Raúl Ferrera tried to find any dollar in foreign investors. “The Chick n ‘Taco case is emblematic of a firm looking for whatever job it can get,” says Zanco. In the case of Coppola, the famous director could not find more money to invest in the house because he was filming Apocalypse Now. Between the iconic movie or the beautiful mansion, at the time, Coppola chose the movie.

Perhaps the best of the digital archive that is being uploaded little by little from Basel are not the beautiful photos of the houses that Luis Barragán built in Guadalajara or Mexico City. The best, for now, are his unknown projects, from the garden in a working-class neighborhood of Mexico to those that he never managed to make a reality, like the Calvin Klein store.

“The first creator of myths about Barragán was Luis Barragán,” says architect Enrique de Anda. Faced with a personality that his colleagues recognized as reserved and distant – he did not teach Architecture classes, he did not get involved in the bureaucratic process of obtaining permits with his colleagues, he was not part of the Society of Architects of Mexico – myths were created around his figure that only a file can disprove (it is said that it contributed to the construction of the UNAM University City: it is not true; it is said that it was fundamental in building the Monterrey Lighthouse, an iconic monument of the city: it is true). Looking at the list of 170 works, Barragán is not just the iconic architect who won the Pritzker Prize in 1980, but the entire human being, erasing and redrawing the lights and shadows he plays with in a garden. “History is not just about making accounts of the great triumphs, the darkness also counts,” says De Anda. “What matters to me about the archive, as a researcher, is to see that process, to see what ideas it started with, and how it changed them over time.”

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