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Published 21/07/2009 email E-MAIL print PRINT

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1. Cappilla Del Purissimo Corazon de Maria, Tlalpan.

“Architecture is frozen music.
The more you reduce the more perfect the notes must be.”
Bruce Chatwin

Since the time that Luis Barragán had announced his retirement from architecture to work "only for myself as a client", he was involved in two projects as a land developer.  First was the Jardines del Pedregal in the Colonia San Angel district of Mexico City followed by Las Alboledas in a new suburban area north of the same City.  In the former, Barragán utilized the natural lava landscape to create a dramatic intermix between nature and the man-made.  Pedregal's lush planting evokes images not dissimilar to Henri Rousseau’s plush naive vegatel canvasses or Roberto Burle Marx's exotic Brazilian gardens.  In architecture it is in the rich combinations of the organic and geometric of Cesar Mauriques' creations in Lanzarote that we can find the closest parallel.  In Las Alboledes, it is the massive "muro rojo", the tree-lined avenues and their reflections in the black mirrored water surfaces which form harmonious compositions of clarity and serenity.  In each of these works Barragán manages to introduce an almost Japanese Garden poverty of expression into his interventions.  Always it is the delicate balance between the attachment and detachment of elements that sustains the Zen-like harmony.

The Chapel in the convent at Tlalpan initiated in 1952 was the first project of his "no client" period to be carried out on behalf of a client.  Within the silent walls of this turn of the Century convent, Barragán was to create one of his most emotionally powerful and palpable spaces.  It was Antonio Gaudi who said, “the greatest challenge for the architect remains the church”.  Entering Barragán’s sacred space, considering its date, one is immediately surprised by the overall sense of contemporality and timelessness of the project.  This is an arena of prayer that belongs to the past, to the present and to the future.  It seems as if the architect has listened carefully and carried out Christ’s Divine instructions in relation to the requirements of prayer spaces as handed down in the Gospel of Matthew “Go into your inner room, close the door and pray.  Pray to the Father, He is there in silence.”  This is a place where one can stop and pause, a place where one feels one must be silent and unspoken to.  It is almost as if the architect is echoing accompanist pianist Gerald Moore’s title of his autobiography “Am I Too Loud?”  The answer here is a definitive “No!”  Continuing on a musical theme, it was Arthur Schnabel who once said “the notes I play like any other pianist, but the silences in between … that is where the secret lies.”  Everything here is reduced to its essentiality, yet the silence attained is not one that is muted.  The space does indeed evoke solitude, but it is not a solitude of loneliness.  It is a silence of Communion which reigns in this healing place for the soul. Every item of this carefully composed space may be read as a manifestation of Barragán’s fervent faith.

It was Gio Ponti who repeated many a time in my student days that “religious architecture is not a matter of architecture but a matter of religion.”  It is obvious here that Barragán has annexed to his secular architectural tools not only the tool of poetry, but more so the tool of faith.  It seems as if it is this combination of love, dedication and faith that transcends this space into a sanctuary for the soul.  Mother Teresa’s words “it is not so much the doing which matters but how much love you put in the doing” emphasize the importance of the sense of total commitment in one’s work.  In this contemporary world of trial and lost values, in an era where science continues to advance, almost reaching a point where all questions relating to man’s existence in terms of Where and When are answered, it is the realm of religion which must continue to manifest its presence as essentially it remains the sole channel which can perhaps respond to the Why of human existence.

There is little doubt that Barragán, as a fervent Catholic, was particularly interested in what he termed “religious spirituality and its mythical roots.”  The Chapel’s golden yellow perimeter walls constantly change colour in a musical dance as light plays shadow-notes on the warm timbers of its floor.  It seems as if light, in this stillness, is seeking its counterpart in melody.  This is an architecture of meaning, its form determined essentially by content. Above all it functions both as a light box and a sound chamber. In sharp contrast to the exuberance of the Mexican ecclesiastical tradition, this place recalls a silence not unlike what North American Indians refer to as “unstruck sound ... silence heard.  Reference may again be made to the Rule of St. Benedict.  His first recommendation is to “listen”.  Listening begins in silence, developes into attentiveness and is perfected into communication.  The goal of monastic silence is ultimately respect for others, respect for a sense of place and respect for the spirit of peace.  It is because we fear emptiness that we take refuge in sound.  In Barragán’s architecture it is the antidote of sound, referred to by the architect as a “placid murmur of silence” that reigns and it is this silence that makes us understand this as an architecture of solitude.  It was again Barragán who stated, “only in intimate communion with solitude may man find himself.  Solitude is good company and my architecture is not for those who fear or shun it.”

The entrance to the Chapel is through an open to the sky atrium where water and vegetation intermix.  This arena acts as a purifying space in the tradition of a cleansing threshold.  This is a preparatory meditative zone necessary for man to transpose himself from secular to sacred space; an exotic yet simple courtyard; a place of comings and goings; at times a stepping-stone of hesitation; at times of desire, at others of welcome.  The trajectory path of entrance proceeds through a dark vestibule that then opens onto the inner golden cloister of seclusion.  This is sacred architecture at its best.  It seems apt to imagine that C.S. Lewis’ words “inside my empty bottle, while others were making ships, I was constructing a lighthouse” were in Barragán’s mind when he designed this miniscule gem.

“Honour, do not impose.”
St. Benedict

 

2. San Cristobal Ranch, suburb of Mexico City

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary
so that the necessary may speak.”

