Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Luis Barragán: The Eye Embodied

The architecture of the renowned Mexican architect 'Luis Barragán' (1902-1988) is filled with what looks like a peaceful companionship of seemingly contrasting forces: old and new, global and local, reality and dream, complexity and simplicity. These dualities, undoubtedly, make his works very interesting but also difficult to explain and analyze.
The following is an interview that I did with Wim van den Bergh, the author of "Luis Barragán: The Eye Embodied" in January-February 2017.

Casa Galvez. 1954. via cirqueduseneca.blogspot.com

Why did Barragan receive so much international recognition as an architect – especially towards the end of his life? I mean he was awarded the Pritzker Prize the very second year that the award was established. Was it because he was considered a modernist veteran?

No, as far as I know he was not considered to be a modernist veteran, but more an architect that had a different approach to architecture and urbanism.  In fact there are two moments in his life that he gets international recognition, the first was around the mid nineteen fifties with the opening of the new University complex of the UNAM, which was located next to Barragán's Pedregal development. One of the activities to celebrate the opening of this new University campus  was a large international congress on urbanism and architecture, which included not only sight seeing tours over the campus, but also through Barragán's Pedregal development. This development impressed many architects and urbanists, not only then (at that moment expressed by a set of international publications on the Pedregal) but also already earlier and later, among them architects like Richard Neutra and Louis Kahn, but also Arthur Drexler, since 1951 the highly influential curator and since 1956 director of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Its seems that the impression that Barragán's work had left on Drexler, later on led to the exhibition "The Architecture of Luis Barragán", which toke place from June 4 to September 1, 1976. Next to that Arthur Drexler was also the first Consultant to the Jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, from 1979 to 1986, which (after Philip Johnson) led to the nomination of Luis Barragán in 1980.

Barragán had some modernist influences such as Le Corbusier or Richard Neutra; but do you consider him a modernist?
Or to be more precise, as an architect, was he more “Mexican” or more “Modernist”? – Or none, you would say “personal”?

I would consider him a 'modern' architect, but not a 'modernist', and then 'modern' in the way that at a certain moment in the early nineteen forties he breaks with the visual conventions of a style (to understand this you have to take into account that the moment something becomes a style it is not modern anymore and this counts for any style, whether it is academic neoclassicism, modernism or any other so called style). For Barragán it is the moment that he gives up architecture and starts 'speculating' with plots of land, and then I mean 'speculating' in the double sense of the word, 'speculating' as 'to reflect upon, contemplate' and 'speculating' as having an eye for investing in (in this case plots of land) and hoping to gain and not to lose money. It is the moment that he starts to buy plots of land (that his by now trained eye sees a potential in for development), he puts a wall around it, creates a garden at the inside and then sells the plot for three times as much.
Personally I would say that as an architect he was gradually becoming more convinced of his own judgement in directing  spatial choreographies and less dependent on (the often visual) conventions dictated by the professional debate. Note that from the so called Ortega house (actually his first own house) onward he is mainly creating interior spaces and not so much architectural objects, even the surrounding gardens are interior spaces in which the facades of the house are encrusted with greenery.

Casa González Luna. c.1930. via emgarciadealba.wordpress.com

When you recount his first encounters with the works of American Modernist architecture (works by Irving Gill, Richard Neutra, etc.), it seems that being a primarily visual architect, he was more eager to take up visually-oriented stylistic influences such as finer linear elements, long strip windows, etc. Did he go beyond that?

The work of Irving Gill, I think, was a kind of missing link for him. Being primarily a visual architect it was difficult to go from the kind of 'Morisco-Mediterranean'  colonial style, with its arches and roof tile details, directly to this 'Modernistic' style with its 'naval' inspired railings and thin metal windows. Although by then he understood very well that if you would leaf away the details and photograph the rather plain courtyards of his houses in Guadalajara under oblique angles you would get the impression of a 'modernistic' building. This is something one can for instance see in the photographs published in the ‘Architectural Record’, of September 1931.

After World War II, Latin America witnessed a literary boom, when so many writers and poets received international recognition. One of the characteristics that was mainly associated with Latin American literature was Magic Realism. At the time, architecture too, was attracting attention to Latin America in its own right, through the work of architects such as (of course) Luis Barragán, Oscar Neimeyer, Lina Bo Bardi, Clorindo Testa, Félix Candela. But among these architects, Barragán’s works could be considered the ones mostly aligned with that idea of ‘Magic Realism’. Is that also a reason why Barragán is an interesting figure as a Latin American?

