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Every time I leave my home in Mexico City for a visit to the cobbled town of San Miguel de Allende, my favorite part of the three-hour drive north is when I’m on the Periférico highway and at the cusp of exiting the city for the Sierra Madre mountains. It’s then when I pass the Torres Satélite. For a moment, the chaos of the impending traffic and the cacophony of horns disappears as the road forks around the five concrete towers.
Constructed in 1958 by Luis Barragán and his long-time collaborator, the sculptor and painter Mathias Göeritz, the towers—hollow, triangular brick structures built around a fountain and painted in shades of yellow, red, blue and white—serve as an example of architecture as sculpture and is just one of the sites that place Barragán at the forefront of Mexico’s architectural zeitgeist.
In fact, there's arguably no figure with a more prominent legacy to the city’s architectural heritage than Barragán. The 1980 Pritzker Prize winner is known for evolving Mexico's modern architecture with his nostalgic use of bright colors, his reverential ideals of nature and gardens as an imperative point of serenity in a home, and the combination of the two with Bauhaus principles. Even more than 30 years after his death, his buildings are some of the most visited and prominent points of interest in the city.
Born in Guadalajara in 1902, Barragan received his degree in civil engineering before traveling extensively through Europe. Though the French and Spanish countryside would go on to inspire his work, it was his time spent in Paris in the early 1930s that forever changed the trajectory of his artistry. It was there that he attended the lectures of famed French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Inspired by Le Corbusier’s use of functionalism combined with bold, sculptural expressionism, Barragán arrived back to Mexico City in the late 1930s to merge the ideals of European modernism with design elements prominent in the rural Mexico of his youth.
Aesthetes who visit Mexico City have myriad opportunities to see the architects work in person. There’s perhaps no better example of than Casa Pedregal, one of the first private homes set in Jardines del Pedregal, a development Barragán designed for Mexico City’s wealthiest residents. Designed in 1947 to be the emblematic house of the subdivision, construction began in 1949 and was delivered to the Prieto family in December 1951 as only the third house in the entire subdivision. Today, the house is open for tours, with one of the central touchpoints of the home being the outdoor swimming pool framed by dusty pink walls and the landscape’s volcanic stone and lush greenery. There’s also a museum for visitors and a restaurant serving Mesoamerican, organic fare.
In 1948, at the same time the architect was busy realizing the Jardines del Pedregal development, Barragan finalized construction on his own home, now known as Casa Luis Barragán: a property born from two plots set along a quiet residential street in Tacubaya, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the sprawling Bosque de Chapultepec park. Though austere and easy to miss from the outside, the home is the only individual property listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO (it was awarded the honor for being a modernist masterpiece for its use of both traditional and vernacular architectural elements). Today, this Barragán home also rank as one of the most toured sites in the city.
Other popular Barragán works are sprinkled both near and far from the city center. Set near Casa Luis Barragán is the oft-overlooked Casa Ortega, a home the architect both designed and occupied, with its extensive garden framed by walls with colorful bougainvillea. Further afoot is Cuadra San Cristóbal, a colorful equestrian and residential complex the architect designed in 1966, and Capilla de las Capuchinas, a chapel the devout catholic inaugurated in 1960 (he also financed a portion of the project). And during a once-forgotten period in the architect’s career, his mid-1930s collaboration with the German architect Max Cetto to build four artist’s studios at Parque Melchor Ocampo 38 is now gaining more recognition.
The last home Barragán completed before his death is set along a quiet street in San Miguel Chapultepec. Casa Gilardi is an amalgam of the architect’s inspiration. Beyond the brightly illuminated entryway hall—decorated with stone spheres inspired by Prehispanic motifs and artifacts collected by Barragán’s dear friend and collaborator, the painter Chucho Reyes—is an interior pool with a bright red partition set before a skylight. But the most profound part of the home, one believed to be Barragán’s favorite feature, is the courtyard, a tranquil area built around a towering jacaranda tree. Available for tours, Casa Gilardi rings true to Barragán’s statement in his Pritzker Prize winning address: "any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake."