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How an Alien Landscape Became Mexico City’s Modernist Mecca

Mid-century architect Luis Barragán fused nature with tradition to create a neighborhood that felt both new and deeply rooted in local culture.


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trendy building with a pool

Casa Prieto Lopez. Photos by Allegra Ben-Amotz.

A riot of bold colors, stucco surfaces, and geometric angles, Mexico City is a design-lover’s dream. Its unique visual language, a modernism made Mexican, owes a major debt to one artist: the architect Luis Barragán. Named 2018’s World Design Capital by the World Design Organization (the first city in the Americas to receive the honor), Mexico City is steeped in Barragán’s influence. Even his signature shade of deep pink is now the city’s official color, splashed across taxis and metro stations.

Outside of Mexico, Barragán—who is often compared to Frank Lloyd Wright for the way he integrates buildings into their surrounding landscapes—has enjoyed posthumous fame. Fashion houses from Louis Vuitton to Longchamp have shot campaigns in his homes, artists James Turrell and Dan Flavin have cited him as inspiration, and contemporary architects such as Japan’s Tadao Ando and Austria’s Mark Mack build on Barragán’s style.

Within Mexico, however, the artifacts of his legacy have either disappeared or been hidden in plain sight. Much of his body of work (numbering only sixty or so projects), has been razed in the face of development. His former home and studio, Casa Luis Barragán—the only private residence in Latin America to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site—is now a small, unassuming museum with reservations-only admission and is little known to locals. To date, just one retrospective of the architect’s work has been held in his own country. His archives are stored in a basement in Switzerland. 

But Barragán's magnum opus, an architectural wonderland long forgotten on the outskirts of Mexico City, is stepping back into the spotlight. The upscale neighborhood, named Los Jardines del Pedregal, was master-planned with input from Mexico's most famous artist, Diego Rivera, and built on the jagged lava formed by an ancient eruption of the Xitle volcano. In its heyday, Pedregal was a masterpiece; now, thanks to a fervent local collector, it is once again a place of pilgrimmage for modernist enthusiasts.

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The Barragán-designed Casa Prieto Lopez is now open to visitors.

In the 1930s, Mexico’s bohemians flocked to the undeveloped Pedregal (Spanish for “stony place”) to photograph, paint, and hike in the fresh mountain air, miles from the rapidly expanding city’s pollution. Artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera saw Pedregal as the primal heart of the country: a wild, remote stretch, untainted by European imperialism and rich with legends of the indigenous people who built their temples there.

Rivera and Luis Barragán both saw the area as ripe for urbanization, an answer to the city’s shrinking housing supply. According to Keith Eggener, Professor of Architectural History at the University of Oregon and author of Luis Barragan’s Gardens of El Pedregal, Barragán approached Rivera to assist him with guidelines for Pedregal’s development. Rivera, who was then building a museum of local volcanic rock in Pedregal, drafted a master plan that emphasized the importance of preserving the site's unique geographic character.

In the late 1940s, after purchasing large plots of the inexpensive, unforgiving land, Barragán got to work on demonstration gardens, public plazas, and homes that blended seamlessly into the landscape, integrating rough, natural stone into smooth concrete structures and creating vertical gardens for creeping indigenous vegetation.

Pedregal’s homes fused minimalist design with the dramatic aspects of traditional Mexican architecture. Through the use of  striking colors, local materials like limestone and cypress wood, and native handicraft, Barragán’s work emphasized place and culture, breathing warmth into early modernist principles. In reaction to the industrial European International Style that predominated in the ‘20s and ‘30s, here, for the first time, was a uniquely Mexican modernism.

“This was arguably the largest, splashiest modernist residential development in the world at that time,” Eggener says. Jardines del Pedregal quickly became the Beverly Hills of Mexico City, garnering international praise and the attention of the city’s social and political elite, including a handful of the country’s former presidents who bought homes in the community. It made a real estate baron of Barragán, and put him on the radar of the Pritzker Prize judges, who later awarded him the field’s most important honor.