I don't know if that's the reason why he is an interesting figure as a Latin American, for me it is because he is an Architect that learned to trust his senses and his own judgement, but I think that also all those architects you mentioned trusted their own judgement and in part their senses. You could even ad a few, what for instance about Amancio Williams, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Vilanova Artigas or Eladio Dieste? Interesting, in comparison to Barragán, is that all those other architects were in part engineering architects, searching for form via a clever or spectacular way of constructing, while Barragán (who in fact was an engineer, he never graduated as an architect) was searching for form via his senses.

Modernist designs by Luis Barragan in Mexico City. 1930s. via larryspeck.com 

A large part of the book is dedicated to describing and analyzing movement sequences in Barragán’s designs. Isn’t directing sequences (as you put it) somehow in contrast with the ‘free’ spirit of modern architecture that would ideally leave direction to mechanical and functional necessities?

Not necessarily, just look at the way that Le Corbusier is constantly using rounded elements to influence a person's movement through his spaces and his buildings. The main difference between Le Corbusier's and Barragán's way of dealing with this is that Le Corbusier mainly deals with it in plan, while Barragán directs the view of the moving observer and at the same time tries to move him emotionally (so move him inside).

The concept of sequences, especially those journey-like transitions from the outside to the inside – from public to private – are very similar to the common sequences in traditional Iranian architecture or Indian architecture. Where some kind of mystic journey is projected in the architecture. Is that spiritual journey what Barragán had in mind? And is it again something very non-modern?

I think that the concept of 'modern' or 'non-modern' is very much used here in terms of 'the New' or 'the Old', that is not the way that Barragán (and his close friends and advisors) would look at it. Let me quote Mathias Goeritz, who, we could say, very much expressed how also Barragán thought about 'modern' architecture. 

In his Manifest of Emotional Architecture (1953) he writes:

"Art in general, and naturally also architecture, reflects man's spiritual state. But the impression exists that modern architects, too individualistic and intellectual — perhaps because they have lost their close ties with the community — emphasize the rational side of architecture. As a result, the twentieth century man feels crushed by the exaggerated "functionalism”, logic and usefulness of modern architecture. He looks for a solution, but neither exterior aesthetics defined as "formalism", nor organic regionalism, have adequately faced the problem of the common man of our times — creative or receptive — who aspires to something more than a pretty, pleasant and comfortable house. He asks — or will one day ask — that architecture with its modern means and materials give him a spiritual lift or—said in a simpler way — move him…… When architecture will cause an emotive response in man, he will again consider it an art."

So what you call 'mystic' and 'spiritual journey' is here called 'emotive response', but you can also see that they do not reject modern architecture, but try to add a spiritual (emotive) dimension to it.
Your reference to Iranian and Indian houses is correct, these were from ancient times onward introverted  houses that used courtyards (and elaborate architectural 'filtering systems') to receive licht, air and people into their inside spaces, as also most of the housing types of the ancient cultures around the Mediterranean did. And this introverted form of architecture was something Barragán liked and experimented with in his gardens and houses.

Ortega House. 1943. via astroboyillustration.tumblr.com

Speaking of Barragán’s architecture, you repeatedly use “kine-aisthetic experience”. How unique is it to Barragán’s architecture?

Well, Barragán is one of the architects that uses it very consciously, this because he was almost forced to direct the work on-site, since most of the construction workers were not able to read drawings. So next to him we can also see for instance Max Cetto and Mathias Goeritz doing it, and thus, as both of them express it, converting an apparent disadvantage into an advantage. That means the possibility for the architect of a kind of fine tuning of all aspects of his architecture by direct experience on-site. So not only Barragán is using it, just also look at the way that for instance a Japanese garden architect over a span of many years creates a traditional garden. The problem nowadays is exactly that, time and the possibility to make changes during construction, we as architects are bound by time schedules and planing documents fixed in contracts. So the only possibility you have as an architect, is really trying to imagine your self as being within your design while you are designing it and trying to experience wat your senses would register; where would your eyes go, what would you hear and smell when you go through your spaces, what would your feet and hands register in terms of the tactile elements of your design, or what would your skin register in terms of radiation (of for instance a wall in the shade or in the sun) and your inner ear in terms of choreographic balance? As anybody will realise this is extremely difficult and needs a lot of experience in actual experiencing, thus bringing up that which we register with our senses (experience), to a conscious level and simultaneously reflecting it in our psyche. This is the reason why most good architects try to figure out a way to help them in this process of simulating what the senses would experience, just think of Mies van der Rohe who could stare at large scale model for hours, looking at it from different sides and trying to envision himself inside of it and inspecting every nook and corner of its inside and outside spaces, or think of Peter Zumthor, who often works with large very detailed models he can put his head in.