Hans Hoffman

In 1967, Barragán designed and built San Cristobal – a stable, horse pool, swimming pool and house - for the Egerstrom family on the outskirts of Mexico City.  This was a choreographic stage-set where, in the words of Emilio Ambasz “the horses assumed the role of Olympian demi-gods”.  The totality of this architecture is perhaps Barragán’s most accomplished creation.  Clothed in ecclesiastical colours reminiscent of the Mexican baroque tradition, long-lingering high walls are laid out around mirrors of water, recalling as at Pedregal, the gardens of Japan.  Here, perhaps, it is the moon viewing platforms of the Katsura Imperial Villa together with its "borrowed landscape" technique of visual extension which are evoked.  Yet, the ascetic minimalism of the East, although present, is, in Barragán's interpretation, clothed in Latin overtones.  The palette is as strong as that of a Paolo Uccello, yet the layout plan once again betrays De Stijl austerities.  As in the dry gardens of the Orient, a triad inter-relationship is woven between man, nature and the man-made.

While in the Far East man becomes an essential part of nature, i.e. beauty is present initially and the gardener-designer works to make it more visible; in the West, as in Barragán’s layout, man is the measure of all things.  It is more the Jardins Enchantès of Barragán's greatest influence Ferdinand Bac and recalled images of the Alhambra that are evoked.  Here the visual panoramas, together with the aural music of the trough fountains, provide experiences recalling the musical tones of Debussy’s “Reflections in the Water”.  Was it not Debussy himself who coined the phrase "music is the arithmetic of sound as optics is the geometry of light"?  Yet, within the geometry of the planes of the high walls and their mysterious openings, there lies the ever-present restless overlay of a De Chirico-like shadowland.  Everything here has not only its own reality but also an overlying magical power.

“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow.”

T.S. Eliot

Shadows are two-dimensional manifestations of three-dimensional elements caused by movements of the fourth dimension.  Here, floating between real space and real time, a sense of mythical time is suspended over the whole scenography of the place in an ever-present air of expectancy.  Sometimes the calm is such that the space seems not to tolerate any physical human presence.  It is melancholy that looms in this rarified disembodied world and seems, at certain instances, that even time is excluded.  As in De Chirico's paintings, it is the intangible and invisible which become potent and important, overpowering the visible reality of the place.

Here, where horses drink moon water are Barragán’s Proust-like re-interpretations of his childhood; recollections of ancestral ranch iconographies, transformed and transfigured by memory, re-orchestrated and re-vitalized into a contemporary world.  It was Gaston Bachelard who said “it is no accident that in a tranquil reverie we often follow the slope which returns us to our childhood solitudes.”  Perhaps San Cristobal is conceived as an illusionary stage of stasis and immobility to revive the dreams of the architect’s childhood, a choreographic search through the pages of infant memories to retrace and revive the lost laughter of youth.  This is an iconography of fragments of memory and visions of predictions.  Again it is the quality of solitude that seems to dominate, in an architecture that derails and displaces expectations.

The large spans of dream-like waterscapes recall “the wakefulness of an incessant mirror surface which multiplies and haunts.”  Again the words of Borges “my business is to weave dreams” seem appropriate to define the task the architect has set himself in such a project.  It is these reflective surfaces that create tensions between reality and image.  Not unlike Calvino’s City of Valdrada, the visitor sees San Cristobal reflected upside down; “at times the mirror increases a thing’s value, at times denies it.”  It is in the words of Donlyn Lyndon and Charles W. Moore that we may perhaps find the most apt description of this project.  “Light that plays – shadow that haunts – shade that lulls” where “the cooling presence of water connects the infinite and the intimate.”  This is a place reflecting Fra Angelico’s belief that “true wealth exists in being content with little.”  More than any other architect of his generation, or indeed of the whole 20th Century, Barragán has left a testament of idyllic spaces where beauty is most intense in the manifestation of absence.  In his philosophy of an evolution towards simplicity, void takes over from solid, silence extinguishes sound and spirit dominates matter.  It is the sparseness of language and silent calligraphy that impresses us.  His work is a poem ... nothing less or more.

“There are things which cannot be put into words.
They make themselves manifest.
They are what is mystical.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

3. The Gilardi House, Mexico City

"It was a place that understood that the good things should be visible,
but the best things should be hidden."

Ben Okri

In 1976, at the age of seventy-four, Luis Barragán initiated work on the Gilardi House.  It was to be his last executed work, and without doubt, the best known and most extensively published of his works.  Externally the house politely adheres itself to its low-key neighbours, and it is only Barragán's powerful pink palette that hints at its authorship.  The interior, on the other hand, is a different story.  Lovingly embracing a large pre-existant twisting tree at its core, the house, in the geometry of its plan recalls once again the forms of Neo-Plasticism and plays orthagonal games around nature's vegetal growth.  Reading the plan there is little to hint at the rich spatial sensations that await the visitor on his internal itinerary.  As always, form-wise, Barragán's design methodology focuses more on decisions of omission rather than those of inclusion. The effect again is one of a maximum expression obtained with a minimum vocabulary.

Even the memory of Ferdinand Bac's exotic garden layouts is pruned down to the ascetic aesthetic of one single tree.  Le Corbusier's rationalist philosophies, also a great influence on Barragán, are also tamed and trimmed.  Yet Corb's definition of the "elements of architecture" as "light and shade, walls and space" is still applicable.  It is without doubt a Mexican building yet it cannot hide its underlying Mediterranean origins and influences.  My own origins from the very centre of this Middle Sea, have frequently reminded me of the many notable architects who have utilized this area and its vernacular building tradition as cultural and formative pedagogic tools.  In the 19th Century, following the tradition of the Grand Tour, it was not only artists of the calibre of Turner, Roberts, Sargent and Lear who travelled there for inspiration, but also architects of such note as Hoffman, Olbrich and Schinkel.  Later it was Loos, Asplund, Aalto and Kahn who, in their work, echoed influences absorbed from similar trips.  Le Corbusier's travels around the Middle Sea were to lead him to his noted definition of architecture as "the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light", based, no doubt, on the stark cube forms of the vernacular architecture he had seen during his travels there.

