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THE HOUSE of

LUIS BARRAGAN DEVICE for an EPIPHANY JUAN PALOMAR


JUAN PALOMAR

It all began with some dogs, so the story goes. One morning, a civil engineer from Guadalajara entered a neighborhood in Tacubaya, in Mexico City, looking for a house where, as he had been told, there were some dogs for sale in which for some reason he was interested. Luis Barragan had moved his residence five years before, in 1935, from Guadalajara to the capital city. He had devoted the first decade of his professional career, which began in 1925, to building a series of houses for wealthy clients in his hometown of Guadalajara. Those houses reveal the well attested influence of Ferdinand Bae and his evocations of the Mediterranean, the recreation of the traditional vernacular architecture of Jalisco, and the early development of themes to which Barragan would return all through his life: light and its transfigurations, the creation of intimacy as the basic core of his aspirations, color as a contained, elementary grammar, the


THE HOUSE of LUIS BARRAGAN: DEVICE for an EPIPHANY

very deliberate succession of open and closed spaces, and the use of the rooftop as a domestic space exposed to the weather. Barragan spent his first years in Mexico City in pursuit of economic stability, lost as a result of the sale of his family’s agricultural interests in Jalisco, which had been centered around the hacienda of Corrales in the Sierra del Tigre, not far from one of his places of reference and predilection: Mazamitla. To this end, Barragan designed a series of buildings for different clients, all marked with the imprint of the architectural trends then in vogue. It is not difficult to detect in his production of those years the influence of a figure whose work would never cease to interest him throughout his career: Le Corbusier. There was a speculative element-in every sense of the word-to these early Mexico City works, and indeed they bear a highly personal seal that gives them a clear interest to anyone tracing the architect’s


THE HOUSE OF LUIS BARRAGAN: DEVICE FOR AN EPIPHANY

development. Nevertheless, they represent no more than a transitional phase in an exploration that would go very much deeper. The transition to the next stage of his career is marked by the acquisition of a lot called El Cabrio, located on the border of an area that would thereafter be a central focus for Barragan: the Pedregal de San Angel. On this piece of land the architect began a formal and detailed exploration of one of his obsessions: the garden. This period marked a rupture in Barragan’s career. Around 1940 he circulated a message amongst his clients and friends, cordially informing them that he was terminating the work he had so far been engaged in Mexico City as an architect and builder, planning in the future to direct his efforts to other tasks. His friends have attested to the fact that, from then on, Barragan concentrated his energies exclusively on those projects and commissions whose characteristics he could freely define and whose scope he could fully control.


MADERER


JUAN PALOMAR

This transition coincided with Barragan’s search for dogs in the neighborhood of Tacubaya, when he came across a lot delimited by the former Calle de Madereros. There he discovered a considerable extension of land with some magnificent trees which caused him to change the object of his search. He offered to purchase the entire lot from its bewildered residents. In this way he became the owner of several hectares of land that contained a few old constructions and some trees, surrounded by the popular neighborhood in which he would reside for the rest of his life. Barragan referred to his first house by the name of the street that wound down from the wooded heights to the west and owed its name to the supplies of timber in the area: Madereros. He constructed this first attempt by re-utilizing certain spaces that he considered usable and completing them with others. This is the construction now known as the Ortega house. Articulated around a patio,

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THE HOUSE OF LUIS BARRAGAN: DEVICE FOR AN EPIPHANY

it opens with greater intensity to the rest of the lot, designed by Barragan as an enormous garden. He made use of some former platforms and constructed others himself, planted a large number of trees, designed pools and fountains, and scattered some fragments of copies of classical sculptures. The house is a testimony to the evolution of Barragan’s explorations. Even as it adopts a stripped-down, functional language, it returns to elements present in his first experiments in Guadalajara: the patio and its implications, the transitions carefully arranged between spaces, the modulation of light through grids and openings of varying dimensions, the deliberate changes of level, covered and uncovered terraces, and rooftops as inhabitable areas. Seven years later, Barragan decided to build a new house for himself. From the garden of the former house he cut off an area of just 900 square meters. The anchor and focus was a pirul

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IVE HOUSE


JUAN PALOMAR

(a Peruvian peppertree), still in existence, which overhung part of the lot. It was in response to this tree, to its significance as synthesis and emblem of a reencounter with nature, that the foundational gesture of the house emerged: the enormous window that separates and unites the internal and external areas of the residence. As if the objective of the entire construction were to place itself both in the garden and in front of the garden. Many years later, in a conversation with a visitor who had expressed his astonishment at the power of the space that looked out through that window, Barragan commented laconically: “But it’s nothing more than a troje... “ That troje, that copy of the storehouses used in rural constructions to store grains and other crops, is the key to its fundamental use as the guiding space of the house. A diaphanous and unified space, open in very different ways to the west of the garden and the east of the street, roofed in the traditional


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LUIS BARRAGAN


THE HOUSE OF LUIS BARRAGAN: DEVICE FOR AN EPIPHANY

manner with pinewood beams supported by rubblework joists. A wooden staircase, built into the wall, leads up to the shadowy mezzanine that mysteriously completes the space. The troje was a multiple space from the very beginning. Living room, library, study, and workplace, or even a place to eat occasionally. It was only some years later that the architect decided to erect a series of thin half-height partitions that sectioned off the space and gave it its present character. In the same way, he replaced the original ironwork grid of the window with the large panes of glass, divided by a cross, which can now be seen. Garden and troje: the essential duality of the house, which nevertheless implies the initial, generating presence of the natural space, of the open area, since domesticated, which gives sense and reason to the settlement of the landscape. Barragan found a garden in a natural state, which he reshaped and cultivated, loading it with


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JUAN PALOMAR

intentions and possibilities; then he sectioned off a part of it, which nevertheless depended for its full functioning on the larger garden that surrounded it. In centuries-old fashion, the house is entered by way of a transition space, a pause. The vestibule compresses and directs the movement that has brought the visitor to the threshold of the door. The light that reaches the glass panes above the door-way discreetly illuminates a bench that prefigures and heralds an incipient hospitality, slightly lighting up the white of the walls and polishing the wood of the bench with its offer of repose. After a few stone steps and a second door, a larger space meets the gaze with a burst of intense pink and light streaming in through an upper window, next to a painting of pure gilt whose tense, glittering surface lends an immaterial aura to the space.

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LUIS BARRAGAN


The House of Luis Barragan  
The House of Luis Barragan  
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