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.