In Barragán's case, it was again the Mediterranean that provided a major influence in the formation of his design philosophy.  Besides Bac's work and writings, it was his visits to Andalusia and Morocco, and the effect that the architecture of these lands, had upon him, remained with him all his life.  Perhaps Barragán was also aware of Ponti's work of the thirties on the Amalfi coast, and also Adalberto Libera's iconic Casa Malaparte of 1938 on the island of Capri.  This almost mythical construction remains to this day perhaps the most significant embodiment of a contemporary Mediterranean architectural archetype.  Certainly there is much of its vocabulary in Barragán's work.  Could it be that this structure, anchored on the inaccessible cliff-top table of a mystical islet, was an influential source for the Mexican architect's subsequent language of expression?

Let us however return to the Gilardi House and its beckoning corridors and inviting spaces.  The richly coloured interior is a play of the physics of light made evident on wall surfaces and floor planes.  The journey through these spaces leads one to the most magical of arenas that of the living-dining top-lit pool area.  Here geometry speaks and music is heard; a hidden music, a music of silence.  It was Christina Rossetti who said, "silence is more musical than any song". The whole area in its miniature sublimness has been transformed into a vehicle for the metaphysical.  Above all, though, it remains an architecture scaled to human proportions.  Here the hand of man has once again become the visible unit of measure.  Even in this minimal environment, Barragán manages to make us feel that the infinite is everywhere and that a sense of mystery is constantly present in this diminutive piazza of form, colour and light.

The Gilardi House is a temple-like habitat bathed in a play of umbras and penumbras.  Its Cistercian austerity of form together with its glowing palette of colour-exuberance combine to form a litany of form and colour not dissimilar to the contemporary music of Avro Part; simple forms composed on the basic triad yet enriched by orchestration to acquire a richness of timbre.  Even here, there is an overlying air of melancholy that floats within the walls.  Yet this is a melancholy that has taken on a quality of lightness.  Just as in Barragán’s native country there is an ever-present pre-emption and presence of death, so also in his architecture there seems to be a suspended dark thread of a sense of the tragic.  It is this quality which constantly relates Barragán's architecture to the metaphysical world where the interchange of space-time and shadow-time constantly mix in melancholies of mystery and anxiety.  In his final work, Barragán has again produced a sensual passionate poem suspended in liturgical silence; architecture as mythopolis.

"Love architecture for its silence in which lies its voice."
Gio Ponti.

Conclusion

"When reason sleeps the symbol awakes."
Victor Pasmore

In Carlo Scarpa's Italian ennobling of the quality of the fragment to enrich the whole we find diametrically opposed approach to Barragán’s, it is in the work of the British artist Victor Pasmore that one can perhaps find a somewhat parallel to the Mexican architect in both philosophical approach and development of artistic expression.  Pasmore, who lived on my native Malta for over thirty years, and whom I was privileged to count not only as a friend but also as a mentor and teacher, passed from an early Fauvist period to a Post-Impressionist one to later flourish as a fully fledged Abstract artist.  As an abstract painter his prime interest was focused on the notion of opposite polarities.  The result of these investigations, not unlike those of De Chirico and Barragán himself, involved paradoxical end products completely different from their individual compositional components.  In his 1970 Pavilion in the New Town of Peterlee, in the North of England, he weaved a successful synthesis of architecture, sculpture and painting.  His concern with the "dialectics of opposites" is much in evidence in this work as it is in the Pool Arena designed in one of the walled courtyards of his Malta home involving both "positive and concrete" expressions while retaining "ambiguous and indefinable" overlays. Pasmore's expressions of simplicity, similar to Barragán's, were performed within restricted parameters that left little or no margin for error.  Never, as in the Mexican architect's vocabulary, was a line or dot wasted.  Each, in their own not dissimilar ways, was involved in a reductive yet meaningful search for the elimination of the non-essential.

Luis Barragán, in his Malevich-like sparsity and richness of poverty, carried many a reflection of the humility and simplicity of the teachings and life-style of Francis of Assisi, a Saint he greatly admired.  Perhaps it was his early Jesuit education and his engineering training combined with an almost obsessive mnemonic recollection of the Jalisco farms and ranches of his youth, "of which there are no photos - only memories", together with his concern and love of the mystical, which ultimately inspired him to produce an architecture so different, so enchanting and so soul-enriching, as to produce single-handed a "silent revolution".  That this was achieved in a period when impatient Modernists, Post-Modernists and followers of other "isms" were loudly struggling and noisily contending with each other for an all too brief appearance on the passing architectural page-sets of architectural journalism, is a further tribute to Barragán's genius.  Working quietly, in seclusion and standing back from the chaos of current trends, this monk-like man of silence regaled us with an exiguous yet unique heritage of a highly personal architectural vision of beauty.  The following words of a Navajo Indian prayer offer, I feel, an apt homage to this great man.

"With beauty before me may I walk
with beauty behind me may I walk
with beauty above me may I walk
with beauty all around me may I walk."

Para expresar la manifestaión de esta Oración, yo le ofrezco, Don Luis, mi estima, mi admiración, mi gratitud y mi rispeto.

Paradisal Patches

If Luis Barragán’s creed of his mature period of creation had to be epitomized, surely the words of playwright Tennessee Williams “I don’t want reality, I want magic” would be the most appropriate. His insertion of a sense of magic into architecture provided a welcome antidote to both the sterility of the International Style and the then novel fecundity of Post Modernism.  In ancient days, architects were practitioners involved in the making of environments of ritual and myth always successfully relating the final built-form to its particular spirit of place.  In the even earlier times of pre-history, architects seemed to have been conversant in the secret knowledge of celestial bodies and the understanding of the earth's energies and the reading of terrestrial forms. This cognitive knowledge allowed the architecture of that period to become manifest, not only as a creative enactment, but more so as a pathway to enlightenment.

