25 Years After Luis Barragán’s Death, A Look At Mexican Modernists

Daniel Rauchwerger Daniel Rauchwerger

Luis Barragan, a mysterious man. Photo by Rene Burri via Magnum Photos

A mysterious architect and man who lived a strictly religious yet semi-bohemian life, Luis Barragan was a master of color, light, and space. His house, now a private museum and a listed world heritage site, remains a personal fortress full of secrets and symbols, intricate design details, artworks, and surprising outdoor spaces. His presence is felt in every corner, from the leather boots stocked neatly in his closet to the odd crystal balls in his living room loft.

No doubt, Barragan introduced a style that was not there previously: a combination of essential Mexican visual heritage with modernist forms of abstraction.

But history, often times, is written by its winners. Barragan was nicknamed Mexico’s Le Corbusier, a moniker that might have originated from his planning style, or perhaps his manner. Nevertheless, like Corbu Barragan had a way of creatively overshadowing the people working around and underneath him. Because of this it’s hardly surprising that Barragan was the only Mexican to ever receive a Pritzker Prize.

Photo by Rene Burri via Magnum Photos

Félix Candela, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Ricardo Legorreta, José Villagrán García, Juan O’Gorman, Mario Pani, Enrique Del Moral, Agustin Hernandez, and Teodoro González de León are a few of many others who took part in Mexico’s modern developments. Today, 25 years after Barragan’s death, it seems necessary to review his work in correlation to a few of his contemporaries.


Barragan: Master of Color, Light and Space. From top: Casa Gilardi, Capilla De La Capuchinas, and San Cristobal Stables. Photos via Strelka, Wikimedia, and Visualatlas

A feeling of awe and anticipation accumulates as a group of students await to enter Luis Barragan’s home in Mexico City. The hot weather of the outside cools down as the doors open up to a dark, yellowish interior. This is different, it’s poetic and incomparable to any modern building. It seems at once contemporary and ancient. Read what you will from the architecture of the house, it’s clear that within its walls lived a very complicated human being. Barragan was interested in local arts and crafts as well as in European modernism, Christian iconography, and even pop icons, like David Bowie’s androgynous partner, Iman, whose framed photo rests on a credenza in his bedroom.

Mexico’s most well-known architect and the symbol to its modern movement was born and raised in Guadalajara, one of seven children in a wealthy and very Catholic family. Educated as an engineer, Barragan became interested in architecture through the guidance of his school’s director, architect Augustin Besave. A crucial part of his biography was a long trip of his to France and Spain in 1925 to 1926. Impressed by the Muslim influence on architecture he saw in Spain, Barragan returned to Guadalajara and started planning and remodeling buildings with a Middle Eastern style and emphasis on color and water features.

His first project was a home for a Guadalajara lawyer, who later commissioned him to plan a series of buildings. In 1931, he made a second excursion, this time to New York and Paris, where he met Le Corbusier, Konstantin Melnikov, and Friedrich Kiesler. On his return, Barragan moved to Mexico City, where he established his own firm and planned residential and commercial projects that were later categorized as rational and functional in style.

A landmark in his work is the 1945 plan and real-estate development of the “Jardines del Pedregal de San Angel” in Mexico City, in conjunction to acquiring the land for his own home and office in the city. Later on, he was central in the planning and preparations for the Olympic Games hosted in Mexico in 1968 and in the grand development of “Los Clubes,” which includes one of his most famous creations—the Egerstorm house, stables, and pool. Further recognition came after a retrospective show of his work was held at the MoMA in New York in 1976, and naturally even more when he was awarded the Pritzker four years later.

Barragan’s romantic life was always obscure and unclear, though it always interested the public, as he never married. Hints of homosexuality are relatively common to trace within his known biography. They are also evident around his home, and contradict the monk-like character he tried to so hard to emphasize in every room. His own bed had a rather small single size. It replaced a larger one in order to ease the work of the nurses that attended him in his last years, when he was sick with Parkinson and unable to move around.

He passed away at his own home, aged 86, 25 years ago.


Never loved math, but was a genius engineer. Candella. From top: L’Oceanogràfic Building, and Bacardí-Instalaciones-Industriales (planned with Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe). Photos via, via and via.

The 20th century is many times regarded as the century of wars, and quite rightfully so. Wars of the modern period split families apart, drove millions to poverty and death and divided former empires into modern nationalities. This was the case with Spanish architect Felix Candela, who was born and raised in Spain but had to leave it forever due to his political beliefs.

