Entrance still is on appointment and with a guide only. I joined an English speaking tour at 12.30. Another tour in Spanish had just ended when we started. There were about 12 people on that tour, and 5 on mine. It’s quite a miracle that these tours are so popular: the Casa Luis Barragan is a secret that is well-hidden from the general tourist public. Lonely Planet does not mention it, and the Michelin Green Guide has only a small entry in its Mexico guidebook. Most of the other visitors seemed to be architects or modern architecture buffs.
My tour around the house and the studio took about an hour. The complex has many doors, and we entered all the rooms except for the bathrooms and kitchen. Barragán’s private quarters appealed the most to me – I could see myself living there, a cosy room that like most of the other rooms still holds the original furniture and carpets. When you’ve visited a number of these modernist structures on the WH list, you’ll notice a lot of familiar things such as the large windows to connect the outdoor and the inside. Unfortunately for me this building did not live up to its hype, I prefer for example the Paimio Sanatorium by Aalto or any structure by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Paul Tanner (UK):
Occasionally, when visiting WHS, one comes across a wonderful surprise and this was such a visit. I had been feeling slightly negatively towards it – why should THIS house, designed by a guy I personally hadn’t heard of, have been inscribed when other, to my knowledge/belief, more significant modern buildings in Mexico and elsewhere in the world, had not!? 2 hours later we emerged, entranced by what we had seen, but still not entirely convinced of its WHS merits!
I was aware of the house as it had been featured in a recent (Jan 2008) BBC series “Around the World in 80 Gardens”. The main surprise then was that we saw very little of it or its garden – in fact little more than an interview with the curator on a terrace before moving on to another of Barragan’s buildings elsewhere in Mexico City. So I was aware that Barragan was more than “Architect” – he called himself a “Landscape designer” but I was not aware of what his own house was like.
Thanks to the previous reviewer (tips on this site can be useful!) I knew that reservation was “required” to visit this site (though, a minor point, Constituyentes Metro is on line 7). I did this easily 4 weeks beforehand by e-mail. We didn’t get our requested time but this may have been to put us on an “English speaking” tour. In fact, however, of the 7 in our group, 3 turned up “on spec” and were allowed to join those of us who had prearranged.
The house is set in a working class district of Mexico DF and, externally, looks rather like a factory (photo 1) – indeed part of it was the Barragan architectural practice “workshop”. You have to knock to get in (and wait some time for someone’s arrival!). Immediately you are regaled with prescriptive instructions – including “No photography” except from the outside or on the terrace. So that explains the TV program - even the BBC can’t have got permission! The tour costs 100 pesos (c US$10). Our guide is himself a recently qualified architect working off the 480 hours “community work” which state-assisted Mexican graduates apparently have to do. I don’t know if all the guides are as qualified but his knowledge and enthusiasm is going to be major part of the visit.
We are taken outside to a door down the street and ushered in to a pokey “Entrance Vestibule” with just enough room for a wooden bench protruding from the wall. But this isn’t just ANY wooden bench – don’t even think of sitting upon its hallowed planks! A reverential atmosphere is created and we move through a door to the “Overwhelmingly beautiful Main Vestibule……..”. At this point you realise that you are going to see something rather special. The architectural scene is set for the other rooms we will see – light bathes the area from a high point, an un-banistered dark volcanic stone stairway invites you upwards to it, brightly coloured walls with multiple, differently sized, doors lead off into other rooms, minimal furniture and striking paintings, never centrally placed, create style and atmosphere. And always colour, variety with continuity, light and serenity….
The tour lasts for 2 hours and visits some 12 rooms, the terrace and the garden. We learn Barragan’s language – the symbols of horses, death, women and religion carefully introduced into each room; the mathematically determined proportions, even though every door is a different size and every ceiling a different height; the non use of the colours blue and green – these are always provided externally by nature through windows (indeed the main purpose of the overgrown garden seems to be to provide “greenness”); the significance of vestibules to manage the contrasts between rooms etc etc ….. Some of the visual coups are stunning – a statue of an angel glowing from light shining through a yellow glass ceiling window, a cross of white light created by 4 shutters….Every room is a delight. Finally we reach the Terrace where we are allowed photos (photo 2) and the tour ends. (You can find a pretty full set of “photos” of the house, starting with the “Entrance Vestibule” and “that” bench - go to “La Casa” and follow the arrows)
Despite the fine visiting experience and the beauty of the building I still wonder whether it should be inscribed as “World Heritage”. I have 3 areas of concern.