In Barragán’s architecture, walls are important elements – somehow his signature. So are stairs. In your book, explaining each project, you give a lot of significant to describing and analyzing the stairwells and how the light enters them. Of course architecture cannot be simply divided into a number of separate entities, but what do you consider the boldest element in Barragán’s works?

I think that the boldest element in his work is the way he deals with scale. Scale is one of the most difficult elements to deal with in architecture and only the best architects mastered to work with it in such a way that it ads finesse to the experience that one has while passing around and trough a building. One of those masters was Frank Lloyd Wright, but also Luis Barragán, both of them work with scale in surprising ways. However to study how they do it, one needs to experience their buildings first and then reconstruct them in terms of plans and sections, thus to find out and be very surprised about the actual size of the things that one experienced before. 

Barragán designed and built many houses. Was he an architect of the house, because it was more or less the only architectural type that allowed for his ‘directing’ style? I mean a house is more fluid in terms of space, scale and planning.So, is his architecture limited?

I do not think that his architecture is limited, every piece of architecture and program deals with spatial sequences, but not every (functionalist) program considers the choreography of a spatial sequence to be of major importance to its architectural layout, which probably causes that people get often disoriented in large so called modern functionalist buildings like hospitals and office buildings. The main reason that Barragán designed mostly houses is that Barragán's principals were always private clients (often originating from his home State Guadalajara) who asked him to design their house, a few times he worked for the church, but in most of the cases he was his own client.

Casa Barragan. 1948. via imaginarium.emmaboshi.net

Speaking of Barragán’s ‘homes’ you use the term “autobiographical house”. What do you mean by that?

Well, let my try to explain what I mean with the term 'autobiographical house'. This provisional term (by the lack of a better one) I started to use in the early 1980ties, thus to describe what it means when the designer and the dweller of a house/home in a way fuse like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or otherwise start to considerably intermingle with each other.  In other words what happens when the concept of 'house' and the idea of 'home' dissolve into one, or otherwise start to influence each other significantly via the designer and/or the dweller. 
To my knowledge one of the most erudite pieces ever written by an architect about this difference between 'house' and 'home' is, “Identity, Intimacy and Domicile, Notes on the phenomenology of home”, by Juhani Pallasmaa . Under the heading “The architect and the concept of home”, Pallasmaa opens his essay with the statement: 

“We architects are concerned with designing dwellings as architectural manifestations of space, structure and order, but we seem unable to touch upon the more subtle, emotional and diffuse aspects of home. In the schools of architecture we are taught to design houses and dwellings, not homes. Yet it is the capacity of the dwelling to provide domicile in the world that matters to the individual dweller. The dwelling has its psyche and soul in addition to its formal and quantifiable qualities.” 

A bit further, under “Architecture vs. home”, he then asks the inevitable rhetorical question:

“… can a home be an architectural expression? Home is not, perhaps, at all a notion of architecture, but of psychology, psychoanalysis and sociology. Home is an individualized dwelling, and the means of this subtle personalization seem to be outside our notion of architecture. Dwelling, a house, is the container, the shell for home. The substance of home is secreted, as it were, upon the framework of the dwelling by the dweller.”

An answer he further deepens under the heading “The essence of home”:

“It is evident that home is not an object, a building, but a diffuse and complex condition that integrates memories and images, desires and fears, the past and the present. A home is also a set of rituals, personal rhythms and routines of everyday life. Home cannot be produced all at once; it has its time dimension and continuum and is a gradual product of the family’s and individual’s adaptation to the world.”  

...”Reflection on the essence of home takes us away from the physical properties of a house into the psychic territory of the mind. It engages us with issues of identity and memory, consciousness and the unconscious, biologically motivated behavioural remnants as well as culturally conditioned reactions and values.”

It seems to me that it was exactly this contradiction, or better to say, this fusion between 'house' and 'home', between architect and dweller (as described by Pallasmaa) that we find in Barragán's own houses/homes, that is to say the so called Ortega house and the Barragan house next to it. In particular Barragán's ever changing 'containers or shells for home' were the laboratories in which he was completely free to experiment and could on a day to day basis test, with the help of artists like 'Chucho' Reyes and Mathias Goeritz, his own sensual experiences of the changes that they had introduced to the them, whether this was the introduction of a new statue of an angle, a strangely formed rock or tree trunk, the application of a different colour to one of the walls, the closing of a wooden railing or it's heightening as a wall on the roof terrace, or the change of the large trellis window into a window with a huge cross etc. (Most of these changes you can only see in the reconstruction drawings I made of his houses in different stages of their development, these are however not in the text you found on the internet, only in the actual book)

Jardines del Pedregal. via patronatopedregal.blogspot.com

Regarding Barragán’s works – especially his more mature oeuvre from early forties onward – there is always something surreal (you use this term a number of times in your book) or dreamy – or even melancholic – about them. Something similar to the paintings by artists such as Giorgio de Chirico or René Magritte, although his aesthetics is different and more abstract. As if he took the modernist means of abstraction and added symbolism and deeper meaning to them. Is that – in a sense – what he did?

