Silence singing - a visit to Casa Barragan, Mexico City by Celia Brightwell
Images by Tristen Harwood
“It is alarming that publications devoted to architecture have banished from their pages the words Beauty, Inspiration, Magic, Spellbound, Enchantment, as well as the concepts of Serenity, Silence, Intimacy and Amazement.”
– Luis Barragan, 1980 Pritzker Prize acceptance speech
Barragan’s hope was that the aesthetic truth of these words and concepts would be realised through his architecture to “contribute toward dignifying human existence”. Visiting Barragan’s Mexico City home, which preserves his personal effects as he left them, is an immersion, intellectually and physically, in a pure incarnation of Barragan’s aesthetic ideals. To this end, it seems appropriate to use excerpts from Barragan’s acceptance speech for his Pritzker Prize to describe the experience of visiting this home.
Silence. In the gardens and homes designed by me, I have always endeavored to allow for the interior placid murmur of silence, and in my fountains, silence sings.
The first room of Barragan’s home, separating the exterior street from the interior, is a plain, rectangular vestibulo (waiting room). Visitors were asked to pause in this room for around ten minutes, to shed off the outside world so as to enter the home in the right state of mind. This room, and the time spent in there silent and alone, was designed to be a type of quarantine – a measure to prevent visitors contaminating the carefully constructed energy of the rest of the home. Deliberately stark – whitewashed walls, stone floor and inbuilt wooden bench – the room prepares the senses for what is to come. After enough time had passed, the door would open and Barragan would appear to welcome his visitor beyond the second threshold.
Solitude. Only in intimate communion with solitude may man find himself. Solitude is good company and my architecture is not for those who fear or shun it.
Barragan’s home is an example of his devotion to solitude. Despite living alone, Barragan ensured several features would allow him to peacefully coexist among visitors when he had them. From the telephone room beyond the vestibulo to the lounge room, a screen is positioned to provide a makeshift hall. This screen allowed Barragan an extra moment of solitude and preparation – time to close a book, rearrange into a position of readiness – before coming into contact with a visitor entering the room. The lounge is comfortable and welcoming, with deep, soft-seated couches, low tables and an impressive personal library.
A second measure Barragan took to ensure the equilibrium of his home was not disturbed by others is found in the dining room. Barragan’s dining table is pushed up against a wall, so that there could only be one ‘head’ of the table, allowing him to command the conversation and company. In contrast, the breakfast room contains a humble, square table, where Barragan would sit alone in the morning. This table faces a row of ceramic plates painted with the word soledad, Spanish for solitude, reinforcing the necessity of time spent alone for Barragan to remain at peace in his home.
Serenity. Serenity is the great and true antidote against anguish and fear, and today, more than ever, it is the architect’s duty to make of it a permanent guest in the home, no matter how sumptuous or how humble.
A narrow wooden staircase floats up the side of a wall from the living space, leading to what our guide tells us was Barragan’s personal refuge. We are forbidden to climb these stairs during the tour due to safety concerns, just as the refuge was off-limits to Barragan’s guests due to privacy. Barragan designed the staircase to recreate a childhood memory: as a young boy, he was forbidden from climbing the narrow ladder to the loft in his family’s horse stables to find solitude. For Barragan, the floating staircase provides an escape to privacy, away from the social spaces of the home. For visitors, the forbidden stairs are a generous gift from Barragan of the secret of his childhood memory. Later, as the tour takes us the long way round to enter this refuge, this small room retains the energy of a person’s private space. More than any other room in the home, as an unknown visitor it feels like an invasion to be here, akin to sneakily opening a drawer when no one is looking.
This room is small, but space between the wall and the roof allows enough room for deep thought, while maintaining privacy. Split shutters over the window, inspired by stable doors, have the same effect: closing the bottom two shutters allows light and room enough for the top of the head; opening all four shutters provides a clear view to the treetops. When all four shutters are slightly ajar, the light shining into the room appears as a symbol of the cross. This symbol is inverted in larger windows, where the glass is divided in four by an iron cross. The room was foremost a place for quiet, uninterrupted thought. A stately sculpture of a horse and symbols of the Catholic Church serve more to prompt thought than as decoration. The symbolic proximity of Barragan’s deep Catholic faith and lifelong love for horses – represented elsewhere in the home with a collection of beautiful riding crops – almost takes on the properties of veneration and self-censure in Peter Schafer’s play Equus.