Actual buildings and literary creations of an architecture belonging to the "beyond of dreams" demonstrate man’s inherent need and yearning for environments and places of poetic content; manifestations perhaps of human longing for the lost terrestrial Paradise; an inherent desire which Mircea Eliade terms "a nostalgia for Paradise". In the world of reality it is places such as Petra, Athos, Carcassone, Saana, Katmandu, Assisi and Kyoto which provide an architecture which, because of its chimerical qualities, causes, above all, an emotive response in man.  The literary fashioned dreams of authors such as Homer, Swift, Verne, Carroll, Tolkein, Borges and Calvino have created the fabled territories of Ogigia, Avalon, Lemuria, Wonderland, The Middle Earth and Zenobia.  Ever since man’s exile from his initial earthly Paradise he has been involved in an endless search through architecture, literature and more recently cinema, for a return to some similar idyllic haven.  Hovering between Utopian dreams and Arcadian desires man has throughout history traced arduous paths to strive to create glimpses and glances of recuperative quiescence in an endless search for spaces, which, above all, may be termed "silent".

Of all the architects of the 20th Century, it is perhaps Luis Barragán who has come closest to creating real places where one feels, after nurturing their spaces, their aromas, and their textures, that the muse of silence has passed there many a time.  His, above all others, are spaces of quiescence, remote and timeless personal worlds in which he conceived paradigms of peace and rhythms to calm and soothe.  In the period of the thirty years that his mature creativity encompassed, his work seemed to be the visual manifestation of Axel Munthe’s words “the soul needs more space than the body”.  Always in expressions of deep respect and loyalty to geometry, Barragán's dialogues with absence sang quiescent hymns to the void.  Rarely in architecture has so much been achieved by so little, and rarely has material poverty yielded such richness of spiritual incantation.

Towards an Architecture of Poetic Precision

In 1984, the celebrated Italian author, Italo Calvino was invited to deliver the 1985 Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University.  By September of the latter year the manuscripts of five of these talks had been completed.  The sixth was allotted a title but remained unwritten as the lectures also remained undelivered due to Calvino’s untimely death later that year.  In these papers the author pointed out and tabulated what he considered to be a number of indispensable values in literature that future writers should adopt.  These were outlined in a structured series of guidelines entitled Six Memos For The Next Millennium.  Transferring these literary recommendations to architectural values, and then examining how these transpositions are evident in Luis Barragán’s architectural grammar and vocabulary constitutes an interesting and eye-opening exercise.  The relationship between these disciplines focuses on the similarity that exists between books and architecture in as far as they are both ordered according to structural rules.

1. Lightness

In the first of his six values, Calvino refers to the quality of lightness as the "subtraction of weight".  It is exactly this very quality of the elimination of the non-essential that is present in all of Barragán’s rich theatre of architecture; what is left unsaid becomes more important than what is said.  This asceticism, carried out with discernment in a vocabulary where minimalism is expressed through profound wisdom, is a form of a tightrope balancing act attained at the great risk of error. Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s dictum “what doesn’t add up, subtracts” is the clearest reflection of not only the Mexican architect’s philosophy but also of Calvino’s own literary recommendations. Barragán’s language stands out in the world of architecture in contrast to others because he was a practitioner of moderation, a quality unfortunately all too rarely in evidence in the history of contemporary architecture.

2. Quickness

Here the author refers to and recommends economy of rhythm, expression and expediency in the narrative. Recalling the way in which folk tales are told he refers to the traditional qualities of agility and mobility in the methodology of their narration. In the case of Barragán’s architecture this reference to folk tales may be translated to the architect’s evocation of his country's ancestral tradition of building. Always immune to the ephemeral or the sophisticated and constantly devoid of imported fashions, tradition is absorbed and transferred from generation to generation in the process becoming an essential and rich knowledge baggage of building. Barragán constantly made use of this testament as a basis and point of departure in his translation and transformation process of tradition into a unique personal language. As Calvino draws many of his stories from Italian folk-tales, so also does Barragán in his work draw from the collective memory of the traditions of his land.

3. Exactitude

Under this heading the Italian writer sings praises directed towards the qualities of the "well defined", and the necessity of always having "a well-calculated plan of work" together with an overriding sense of precision.  He exalts the use of incisive memorable visual images and recommends a language as precise as possible not only for individual words but also for the total expression; recommendations which are all clearly manifest in the Mexican architectural language. Rarely has any architect produced layout plans of such definition, reduction and essentiality.  This is an austerity and minimalism drawn from the ordered economy of the Mies Barcellona Pavilion and the disciplined geometry of Mondrian’s compositions.  Here, Calvino expresses his distaste for language used in a random and careless manner.  Emphasizing his preference for writing as opposed to talking, he justifies this because of the possibility in the written format to “revise each sentence until I reach the point of eliminating the reasons for my dissatisfaction”.  We know that Barragán himself was a man of little words.  Not only an architect of silence, but very much a silent architect. His interest in the "making" process of a building and the corrections he carried out on site are ample proof of his cult of exactitude.  Certainly, Calvino’s plea for clear and incisive memorable images could not have found a more apt manifestation, not only in the reality of Barragán's architecture but also in the carefully composed exactitude of the photographic images of Armando Salas Portugal.  Barragán’s sparse architectural expressions recall, in their ascetic minimalism, the basic essentialities called for in the Rule of St. Benedict.  It is the minimalism of Barragán's expressions that recall Benedict’s incisive castigation of any form of excess.  Above all, it was waste that the Saint constantly warned against.