After graduating architecture school in Madrid in 1935, Candela moved to Germany to continue studying. His studies were interrupted by the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. He returned to fight as a captain of the engineers of the Spanish Republic. As part of the war’s losing side, Candela was put in prison as were thousands of other soldiers who fought Franco. Luckily, he was released and allowed to leave the country with a one-way ticket to Mexico City.

Though he didn’t especially like mathematics, Candela was a genius engineer and a master of geometry and trigonometry. His works are almost immediately recognizable through their distinct use of thin concrete shells and structures. Parallel in time and influence to Buckminster Fuller, Kenzo Tange, and Eero Saarinen, Candela introduced geometric technics that became fundamental components of modernism worldwide.


National Museum of Anthropology. Photo via

The Basilica of Saint Guadalupe. Mixing pre-Columbian motifs with modernism. Photo via

An epic architectural project: Mexico’s hosting the Olympics in 1968 (Ramirez Vazquez – president of organizing committee – put a big emphasis on the Olympic’s design). Photo via

A somewhat late modernist in style, Pedro Ramirez Vazquez started practicing architecture in the mid-1940s. He is perhaps best known for his unique mix of modernism with pre-Columbian motifs, a mix that is visible in his extraordinary project of Mexico City’s National Anthropology Museum. Another large project of his is the Basilica of St. Guadalupe, and the odd-looking cultural center of Tijuana. In addition to these, Ramirez was commissioned to design Mexico’s pavilions for the World’s Fairs of 1958, 1962, and 1964. Later on, he served as president of the organizing committee of Mexico’s 1968 Olympic Games—a visually magnificent event with a huge architectural impact on the capital’s metropolitan area.

Ramirez was a laureate of multiple awards and prizes, such as the National Medal of Fine Arts. He passed away last April, aged 94.


O’Gorman’s Central Library of UNAM, Mexico City: A Gesamtkunstwerk. Photo via

The connected studios of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Coyoacan: A challenging project for challenging clients. Photo via

Though not an exceptionally known figure outside Mexico during his lifetime, Juan O’Gorman is responsible for some of the most interesting designs of mid-century modernism. Born in Coyoacan, O’Gorman started off with a functionalist style and developed into a radical artist. This can be seen through the shift from one of his earlier projects—the studio houses for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (connected by a bridge)—to the later UNAM Central Library. O’Gorman mixed mural culture with rationalism, and dared to speak of unwanted history through storytelling in his art and architecture. His Central Library is still an icon of modernist Mexico City.


Pani’s Torre Insignia. Photo via

UNAM’s Rectory Tower, which Pani designed together with Enrique Del Moral. Photo via

Coming from a family of major politicians, developers, and other high-ranked officials, Mario Pani was an important figure in many of Mexico’s modern architecture and urban development projects. He is credited for planning the country’s first condo, the first building of an international hotel, and even the first satellite-town outside Mexico City.


Detail of the Rectory Tower’s mural, Del Moral and Pani. Photo via

A planner of master plans, public buildings, and private projects, Enrique Del Moral is one Mexico’s most active mid-century architects with over 100 built projects. Probably best known for his dominant contribution to the UNAM grand plan, Del Moral also took part in designing many of Acapulco’s modern buildings—a resort area in the western city that was an exclusive Hollywood retreat.


Hernandez’s eccentric own studio building. Photo via

Sketches for the Hernandez Studio. PHoto via archdaily

Concrete sculptor-architect Augustin Hernandez is one of the only still-living participants in Mexico’s architectural modernism (89 years old today). Hernandez could be categorized as a brutalist due to his extensive emphasis on form and geometry through concrete. His own office’s building in Mexico City is still influential today. However, his creations were more positively regarded in his youth, or mainly until he executed the unfortunate Calakmul Corporate Building in Santa Fe (nicknamed “the washing machine”).


Modernist shapes, post-modern colors. Hotel Camino Real by Ricardo Legorreta. Photo via archdaily

College of Santa Fe. Photo via

A direct follower of the legacy Luis Barragan left behind, Ricardo Legorreta was a colorist and a master of form and composition. Active in Mexico and in southern US, he received awards such as the AIA gold medal and the Japanese Praemium Imperiale. After working with José Villagrán García, Legoretta established his own firm in 1963. One of his best known and still glamorous projects is the Hotel Camino Real—a mashup of modernist forms with post-modern colors, decorations, and a luxury finish.