As early as the 1950s, Pedregal had begun to change. Wealthy landowners began to remodel (and in some cases, demolish) their homes. Huge plots of land were sold off and subdivided, and new developers purchased plots of land and started building outside of code. “Economic pressures forced the subdivision of large lots into much smaller ones, with smaller houses and far less attention to Barragán’s original, and quite central, concern for preserving the native landscape,” Eggener says. 

Today, only a handful of the original structures remain. Still, a visit to the quiet neighborhood inspires the same feelings of serenity and the connection with nature that Barragán and Rivera strove for: the curving streets, littered with vivid jacaranda and bougainvillea blossoms, follow the contours of the land, and uneven slabs of volcanic rock layer the high-walled facades, providing just a glimpse of the mansions inside.

And recently, collector César Cervantes has opened two Barragán originals—and by extension, the neighborhood itself—to the public.

In 2016, he bought and restored Casa Prieto López (the largest private residence ever designed by Barragán) to its original state. Cervantes’ home is now open to visitors by appointment. It looks anything but inviting from the outside, but the forbidding exterior conceals a spacious, blush pink courtyard where, in the 1940s, the prominent Prieto López family held high-society parties in the garden. The house’s wide windows frame a view of craggy volcanic rock swelling across the skyline. That same rock is invited inside, rough boulder formations emerging through the soft pink pastel walls for an intimate communing with nature. The sensation is at once quieting and stimulating, ancient and contemporary.

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Tetetlán, a restaurant and community center next to Casa Prieto Lopez.

Next door, in an area originally designed as horse stables for the Prieto-Lópezes, Cervantes opened a restaurant and community center called Tetetlán. The dining room’s new glass floor exposes layers of petrified lava, and opens into a kitchen that produces artful Mesoamerican cuisine. A cantilevered staircase leads to the yoga studio and a hotel open to visiting artists, who are asked to add a book to the extensive library in lieu of payment. Cervantes even tracked down tables and consoles crafted from native cypress wood by Barragán's carpenter, recovering the pieces from collectors and friends of the architect.

Not all of Barragán’s structures have stood the test of time, nor have they received the same care and attention as Casa Prieto-Lopez. A handful of the private homes and public spaces he designed in Mexico City are open to visitors,  But while the neighborhood itself may be diminished from its former glory, Jardines del Pedregal’s design was revolutionary, and its impact still reverberates in the contemporary architecture of Mexico City.

Where to Find More of Barragán’s Magic in Mexico City

You can find bits of Barragán’s legacy all over CMDX. All of the Barragán-designed homes that accept visitors are privately owned (and lived in) aside from the Casa Luis Barragán, which is a museum. Tours can be organized by contacting the homes directly.

Casa Luis Barragán
The architect’s former residence and studio is now a museum that features Barragán’s original furniture and an extensive library. Tours can be reserved online but space is limited and fills up quickly, so plan ahead. casaluisbarragan.org

Casa Gilardi
The last project Barragán completed before he died, Casa Gilardi was designed for a pair of bachelors with their preferences in mind. An indoor pool in an electric blue room looks out onto the home’s interior courtyard. Contact casagilardi@gmail.com to make an appointment.

Casa Prieto López
Current owner and art collector Cesar Cervantes has turned a major restoration project (which he refers to as Casa Pedregal) into his own home, where pieces of his own collection are on display alongside recovered Barragán-designed furniture. Contact visitas@casapedregal.com to make an appointment.

Casa Cuadra San Cristobal
This equestrian estate, one of the crown jewels of Barragán’s body of work, was designed for the Folke Egerstrom family as part of the Los Clubes project in Atizapan, a suburb of the city. The home has played backdrop for a number of fashion campaigns. Contact cuadrasancristobal@gmail.com to make an appointment.

Capilla de las Capuchinas (Chapel of the Capuchinas)
A deeply religious person, Barragán oversaw—and partially financed—the renovation of this convent and church in the Tlalpan neighborhood. Call (52) 55 5573-2395 to make an appointment

Torres Satélites (Satellite Towers)
In the middle of Mexico City’s busiest freeway stands a group of five primary colored concrete towers, a sculpture designed by Barragán together with German artist Mathias Goeritz. Av. Periférico Norte S/N, 44390 Naucalpan de Juárez

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This post originally appeared on Afar and was published October 16, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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