Guest Blogger

Luis Barragán was that way

Filed By Guest Blogger | April 12, 2008 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media, Politics
Tags: guest post, Luis Barragan, Stephen Suess, the closet

Editor's Note: Stephen Suess stymies attempts at a simple bio, having been at various points in his life an Architect, Film Student, Bartender, Web Worker, and VP of Technology. Stephen is currently a writer and blogger (satoristephen.com) on a spiritual journey.

Luis Barragán is widely regarded as the most influential architect Mexico ever produced. During his life he struggled to unite a modernist viewpoint with the forms and colors of his native Mexico, resulting in a fusion of incredible beauty and tranquility. But his work was clearly more than that. It embodied the personal as much as the global and regional, although this aspect is much more rarely commented on.

I just came back from a visit to Casa Luis Barragán here in Mexico City, which was his home and now serves as a museum of sorts. I say of sorts, because you can only visit by appointment and tour, and they will only show you portions of the house. The quality of what we did see was phenomenal and the tour was conducted in a pedagogical manner, taking care to point out the motifs and themes present in the work in a clear way. You can go on either an English or Spanish language tour, although you will need to reserve a place several days in advance. It was a little upsetting that photos of the interior are completely forbidden. We were only allowed to take a few snapshots on the roof and in one of the interior courtyards. I was however blown away by the architecture and design, and even more fascinated by how much the house tells you about his private life. It seems pretty obvious to me after the visit that Luis Barragán was gay, closeted, conflicted as hell about it, and more than a little paranoid.

One of the first things one notices about the house is the intensely private nature of everything. This was a house that turned its back completely to the street, only opening up to its internal garden. All street-facing windows are either translucent, obscured or very small. Even the large roof terrace, which would have afforded a lovely view of the park and surroundings, was circumscribed by high walls to maintain privacy. The rather extreme lengths that Barragán went to in his own house to maintain this privacy are a bit suspect.

The house itself (and other works) takes some inspiration from colonial architecture, especially the architecture of churches and convents. There is a simple, monastic quality throughout the house and an attempt to recreate the massive feel of these older buildings with details that present a thicker, heavier and more permanent-seeming environment. Also taking inspiration from religious settings and Barragán's own sense of belief, one finds the motif of the cross represented in almost every area of the house, along with many artifacts that are religious in nature (such as carvings of Jesus on the cross, paintings of The Passion, etc). There is high tension in the house contrasting the simplicity and monastic quality of the architecture with the splashes of color and sometimes erotic and exotic objets d'art that permeate (penetrate?) the house.

In addition, it seemed to me that Luis probably had a bit of the prude in him, as the only guest room in the house contained a single bed in a room resembling a monastic cell. Either he didn't approve of couples sharing a bed under his roof, or this wasn't the only spare bedroom in the house. When I noticed that there was also a single bed in Barragán's own room, I asked our guide about it, and whether Barragán had ever had a wife. His response was that no, Barragán did not have a wife, and that there in fact used to be a larger bed in his own room, but in the last years of his life he was stricken with Parkinson's, and it was easier for his attendants to move him from the single bed.

There were a number of places in the house that were off limits. When we asked about them, we were told that they were "in use". When pressed, our tour guide explained that parts of the house were still lived in, by a man in his late 50s who was "a friend and collaborator" of Barragan. Apparently the house was left to him when Barragán died in 1988. Interesting, no?

At one point in the tour we were in one of Barragán's various private offices, and on the wall was a picture of the architect as a young man. He was a bit of a dandy, I could tell that much from the photo.

Since coming back from the house, I have combed the internet for biographies of Barragán and not a single one mentions anything about his personal life. The closest we get is that he was friendly with various artists and collaborators. His biographies are as obscure and protected as his house. From the various clues, what I can piece together is that this man was very guarded about his private life, and was probably not a little conflicted and tortured by the tension between his deeply held religious convictions, his homosexual desire, and his public or professional persona.

