Capturing the spiritual effects

In the speech he gave upon receiving the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 1980, Luis Barragan, the late, celebrated Mexican architect, noted with some regret: «It is alarming that publications devoted to architecture have banished from their pages the words ‘beauty,’ ‘inspiration,’ ‘magic,’ ‘spellbound’ and ‘enchantment’ as well as the concepts of serenity, silence, intimacy and amazement. All these have nestled in my soul and, though I am fully aware that I have not done them complete justice in my work, they have never ceased to be my guiding lights.» Clearly, Barragan was less interested in terms that described a specific construction, its form, materials or functional aspects but, instead, in those intangible concepts that captured architecture’s non-material aspects, its «spiritual» effect and calming impact on our senses and mind. The buildings that Barragan designed came close to the vision of architecture that he had. Based on simple planes and resonating with a Mediterranean, earthy feeling, Barragan’s architecture shows a distinctive respect for nature (the architect has actually called himself a landscape architect), a study of natural light and a use of warm, sensual colors. It is minimalist and pure, yet sumptuous in colors, modern, yet based on myth and tradition, stark and almost monastic, yet warm and soothing. Often described as mystical, his architecture is, above all else, meant to provide calm and privacy. «Any work of architecture that does not express serenity is a mistake,» he once said. The exhibition «Luis Barragan: Light, Water and Color in Architecture,» currently on display at the New Wing of the Benaki Museum on Pireos Street, reveals his distinctive vision. Organized by the Hellenic Institute of Architecture in cooperation with the Mexican Embassy and the Benaki Museum, the exhibition presents around 70 photographs that the award-winning Japanese architect Yutaka Saito has taken of Barragan’s work. It also includes drawings and architectural models. The exhibition has been designed by architects Antonis Daglidis and Liana Hlepa and its contents belong to the Fundacion de Arquitectura Tapatia Luis Barragan in Mexico. Barragan once said that his architecture was «autobiographical.» It was heavily inspired by the memories he had of growing up in his family’s hacienda near the remote village of Mazamitla and the vernacular Mexican architecture that was profuse in the region. In Barragan’s architecture, his recollections of the vernacular style blended with the images he recollected from his extensive travels around the world and adapted to the needs of modern living. Born in Guadalajara in 1902, Barragan was trained as an engineer and never received any official training in architecture. The years that he spent in the early 1920s in Europe had a huge influence in his development as an architect. He was inspired by the work of Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand. The writings and work of the French landscape architect, illustrator and intellectual Ferdinand Bac probably had the greatest influence on his work, particularly in respect to how it incorporates nature, uses natural elements (for example water, light, stones) as architectural tools and builds gardens or patios as places for «meditation.» Bac’s famous Les Colombieres on the Cote d’Azur struck Barragan as one of the most inspirational works of architecture and provided him with the model for much of his future work. Following Bac’s example, but also influenced by the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco and the work of his friend the painter Jesus Reyes Ferreira, Barragan worked in an idiom that blended Mediterranean tradition with a modern style. He worked in Guadalajara in the late 1920s, before leaving for Mexico City and designing the Park of the Revolution, one of his most celebrated early works. In Mexico City, he initially worked in the International Style but in the early 1940s gradually abandoned the modern idiom and, under the influence of Reyes, increasingly turned to the study of vernacular Mexican and Mediterranean architecture, thus marking the beginning of his mature, distinctive style. From 1945-54, he worked on one of his most ambitious projects, the design of the El Pedregal; a project of landscape architecture that involved the construction of an area of select housing in a 6-million-square-meter lunar landscape of black volcanic outcrops near the southern part of Mexico City. Barragan laid out pools, streets, pathways, lava-rock walls and dwellings in a way that interfered as little as possible with the natural environment. Barragan’s subsequent signature style became known for its use of light and water and the ways it enhanced the natural environment. His project at San Cristobal in 1966 is one of his best-known works. Modeled on the traditional pueblo, this urban dwelling included stables and an artificial lake. Another famous project is Barragan’s design, in the mid-1970s, of Francisco Gilardi’s house. The indoor swimming pool, painted in strong colors that allows for light to stream in and take on different hues according to the time of the day, was one of the highlights in Barragan’s design for that private house. It was roughly during the same period that Barragan’s international reputation increased, leading, in 1977, to a large exhibition of his work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Pritzker award in 1980. Perhaps the most internationally renowned Mexican architect, Luis Barragan brought a feeling of mysticism and meditation to people’s dwellings and private surroundings. He turned the intangible into constructed material. The exhibition at the Benaki’s New Wing pays tribute to this man’s distinctive talent and vision. «Luis Barragan: Light, Water and Color in Architecture» at the Benaki Museum’s New Wing (138 Pireos & Andronikou, 210.345.3111) through Nov. 6. The museum is also open on Sundays from 10 a.m – 6 p.m.