1. Doubtful “Universal Value”.
The previous reviewer called Barragan a “disciple” of Le Corbusier – however, we were told that, whilst Barragan attended a couple of conferences which Le Corbusier ran/attended, he was in no way a close associate. Barragan’s other influences can be traced inter alia to Van de Rohe, Rietveld, and Lloyd Wright. He was clearly (a peripheral?) part of the Twentieth Century’s “Modern Movement” and a recipient of influences from significant international architects as well as from Mexico and from stays/visits in France/Morocco – but how “universally” significant has been his use and development of those influences and how influential has HE been on others (surely the more important direction in order to merit WHS inscription?) He has no buildings outside Mexico – and very few inside. I note that 3 of the 7 in our group were architects and it does appear that Barragan is part of the curriculum of US architecture courses at least. He also received the prestigious Pritzker Prize only awarded to living architects – among whose other luminary recipients have been Utzen (architect for the Sydney Opera House) so his standing among architects has been high. I asked our architect guide what Barragan’s influence had been worldwide – the “light cross” in the Osaka “Church of Light”
was quoted. We were also pointed to the Mexican Camino Real Hotel Group and the widespread use of “pink” in Mexican houses (sure enough when we returned to our guest house in Coyoacan one wall was painted in “Barragan Pink”!). Yet, to date, the UNESCO list contains NO buildings by Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright. Now it is hardly Mexico’s fault that others have been tardy in getting the work of these 2 seminal architects inscribed (Tentative Lists from Japan and India contain Le Corbusier works and that from USA contains a serial Frank Lloyd Wight proposal). But I wonder really whether Barragan’s architectural language is adequately “universal” either in application or in acceptance? Getting (part of) the world to use pink paint hardly seems enough and surely the WHS list doesn’t have room for a work of every medium ranking architect? Is Barragan really “the very best of the best”? (Interestingly the ICOMOS commissioned 1997 evaluation “The Modern Movement and the World Heritage List” didn’t identify ANY Barragan buildings among those it suggested for future inscription to represent the “Modern Movement”)
2 – Weak Protection.
UNESCO seems determined to make an example of Dresden for its infamous bridge proposal but demonstrates considerable inconsistency in application of its principles. As you look out of the Casa Barragan rear windows what do you see – not just the pure natural Green and Blue which Barragan had intended but also a rather ugly multi-story new block of flats which seems to have been designed to allow as many tenants/owners as possible to overlook the Casa Barragan! Similarly, one view from the Terrace looks at an unsightly new floor built on top of an old building. Yet, to quote the 2004 evaluation, “it is recommended that the planning control within the proposed buffer zone be formally enforced and that steps be taken to remove any infringements that could disturb the visual integrity of the nominated property”!
3. Divided "Ownership".
When Barragan died, the building was left to a partner who ran into financial difficulties and committed suicide. His widow auctioned it but, to Mexico’s shame, no-one from that country would buy it and, as I understand it, after various sales, the building finished up with State of Jalisco and the “Fundacion de Arquitectura Tapatia Luis Barragan” which now runs it as a museum whilst the copyright of all his works (inclduing photos of the house - hence the strict photography control) became linked with Vitra – the Swiss (formerly German) manufacturer of designer furniture through the “The Barragan Foundation”. Now, Vitra emphasises its artistic credentials worldwide via its prestigious “Vitra design Museum” situated in a fabulous building designed by Frank Gehry and has been reported in the NYT as having "paid $2.5 million (..to keep)this important archive in single ownership". But Vitra’s interest in Barragan is not of course entirely artistic or altruistic – apart from the PR aspects you will find it selling “Barragan Furniture”! So the value of Vitra’s product range is enhanced via the inscription of his house on the UNESCO list and the copyright restrictions on photography of that house. I know of no other WHS whose "ownership" is similarly split and which imposes this sort of limitation on those visiting a part of our world wide "Patrimony".
Date posted: April 2008
Have you been to Luis Barragán House and Studio? Share your experiences!