4. Visibility

Calvino's fourth legacy appeals not only for clarity in writing but also for multiple layers of meaning in the text.  “Around each image, others come into being, forming a field of analogies, symmetries and confrontations”.  The writer’s predilection towards organization and order is here emphasized, while, at the same time, pre-echoing recommendations for the next chapter of "multiplicity".  What the author is actually searching for is the formation of an image-bank in the reader's mind that extends beyond the author's written word.  In an architectural context this would translate into the creation of a series of multi-readings conceived beyond the actual spatial reality of the place.  It is precisely this metaphysical quality, reminiscent of De Chirico’s unnerving canvasses, that is present in all of Barragán’s architecture.  In a 1940 interview Barragán openly acknowledged De Chirico's influence on his work.  It is interesting to note that in the artist's case it was, in fact, architecture that furnished him with the possibility of his reduction to an essential essence of imagery and therefore the opportunity to introduce and juxtapose metaphors.  As in the Italian painter’s enigmatic piazzas, so also in Barragán’s arenas, we are transferred to places in which, as in Carroll’s fairy-tale topography time stops … and stands still.  Visibility and clarity are also qualities that we tend to associate with light and its qualities, and Barragán’s architecture is an expression specifically concerned with the play of light and its tantalizing variations.  Many of the Mexican architect’s interior spaces are so rich in trompe l'oeil light mysteries that they seem to pre-echo James Turrell’s compositions and installations where the artist is concerned with the creation of “the light we see in dreams”.

5. Multiplicity

This title provides Calvino with the opportunity to pursue the complex theme of the contemporary novel as an encyclopedia and therefore as a container of knowledge.  He advises future authors to adopt a “unified text … written as the expression of one voice but which at the same time reveals itself as open to interpretation on several levels”, a form of double reading.  It is exactly these multifarious interpretations that are present in Barragán’s walls and spaces of sacrality.  The architect’s poetic places designed to be perceived by the exalted senses of the soul, make architecture manifest, not only as a knowledge of form, but more so as a form of knowledge.  Multiplicity in Barragán’s architecture is also present in the myriad reflective images of his canescent water surfaces.  Here shallow waters assume unlimited depths through mirrored reflections of never-ending Mexican skies.  These slivered images evoke memories of long-lost metaphysical shadowlands. Jorge Luis Borges’ description of Buenos Aires translates perfectly to Barragán’s emotional platforms of poetry, “it is hard to believe that" these spaces "have any beginning”  … “ they appear, above all, to be as eternal as air and water.”  Apart from performing on a functional level, a building also exists on many other layers of interpretation, and it is in this multiplicity that its lasting qualities lie.  The material function of a building is in most cases the shortest lived.  The whole history of architecture bears witness to this.  The quality of beauty, on the other hand, is much more important in as far that it outlives the materialistic use of the building and elevates the edifice to the realm of Art.

6. Consistency

In this unwritten section of this collection, which may be termed the eloquent testament of a great writer, we have only the title.  Perhaps it might not be too pretentious to assume that what Calvino would have focused on would have been a sense of identity and, above all, the quality of being constant in the manner of writing; in other words, ensuring that writers would not follow fashion. Barragán never followed any of the fashionable trends of world architecture fully realizing that trendy “isms” have a habit of rapidly fading.  Barragán produced an architecture that drew from both the physical reality of his country and also from its rich memory data bank.  These were interwoven together in the architect's unique way to produce an expression reflecting a sense of appropriateness to not only the genius loci and its history but also to the spirit of the time of the realization of the projects.

Architect of Silence

It has already been mentioned that Barragán was very much an architect of silence.  Rarely did he commit his thoughts to paper, and rarely was he involved in public lecturing.  If his architecture manifested a philosophy of building without adjectives, certainly his written contributions are characterized by their almost complete absence.  One of the rare occasions when Barragán formulated a list of what he considered to be the essential qualities of his ideology, was the official address delivered on the occasion of his being the recipient in 1980 of the prestigious Pritzker Prize.  In his talk he outlined the following points as being imperative to his whole creative methodology:  religion, myth, beauty, silence, solitude, serenity, joy, death, gardens, fountains and the Catholic Faith.  There is little doubt that from these aspects, together with his constant lament for the absence of such words as beauty, silence, serenity, magic and enchantment from the vocabulary of contemporary architecture, emerges a portrait of a man who, above all, was deeply spiritual and whose creed could be best expressed in the words of Antoine de Saint Exupery from The Little Prince “it is only with the heart that one can see correctly. That which is essential is invisible to the eyes.”  Also Thomas Merton's description of the charism of the monastic vocation as “one of simplicity and truth” where “the monk abandons the clichés, the disguised idolatries and the empty formalities of the world in order to seek the most authentic and essential meaning”, serves to put in focus not only much of Barragán's personal qualities but also his approach methodology in the making of architecture.

It was during my student-architect period of work in the studio of Gio Ponti that I first became acquainted with the work of Luis Barragán.  Ponti, through his editorship of Domus and his keen inquisitive eye for quality in architecture, had discovered the magic of the Mexican architect’s work as far back as 1934.  In 1960, with the Modern Movement still rampant in Italy, a handful of architects were beginning to rethink its gospel and respect tradition and other qualities that, at the time, were much neglected. Chief among these personalities was Ponti himself, followed by others such as Carlo Scarpa, Franco Albini, Ernesto Rogers and Giancarlo De Carlo.  It is not surprising therefore that the poetic austerity and specific Mexican quality of Barragán’s architecture caught Ponti’s eye.  Always referring to him as “Il Maestro”, Ponti would often sing Barragán’s praises to the small group of student architects in his studio.  For me this was the initial introduction; one that was to develop into a life-long admiration for both the man, his philosophy and above all, his architecture.

