Luis Barragán’s most famous work, originally designed for a client in Mexico City in 1937, then occupied by Barragán himself, harnesses the power of opposites as well as referencing his devout Catholicism.


Barragán’s Catholicism overtly expressed by the crucifix in the “room of the Christ” dressing room.

Ian Volner

Speaking of his formative years in Mexico in the 1970s, architect Enrique Norten once noted that, at the time, there were only two options for journeyman designers starting their careers in the country.

On the one hand, there was “the path of Pedro Ramírez Vázquez”, the brutalist master whose concrete-and-steel institutional buildings, such as his Museo Nacional de Antropología, made him the ruling PRI party’s quasi-official architect.

On the other hand, there was “the path of Luis Barragán”, whose delicate, colour-infused compositions, mostly for residential projects around Mexico City, had received immense praise outside the country and attracted flocks of disciples at home.

But for many of Norten’s generation, the question was not which route offered the best way forward for Mexican design, much less which of the two men was the “better” architect. It was how to escape the legacies of both of them, to forge a path of their own.

Insofar as Barragán – so widely venerated by now that his pastel palette is a sort of international semaphore for Mexican design in general – has appeared to win out over his erstwhile rival, it is he, not Ramírez Vázquez, who presently represents the prime gravitational force against which his successors must contend.

In a recent citywide programme to construct new small-scale social centres around Mexico’s capital, the only participating firm to use any colour in its design, WorkAC of New York, also just happened to be the only non-native practice in the bunch; all of the Mexican offices favoured clean, spare interiors, totally devoid of Barraganian theatrics. This is hardly an isolated incident. With the notable exception of Ricardo Legorreta, few prominent Mexican architects have truly followed the mysterious, gold and turquoise-paved “path of Barragan” into the 21st century.

So how is it, 33 years after his death, that this one architect can still inspire such an acute anxiety of influence among so many of his descendants? The answer might just be hiding somewhere in the secretive confines of Barragán’s most famous project, the house he designed (originally for a client in 1937) and then occupied himself (with extensive revisions right up to his death in 1988) in Mexico City’s Tacubaya district.


The pastel palette has become a semaphore for Mexican design. Credit: Jose Luis Magana/Shutterstock.

Like the architect, the house has suffered somewhat from overexposure. Visiting the Casa Luis Barragán – aka the Barragán House and Museum – can evoke that nettlesome sensation one sometimes feels on seeing St Peter’s, or Fallingwater, or any site of near-universal architectural reverence: the combination (the Germans must have a word for it) of genuine awe and a slightly irked sense of obligation, knowing full well that one is supposed to be in awe.

The lofty esteem in which the Barragán House is generally held is particularly strong in design circles, but it extends even to non-professionals. Witness the title of a 2018 essay from Poetry magazine editor Lindsay Garbutt: Casa Luis Barragán, Sacred Space of Mexican Modernism.

At least in pre-pandemic days, the tour groups that marched through the house during regular opening hours were usually issued a nudge-wink proscription against photography from the on-site chaperones. The result was that everyone snapped as many shots as they could, at once amplifying the house’s mythology to the digital world while undermining its real-life mystique.

Even with so much mental and visual distraction, there’s no denying the house’s allure, its immense powers of seduction. But what moves, exactly, is Barragán putting on his unsuspecting guests?

Well, one favorite trick in the lothario’s repertoire: the switcheroo. As seen from the street, the house presents an exterior of unrelieved flatness and greyness, only to reveal an interior plan of startling complexity. On first entering, visitors find themselves in a cramped, unlit vestibule, from which they shortly ascend to an airy double-height hallway filled with light. They can then proceed through a library stuffed with objets d’art that looks on to a teeming jungle-like backyard, or wind through a cosy library up to bedrooms and dressing rooms of near spartan severity.

Notice the pattern? Over and over, Barragán bounces between opposites, giving us compression and release, darkness and colour, art and nature.

The effect is as it is disorienting as it is delightful, and it suggests an almost structuralist comprehension of the fundamentals of architecture, each aesthetic element deriving its meaning by way of contrast with the next.

If an architect wants to make himself a godlike figure, one great way to do it might be to build himself a church. Which is precisely what Barragán did.

Seen from that perspective, Barragán’s approach to the house shows him in touch with something very much like an architectural source code. Hardly surprising, then, that his compatriots find it so difficult to break free of his thinking.

But there’s another quality to the Casa that may be even more central to understanding the origins of the architect’s local and global legend. Barragán’s devout Catholicism (possibly in conflict with his sexuality, though that much remains unconfirmed) is well known and everywhere in evidence in his house – from the cruciform window fronting the sala to the actual crucifix upstairs in the so-called “room of the Christ” dressing room.

Even in the absence of overt symbols, the handling of light throughout the interior plays on every conscious and subconscious religious association.

Light is squeezed through narrow clerestories, directed downwards from unseen windows, passed through coloured glass or splashed against coloured surfaces, producing exactly the variety of numinous glow encountered in chapels and cathedrals the world over.

It should take nothing from the authenticity of Barragán’s faith to point out that, if an architect wants to make himself a godlike figure among his compatriots, one great way to do it might be to build himself a church. Which is precisely what Barragán did.

James Joyce was famously quoted as saying that one reason for the complexity of his writing was that he wanted to “keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant”. Barragán, for all his depth and seriousness, was no less capable of high-minded cheek, to say nothing of cunning entrepreneurship.

Throughout his career, the architect regularly served as his own client, building large-scale residential developments around the fast-growing Distrito Federal. This, in fact, was how he had come to possess the Casa property to begin with – just another parcel in another real estate deal.

The image Barragán cultivated – retiring, priestly, the tropical hobbit of modernism – was not false, but certainly knowing. And while his contemporaries in Mexico recognise the artifice, their counterparts abroad often do not. As long as that prevails (and it may a long time yet), Barragán is bound to remain a figure of equal parts fascination and frustration to those who come after him, an architect to be loved, to be venerated, but rarely followed.