Pablo Leon de la Barra, "Soledad", 2003, Graffiti on a street wall
by Pablo León de la Barra
I first visited Barragan's house sometime in the autumn of 1994, just after the legal fight for his inheritance had finished, but before the house was opened to the public. It was late in the afternoon, before sunset and there was not much light. The house was gray, the plaster on the walls was falling and everything smelled like old dust, the smell of being locked for a long time time, the smell of dead. It was like entering into the past, to a place where time had stopped. The coloured walls looked flat, not at all like the coloured photographs of Armando Salas Portugal. I must confess I was not very impressed by the house.
I was 22 at the time, finishing my studies of architecture and starting to develop an obsession with Barragan's architecture. During the past summer Fernando Romero and myself had been working at the Atelier of Andres Casillas, maybe the only true disciple of Barragan who had collaborated with him in the design of the Egerstrom House. In December 1993, we had visited some works of Casillas, especially one, an old club house in Valle de Bravo which I had visited frequently as a child and which constantly appeared in my dreams. We contacted Casillas, who invited us for a drink in his house, and who later invited us to collaborate with him. Working with Casillas, we learned the secrets of a discipline that were transmitted to us in an almost secret way. Around the time we also visited many of the works of Barragan, most of which were then closed to the public: Gilardi, Prieto, Egerstom, Galvez, Meyer, Capuchinas, El Pedregal, Arboledas, Satelite, etc. Together with another friend, Omar Fernandez, Fernando celebrated one of his birthdays doing a party inside one of the Torres de Satelite which were normally locked. On another occasion I also invited a group of friends to a small installation I did inside the yellow tower, where slideshow images were projected towards a mirror and then towards the walls of the tower; in order to produce electricity for the projector to work, I had borrowed a gasoline power plant from a friend! Some mornings I would wake up really early, drive towards Las Torres, and walk around them and inside them waiting for the sun to rise, the framing of the sky by the interior of the towers would produce similar effects as those experienced in a James Turell installation. Our interest also expanded into studying and visiting the works of Mathias Goeritz, especially El Eco, and Chucho Reyes' house. Through my friend Alvaro Moragrega in Guadalajara I also visited most of Barragan's early work in Guadalagara and his library which had been relocated there. In Guadalajara I got in contact with an inherited and continued tradition of architecture which favoured poetics, serenity and space over architectonic fashion and high tech.
At that time there wasn't much interest in Barragan's work in Mexico, his architecture was considered by some as out of fashion, for others, it had been linked to discourses on national identity. His work was much more respected outside of the country. As most of his work was inaccessible, people had access to his work through the images that appeared in books, which were copied by architects and which had created the so-called "Barragan Style". Much of this copying had to do with integrating colour to the building, and not with understanding the spatial complexity of his work. For Fernando and myself, as well as for other of our friends and contemporaries (Pedro Reyes and Jorge Covarrubias among others), the work of Barragan offered an alternative to the architecture education we had received up to the moment, a school based in importing and adapting models seen in foreign architecture books magazines in order to incorporate the country to super-modern globalisation. I must also say that we were not interested in following Barragan's footsteps, but much more in learning from his work, understanding his process, and how he had created such a unique architecture.
In the summer of 1995 I did my social service at Barragan's House (students in Mexico, when they finish their bachelor studies, are required to donate six months of voluntary service to a non profit institution), assisting the newly appointed first director of the House-Museum, Norma Soto. Through a series of donations the house was being refurbished and recovered its old spirit. There, I trained young architecture students in giving guided tours to visitors to the house. Most of the visitors were mostly foreigners or other young architecture students. It's funny how still today the guides repeat many of the stories I used to tell about the house and how these stories are still transmitted, repeated and transformed by the new volunteers. But mostly what I did, was spend time in the house. I arrived early in the morning and left late at night. I measured it all, trying to understand Barragan's spatial proportions. I experienced it under the most diverse and fascinating light conditions. I made phenomenological experiments trying to understand the different perceptual conditions that happened in the house. I followed shadows and reflections. I walked around without shoes. I walked with my eyes closed smelling or touching the different materials. I had lunch in the kitchen with Paulita and Ana Maria, his old cook and housekeeper. I would spend time in the garden under the sunlight with his old gardener. I would visit his workshop and garden across the street, and was one of the first to have access to his previous house and gardens next door. I got drunk with tequila in the dinning room. I turned lights on and off. I opened and closed doors. I slept in the different rooms. I opened his wardrobe. I ate the red flowers from the Colorin tree in the garden that he loved to have cooked for lunch. I swam on the fountain, walked naked on the roof terrace and kissed lovers there while seeing airplanes pass overhead.
It was at that time that I started doing art installations, many of which were informed by the knowledge I had acquired at Barragan's house. I felt a strong connection with Luis Barragan, a man whom I had never met (he died on November 22, 1988) but who was having such a strong influence on my life. I was even making connections between his birth date (March 9, 1902) and my birthday (March 19, 1972).
After his house was opened to the public new interest developed in Barragan's work. During March and April 1996 two major exhibitions were presented at el Palacio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City which revealed new understandings of his work: "Obra Completa" (which organized chronologically most of his work, from his early Guadalajara period to his early modern buildings in Mexico City to the final consolidation of his architectonic language), and "Sitio + Superficie" curated by Carlos Ashida and which made analogies and cross lectures between his work and the work of minimalist artists working in the 70's: Andre, Judd, Flavin, Serra, Irwing but also with artists such as Albers, Long and Gonzalez Torres. A series of publications with more images of his work followed. Those years, I used to meet weekly at a cantina with Victor Alcerreca and Alejandro Hernandez among other friends in a kind of secret society with our self appointed teacher Humberto Ricalde to discuss the need of writing a document which liberated Barragan from the two dimensional myth and which with a critical and generational distance could re-read his professional and personal complexity. In a similar way the acquisition of the Barragan archives by the Vitra Foundation in Switzerland, together with the later exhibition and publication by Federica Zanco and Emilia Terragni "The Quiet Revolution" contributed extensively towards liberating Barragan from a single, one dimensional reading to a much more complex understanding of the man and his work.
In September 1997 I left Mexico to go to study to London. The day before flying, I went very early in the morning with Jeronimo Hagerman for the last time to Barragan's house. The shadows in the roof were extremely long, within some minutes as the sun rose, the shadows started moving quickly until almost disappearing. The space filled with light. There were no clouds on sight, just one or two airplanes passing above, signs of a departure. We took some polaroids of ourselves in the house and hid them under one of Barragan's heavy cabinets. Maybe they are still there.
Since then I have been practicing an exercise called "Forget Barragan". When I'm in Mexico City, I try not to visit his works or his house. I have noticed how most of my friends who have worked around or about his work have developed this crazy obsession on him, sometimes they think they are him, or act as the widow he never had. I constantly try to forget Barragan, still he constantly reappears, existing inside my subconscious and appearing inside my dreams.
A previous version of this text appears in the catalogue of the exhibition 'El Aire es Azul', curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist at Casa Barragan.