Prayer, Litany and Ritual
Walls of Dreams - Geometries of Absence

It is not possible in this paper to discuss the whole career and development of Barragán’s architectural body of works.  As such I have chosen to by pass the early buildings in his native Guadalajara, and also the later Rationalist realizations carried out in the dense urban fabric of Mexico City.  It is the time after what he termed his “retirement from architecture” in the early forties, that concerns me.   Yet here again unfortunately, there is a necessity to be selective.  I have chosen three particular buildings from this latter period each of which I consider to be in its own right a masterpiece of the art of architecture.

1. The Chapel in the Convent at Tlalpan (1952–1955);
2. The San Cristobal Ranch in the suburbs of Mexico City (1967–1968);
3. The Gilardi House in Mexico City (1976).

1. Cappilla Del Purissimo Corazon de Maria, Tlalpan.

“Architecture is frozen music.
The more you reduce the more perfect the notes must be.”
Bruce Chatwin

Since the time that Luis Barragán had announced his retirement from architecture to work "only for myself as a client", he was involved in two projects as a land developer.  First was the Jardines del Pedregal in the Colonia San Angel district of Mexico City followed by Las Alboledas in a new suburban area north of the same City.  In the former, Barragán utilized the natural lava landscape to create a dramatic intermix between nature and the man-made.  Pedregal's lush planting evokes images not dissimilar to Henri Rousseau’s plush naive vegatel canvasses or Roberto Burle Marx's exotic Brazilian gardens.  In architecture it is in the rich combinations of the organic and geometric of Cesar Mauriques' creations in Lanzarote that we can find the closest parallel.  In Las Alboledes, it is the massive "muro rojo", the tree-lined avenues and their reflections in the black mirrored water surfaces which form harmonious compositions of clarity and serenity.  In each of these works Barragán manages to introduce an almost Japanese Garden poverty of expression into his interventions.  Always it is the delicate balance between the attachment and detachment of elements that sustains the Zen-like harmony.

The Chapel in the convent at Tlalpan initiated in 1952 was the first project of his "no client" period to be carried out on behalf of a client.  Within the silent walls of this turn of the Century convent, Barragán was to create one of his most emotionally powerful and palpable spaces.  It was Antonio Gaudi who said, “the greatest challenge for the architect remains the church”.  Entering Barragán’s sacred space, considering its date, one is immediately surprised by the overall sense of contemporality and timelessness of the project.  This is an arena of prayer that belongs to the past, to the present and to the future.  It seems as if the architect has listened carefully and carried out Christ’s Divine instructions in relation to the requirements of prayer spaces as handed down in the Gospel of Matthew “Go into your inner room, close the door and pray.  Pray to the Father, He is there in silence.”  This is a place where one can stop and pause, a place where one feels one must be silent and unspoken to.  It is almost as if the architect is echoing accompanist pianist Gerald Moore’s title of his autobiography “Am I Too Loud?”  The answer here is a definitive “No!”  Continuing on a musical theme, it was Arthur Schnabel who once said “the notes I play like any other pianist, but the silences in between … that is where the secret lies.”  Everything here is reduced to its essentiality, yet the silence attained is not one that is muted.  The space does indeed evoke solitude, but it is not a solitude of loneliness.  It is a silence of Communion which reigns in this healing place for the soul. Every item of this carefully composed space may be read as a manifestation of Barragán’s fervent faith.

It was Gio Ponti who repeated many a time in my student days that “religious architecture is not a matter of architecture but a matter of religion.”  It is obvious here that Barragán has annexed to his secular architectural tools not only the tool of poetry, but more so the tool of faith.  It seems as if it is this combination of love, dedication and faith that transcends this space into a sanctuary for the soul.  Mother Teresa’s words “it is not so much the doing which matters but how much love you put in the doing” emphasize the importance of the sense of total commitment in one’s work.  In this contemporary world of trial and lost values, in an era where science continues to advance, almost reaching a point where all questions relating to man’s existence in terms of Where and When are answered, it is the realm of religion which must continue to manifest its presence as essentially it remains the sole channel which can perhaps respond to the Why of human existence.

There is little doubt that Barragán, as a fervent Catholic, was particularly interested in what he termed “religious spirituality and its mythical roots.”  The Chapel’s golden yellow perimeter walls constantly change colour in a musical dance as light plays shadow-notes on the warm timbers of its floor.  It seems as if light, in this stillness, is seeking its counterpart in melody.  This is an architecture of meaning, its form determined essentially by content. Above all it functions both as a light box and a sound chamber. In sharp contrast to the exuberance of the Mexican ecclesiastical tradition, this place recalls a silence not unlike what North American Indians refer to as “unstruck sound ... silence heard.  Reference may again be made to the Rule of St. Benedict.  His first recommendation is to “listen”.  Listening begins in silence, developes into attentiveness and is perfected into communication.  The goal of monastic silence is ultimately respect for others, respect for a sense of place and respect for the spirit of peace.  It is because we fear emptiness that we take refuge in sound.  In Barragán’s architecture it is the antidote of sound, referred to by the architect as a “placid murmur of silence” that reigns and it is this silence that makes us understand this as an architecture of solitude.  It was again Barragán who stated, “only in intimate communion with solitude may man find himself.  Solitude is good company and my architecture is not for those who fear or shun it.”

The entrance to the Chapel is through an open to the sky atrium where water and vegetation intermix.  This arena acts as a purifying space in the tradition of a cleansing threshold.  This is a preparatory meditative zone necessary for man to transpose himself from secular to sacred space; an exotic yet simple courtyard; a place of comings and goings; at times a stepping-stone of hesitation; at times of desire, at others of welcome.  The trajectory path of entrance proceeds through a dark vestibule that then opens onto the inner golden cloister of seclusion.  This is sacred architecture at its best.  It seems apt to imagine that C.S. Lewis’ words “inside my empty bottle, while others were making ships, I was constructing a lighthouse” were in Barragán’s mind when he designed this miniscule gem.