I wonder, if he had been born many years later and had been able to live an open life, what influence that would have had on his work. It is clear that, personal issues aside, his art was very much a product of his particular world view and his particular place in the history of modernism. He has had an amazing impact on a great number of architects. The formal language he left behind is of incredible value, and the spaces he created impart a simple, meditative peace to those that experience them. It was most likely his personal search for this meditative peace, for a way to reconcile the disparate parts of his life, which led him to create in the way that he did.


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Just for everyone's general consumption: Stephen is former contributor Sheila Suess-Kennedy's son. Stephen has guest posted before about acceptance of LGBT people in India.

He's also a friend of mine that I admire deeply.

Before I drifted into law, etc., I managed to get an Architecture degree. The prof of one of my last design classes was enamored with Barragan's architecture.

I'd like to offer a comment either way about that high an opinion of it - but there's a reason I drifted into another line of work.

Anyway, thanks for this post. I hadn't taken time to think about architecture (or my daze at the Texas A&M College of Architecture and Environmental Design) in a while.

Since coming back from the house, I have combed the internet for biographies of Barragán and not a single one mentions anything about his personal life. The closest we get is that he was friendly with various artists and collaborators.

Maybe i'm lacking familiarity with current literature, but the disclosure of architects' personal lives seems to not have come that far since Barragan. It wasn't only recently that the likes of tabloid-informed The Gutter made architects seem so much more salaciously glamorous. I do wonder if there continues to be this strange fear of the possibility that one's personal life seems unnecessarily distracting from or detracting of one's work, especially so for those revellers of modernism.

just a thought.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 13, 2008 11:53 AM

While architecture reveals it just as often obscures the motivations of it's design. As my own knowledge is limited to the Chicago School of architects I appreciate the chance to learn more about the work of Barrigan. In my earlier life in Chicago I had opportunity to work with designers and even had the Frank Lloyd Wright home and museum among my trade customers. Wright employed stained glass for beauty and to obscure a view he may not have liked. In his Oak Park home he uses stained glass to block the view of a house next door, that he did not like, that was built on land he had wanted to purchase.

Of course Wright had both his dry periods of being out of fashion and his horrible heterosexual personal life. Still Taliesin, The Dana House in Springfield Illinois where he had bottomless money to spend illuminate an incredible genius.

The intense privacy you find in Barragan's house from the description stated strikes me as a minimalist version of a traditional Spanish influence house with high walls all around for security and protection from the heat of the day. I would not wonder about seeking privacy and security in Mexico in the 1930's through 1970's even if one is a bachelor who is private, religious, shy and perhaps even asexual. Assuming one lives to a great age you frequently outlive your family and if he chose to leave his house to a servant/collaborator who cared for him with Parkinson's this is also not unheard of. Other than admiring his brilliance I am missing the Gay connection here.

While at it I would love to claim Mozart as Gay, but I know I cannot get away with that one either.

I completely appreciate the possibility that I could have misread one or more elements in the house. Taken together however, it seemed obvious to me not only that Barragan was gay but that his architecture, despite the best efforts of modernists to divorce it from his personal life, is a monument to his internal struggle for peace. What was so striking to me when visiting the house was my sense that in order to truly understand this architecture, one really needed to understand something about the architect (which is arguably not always the case). The spaces, their disposition, decoration, and their uses are as much about his personality as they are about anything. As with all art of course (and I most definitely consider architecture to be an art) the meaning is open to interpretation. There is no one "right" way to read a work of art, and we gay people have a long and distinguished history of reading both text and subtext as a way of connecting with the world.

As a postscript, I had a conversation the other day with a friend of mine here in Mexico City who is gay and an architect. He verified for me that in fact Barragan was indeed (among other interesting things) gay.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 14, 2008 3:59 AM

You are suggesting that he was Gay even before it was fashionable. I doubt that being Gay is, in and of itself, interesting. Was there anything about him interesting that this individual knew that you had not mentioned in your posting?

By the way, thank you for your posting, it brought me "right there." It reminded me too of when I toured Monticello in 1980 and asked the guide about Jefferson's love of architecture, which was obvious to the eye, as well as his love of invention and research. (he propagated something like fifty different strains of peas among other vegetables) I asked the guide if as a proponent of the "Age of Reason" Jefferson was a particuarly religious man.

I think she was scared to death I would mention Sally Hemmings.