Death. The certainty of death is the spring of action and therefore of life, and in the implicit religious element in the work of art, life triumphs over death.
Barragan’s home and studio – now a living museum of his life and work – is in the most direct way an example of prevailing life. Walking through Barragan’s home, considered his greatest architectural and life achievement, it is possible to have an intimate knowledge of him 28 years after his death. The five or six soap holders built into the bathroom tiles, the small, selective record collection and the signs of wear to the carpets seem to conjure the 40 years Barragan spent here. In his will, Barragan bequeathed part of his home – the kitchen and a servant’s room – to the lady who cooked and took care of the home for him. This lady still lives there, adding to a sense that much of the energy of Barragan’s home remains the same today. In contrast, Barragan’s small, single bed seems oddly inadequate for such a personality, and for a man 6.3” tall. Perhaps this bed, where Barragan spent the last years of his life confined due to Parkinson’s disease, is the only evidence in the home of Barragan’s reduced state before his death.
Beauty speaks like an oracle. Human life deprived of beauty is not worthy of being called so.
Beauty is realised in Barragan’s home through the balancing of the many contrasts in his tastes and ideals. Author Alfonso Alfaro highlights these seemingly opposing forces:
Luis Barragán is a creator of serene spaces but in whose library disturbing ghosts are wandering: He is both an ascetic and a dandy, a businessman and an artist, a friend of the Reverend Capuchin Nuns and a reader of Baudelaire, a devotee of San Francisco and close to the muralists, a man, in short, whose baroque heritage is expressed in a nearly Zen Buddhism.
The result is a home that is sensual and monastic, spacious and intimate, offering spaces for meditation and prayer alike. Modern, angular rooms painted in bright pink or yellow are completed with soft, unpretentious furnishings and natural fibres: wood, leather, wool coloured with natural vegetable dyes. Pieces of furniture – designed by Barragan or in collaboration with Cuban designer Clara Porset – are a subtle reworking of traditional Mexican designs. Barragan, along with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, was one of the first Mexican artists to collect and see the beauty in Mexico’s Indigenous artefacts. Objects, furnishings, artworks and books in the home become more significant given Barragan’s Franciscan beliefs: he balanced a deep love for beautiful things while avoiding materialism that could distract the spirit. Finally, in Barragan’s bedroom, which he called ‘the white room’, a painting of the ‘Annunciation’ sits next to a piece of cardboard pasted with fashion magazine images of Grace Jones and Iman. The juxtaposition of these two artworks contains the essence of Barragan’s approach to beauty: a delicate negotiation between asceticism and sensuality.
Gardens. In a beautiful garden, the majesty of Nature is ever present, but Nature reduced to human proportions and thus transformed into the most efficient haven against the aggressiveness of contemporary life.
The garden is another manifestation of Barragan’s dualistic approach to design. For Barragan, a garden should enclose “nothing less than the entire universe”, which meant the majesty of nature but in a “humanised” state. In practical terms, this meant Barragan allowed the garden to grow freely, semi-wild, with some human intervention. The impact of natural vegetation on the home is as deliberate as the effect of light on the pink and golden paint on the walls inside. From Barragan’s bedroom, a magnificent glass window frames a wall of green of the garden outside, contributing colour and calm, and the sense of a natural haven within the bedroom. Outside, a small, square courtyard separating two gardens was Barragan’s private meditation space. Huge, clay urns are arranged around a subdued water feature. Exposed to the running water underneath and the falling leaves overhead, the urns take on the properties of exposure to passing years. The jury’s citation for Barragan’s Pritzker Prize emphasises the significance of the garden surrounding the home:
It is to the greater glory of this earthly house that he [Barragan] has created gardens where man can make peace with himself … The garden is the myth of the Beginning and the chapel that of the End.