“Honour, do not impose.”
St. Benedict

 

2. San Cristobal Ranch, suburb of Mexico City

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary
so that the necessary may speak.”

Hans Hoffman

In 1967, Barragán designed and built San Cristobal – a stable, horse pool, swimming pool and house - for the Egerstrom family on the outskirts of Mexico City.  This was a choreographic stage-set where, in the words of Emilio Ambasz “the horses assumed the role of Olympian demi-gods”.  The totality of this architecture is perhaps Barragán’s most accomplished creation.  Clothed in ecclesiastical colours reminiscent of the Mexican baroque tradition, long-lingering high walls are laid out around mirrors of water, recalling as at Pedregal, the gardens of Japan.  Here, perhaps, it is the moon viewing platforms of the Katsura Imperial Villa together with its "borrowed landscape" technique of visual extension which are evoked.  Yet, the ascetic minimalism of the East, although present, is, in Barragán's interpretation, clothed in Latin overtones.  The palette is as strong as that of a Paolo Uccello, yet the layout plan once again betrays De Stijl austerities.  As in the dry gardens of the Orient, a triad inter-relationship is woven between man, nature and the man-made.

While in the Far East man becomes an essential part of nature, i.e. beauty is present initially and the gardener-designer works to make it more visible; in the West, as in Barragán’s layout, man is the measure of all things.  It is more the Jardins Enchantès of Barragán's greatest influence Ferdinand Bac and recalled images of the Alhambra that are evoked.  Here the visual panoramas, together with the aural music of the trough fountains, provide experiences recalling the musical tones of Debussy’s “Reflections in the Water”.  Was it not Debussy himself who coined the phrase "music is the arithmetic of sound as optics is the geometry of light"?  Yet, within the geometry of the planes of the high walls and their mysterious openings, there lies the ever-present restless overlay of a De Chirico-like shadowland.  Everything here has not only its own reality but also an overlying magical power.

“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow.”

T.S. Eliot

Shadows are two-dimensional manifestations of three-dimensional elements caused by movements of the fourth dimension.  Here, floating between real space and real time, a sense of mythical time is suspended over the whole scenography of the place in an ever-present air of expectancy.  Sometimes the calm is such that the space seems not to tolerate any physical human presence.  It is melancholy that looms in this rarified disembodied world and seems, at certain instances, that even time is excluded.  As in De Chirico's paintings, it is the intangible and invisible which become potent and important, overpowering the visible reality of the place.

Here, where horses drink moon water are Barragán’s Proust-like re-interpretations of his childhood; recollections of ancestral ranch iconographies, transformed and transfigured by memory, re-orchestrated and re-vitalized into a contemporary world.  It was Gaston Bachelard who said “it is no accident that in a tranquil reverie we often follow the slope which returns us to our childhood solitudes.”  Perhaps San Cristobal is conceived as an illusionary stage of stasis and immobility to revive the dreams of the architect’s childhood, a choreographic search through the pages of infant memories to retrace and revive the lost laughter of youth.  This is an iconography of fragments of memory and visions of predictions.  Again it is the quality of solitude that seems to dominate, in an architecture that derails and displaces expectations.

The large spans of dream-like waterscapes recall “the wakefulness of an incessant mirror surface which multiplies and haunts.”  Again the words of Borges “my business is to weave dreams” seem appropriate to define the task the architect has set himself in such a project.  It is these reflective surfaces that create tensions between reality and image.  Not unlike Calvino’s City of Valdrada, the visitor sees San Cristobal reflected upside down; “at times the mirror increases a thing’s value, at times denies it.”  It is in the words of Donlyn Lyndon and Charles W. Moore that we may perhaps find the most apt description of this project.  “Light that plays – shadow that haunts – shade that lulls” where “the cooling presence of water connects the infinite and the intimate.”  This is a place reflecting Fra Angelico’s belief that “true wealth exists in being content with little.”  More than any other architect of his generation, or indeed of the whole 20th Century, Barragán has left a testament of idyllic spaces where beauty is most intense in the manifestation of absence.  In his philosophy of an evolution towards simplicity, void takes over from solid, silence extinguishes sound and spirit dominates matter.  It is the sparseness of language and silent calligraphy that impresses us.  His work is a poem ... nothing less or more.

“There are things which cannot be put into words.
They make themselves manifest.
They are what is mystical.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

3. The Gilardi House, Mexico City

"It was a place that understood that the good things should be visible,
but the best things should be hidden."

Ben Okri

In 1976, at the age of seventy-four, Luis Barragán initiated work on the Gilardi House.  It was to be his last executed work, and without doubt, the best known and most extensively published of his works.  Externally the house politely adheres itself to its low-key neighbours, and it is only Barragán's powerful pink palette that hints at its authorship.  The interior, on the other hand, is a different story.  Lovingly embracing a large pre-existant twisting tree at its core, the house, in the geometry of its plan recalls once again the forms of Neo-Plasticism and plays orthagonal games around nature's vegetal growth.  Reading the plan there is little to hint at the rich spatial sensations that await the visitor on his internal itinerary.  As always, form-wise, Barragán's design methodology focuses more on decisions of omission rather than those of inclusion. The effect again is one of a maximum expression obtained with a minimum vocabulary.

Even the memory of Ferdinand Bac's exotic garden layouts is pruned down to the ascetic aesthetic of one single tree.  Le Corbusier's rationalist philosophies, also a great influence on Barragán, are also tamed and trimmed.  Yet Corb's definition of the "elements of architecture" as "light and shade, walls and space" is still applicable.  It is without doubt a Mexican building yet it cannot hide its underlying Mediterranean origins and influences.  My own origins from the very centre of this Middle Sea, have frequently reminded me of the many notable architects who have utilized this area and its vernacular building tradition as cultural and formative pedagogic tools.  In the 19th Century, following the tradition of the Grand Tour, it was not only artists of the calibre of Turner, Roberts, Sargent and Lear who travelled there for inspiration, but also architects of such note as Hoffman, Olbrich and Schinkel.  Later it was Loos, Asplund, Aalto and Kahn who, in their work, echoed influences absorbed from similar trips.  Le Corbusier's travels around the Middle Sea were to lead him to his noted definition of architecture as "the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light", based, no doubt, on the stark cube forms of the vernacular architecture he had seen during his travels there.

In Barragán's case, it was again the Mediterranean that provided a major influence in the formation of his design philosophy.  Besides Bac's work and writings, it was his visits to Andalusia and Morocco, and the effect that the architecture of these lands, had upon him, remained with him all his life.  Perhaps Barragán was also aware of Ponti's work of the thirties on the Amalfi coast, and also Adalberto Libera's iconic Casa Malaparte of 1938 on the island of Capri.  This almost mythical construction remains to this day perhaps the most significant embodiment of a contemporary Mediterranean architectural archetype.  Certainly there is much of its vocabulary in Barragán's work.  Could it be that this structure, anchored on the inaccessible cliff-top table of a mystical islet, was an influential source for the Mexican architect's subsequent language of expression?

Let us however return to the Gilardi House and its beckoning corridors and inviting spaces.  The richly coloured interior is a play of the physics of light made evident on wall surfaces and floor planes.  The journey through these spaces leads one to the most magical of arenas that of the living-dining top-lit pool area.  Here geometry speaks and music is heard; a hidden music, a music of silence.  It was Christina Rossetti who said, "silence is more musical than any song". The whole area in its miniature sublimness has been transformed into a vehicle for the metaphysical.  Above all, though, it remains an architecture scaled to human proportions.  Here the hand of man has once again become the visible unit of measure.  Even in this minimal environment, Barragán manages to make us feel that the infinite is everywhere and that a sense of mystery is constantly present in this diminutive piazza of form, colour and light.

The Gilardi House is a temple-like habitat bathed in a play of umbras and penumbras.  Its Cistercian austerity of form together with its glowing palette of colour-exuberance combine to form a litany of form and colour not dissimilar to the contemporary music of Avro Part; simple forms composed on the basic triad yet enriched by orchestration to acquire a richness of timbre.  Even here, there is an overlying air of melancholy that floats within the walls.  Yet this is a melancholy that has taken on a quality of lightness.  Just as in Barragán’s native country there is an ever-present pre-emption and presence of death, so also in his architecture there seems to be a suspended dark thread of a sense of the tragic.  It is this quality which constantly relates Barragán's architecture to the metaphysical world where the interchange of space-time and shadow-time constantly mix in melancholies of mystery and anxiety.  In his final work, Barragán has again produced a sensual passionate poem suspended in liturgical silence; architecture as mythopolis.

"Love architecture for its silence in which lies its voice."
Gio Ponti.

Conclusion

"When reason sleeps the symbol awakes."
Victor Pasmore

In Carlo Scarpa's Italian ennobling of the quality of the fragment to enrich the whole we find diametrically opposed approach to Barragán’s, it is in the work of the British artist Victor Pasmore that one can perhaps find a somewhat parallel to the Mexican architect in both philosophical approach and development of artistic expression.  Pasmore, who lived on my native Malta for over thirty years, and whom I was privileged to count not only as a friend but also as a mentor and teacher, passed from an early Fauvist period to a Post-Impressionist one to later flourish as a fully fledged Abstract artist.  As an abstract painter his prime interest was focused on the notion of opposite polarities.  The result of these investigations, not unlike those of De Chirico and Barragán himself, involved paradoxical end products completely different from their individual compositional components.  In his 1970 Pavilion in the New Town of Peterlee, in the North of England, he weaved a successful synthesis of architecture, sculpture and painting.  His concern with the "dialectics of opposites" is much in evidence in this work as it is in the Pool Arena designed in one of the walled courtyards of his Malta home involving both "positive and concrete" expressions while retaining "ambiguous and indefinable" overlays. Pasmore's expressions of simplicity, similar to Barragán's, were performed within restricted parameters that left little or no margin for error.  Never, as in the Mexican architect's vocabulary, was a line or dot wasted.  Each, in their own not dissimilar ways, was involved in a reductive yet meaningful search for the elimination of the non-essential.

Luis Barragán, in his Malevich-like sparsity and richness of poverty, carried many a reflection of the humility and simplicity of the teachings and life-style of Francis of Assisi, a Saint he greatly admired.  Perhaps it was his early Jesuit education and his engineering training combined with an almost obsessive mnemonic recollection of the Jalisco farms and ranches of his youth, "of which there are no photos - only memories", together with his concern and love of the mystical, which ultimately inspired him to produce an architecture so different, so enchanting and so soul-enriching, as to produce single-handed a "silent revolution".  That this was achieved in a period when impatient Modernists, Post-Modernists and followers of other "isms" were loudly struggling and noisily contending with each other for an all too brief appearance on the passing architectural page-sets of architectural journalism, is a further tribute to Barragán's genius.  Working quietly, in seclusion and standing back from the chaos of current trends, this monk-like man of silence regaled us with an exiguous yet unique heritage of a highly personal architectural vision of beauty.  The following words of a Navajo Indian prayer offer, I feel, an apt homage to this great man.

"With beauty before me may I walk
with beauty behind me may I walk
with beauty above me may I walk
with beauty all around me may I walk."

Para expresar la manifestaión de esta Oración, yo le ofrezco, Don Luis, mi estima, mi admiración, mi gratitud y mi rispeto.



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