I can not look in his mind, so everything I could say about that would be speculation. What I however think is that in a particular way Mexican culture is surreal in it self, which might have to do with its cultural rootedness in both the pre-columbian and the hispanic culture and as such in its inherent clash of religious believes. To elaborate on it would go too far here, but let me tell you an anecdote that I heard in Mexico and I do not know if its true. Fact is that  André Breton, the author of both the Surrealist Manifestos from 1924 and 1929, after traveling to Mexico on a cultural commission from the French government, in 1938, has said: "Mexico is the most surrealist country in the world". The anecdote then recalls that in that period Breton needed some chairs for the house that he rented in Mexico City. So he made a perspective drawing of a chair and went to a carpenter and asked him to construct him six of those chairs. Returning to the carpenter a few days later, the chairs were ready, but one can imagine Breton's surprise when he saw that the carpenter had constructed the chairs exactly as he had drawn them, namely in perspective.

In Barragán's case I think that a form of abstraction played a roll in his work, but then abstraction in the sense of trying to reduce things to their essence. Thus to generate an 'emotive response' in the beholder. So he does not ad symbolism or a deeper meaning to them, he in a way frees things of everything added to them and tries to show the thing as is. 

Given his ‘directing style’, his interest in symbolism (things like shedding light from above on a horse skeleton), his taste for gardening, etc., was he getting farther and farther from architecture and closer to “installation art”? One might say that his designs would lose their haunting beauty on a second visit, because architecture is the most ‘time-taking’ form of artistic expression, where human dwells; not just a work of art that you visit or experience briefly.

On the contrary, I would say (and I speak from experience) that every time you visit his work you'll be amazed again about the intriguing spatial poetics he is able to create with the most fundamental architectural means. On the one side it seems that he has mastered the most important architectural materials that are for free, i.e. space and light, and on the other side it seems that became a master in the materials (and territories) you need to obtain to define well proportioned spaces and to render light and shadow visible in all its subtle qualities. Further one should not forget that a large proportion of the spaces constituting his houses and other projects are 'living spaces', i.e. gardens, spaces that not only change with the licht of day but also with the seasons of the year. Spaces that are richer in sensual experiences then most architecture will ever be, just think of the sounds and smells, the colours and textures, in general the fact that each experience of a garden will be different from the one before and the one after.  

Luis Barragan. via tallersmariavictrix.blogspot.com

And in the end, by “The Eye Embodied” do you suggest that Barragán’s architecture is not merely visual or intuitive but in fact more ‘real’? 

In the book I tried to show that in his gradual architectural evolution Barragán actually developed a multi-dimensional ‘eye’ at the moment he converted those so-called ‘inconveniences’, within a praxis of ‘planned’ architecture, into the ‘advantage’ of a ‘directed’ architecture, that is an architecture that was existentially grounded in the concrete plastic and spatial experience of the body and the senses. I therefore think that Barragán’s architecture can indeed be called an architecture of the ‘eye’--it is a ‘scenographic’ architecture--but here I am talking about an ‘Embodied Eye’ and an architecture of (and for) an ‘eye with senses’. It is in effect an ‘eye’ that not only looks but also sees, an ‘eye’ that touches and feels, an ‘eye’ that hears, smells and tastes, and so an ‘embodied eye’ in the sense of Merleau-Ponty.

The Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay ‘The History of Eternity’ writes “…eternity is the contemporary and total intuition of all fractions of time…” Is that the kind of timelessness that Barragán was aiming for? What it his legacy as an architect?

Well, if you use that quote, you will also know that Borges (in the pages before the quote) recounts our understandings of time as pagans, Christians and modern people, and then, via the concept of the trinity (of father, son and spirit), he reminds us of the Gnostic influence upon the Christian understanding of eternity. Meaning that the Gnostic belief that God the father preceded both the son and the spirit nullified the concept of the trinity.  And that this led to a new understanding of eternity, which said; "eternity is simply today, it is the immediate and lucid enjoyment of the things of infinity". In the context of Barragán this apparent paradox of the trinity is more interesting to me then the idea of eternity. This because the roots of this concept of the creator as a trinity can also be found in Greek mythology, but then not in the form of the creator as God (the creator of the world), who together with his son (who had to test the world) and the holy spirit, presided over the world. No I am referring to the human creator Daedalus (from Greek 'daidalle', meaning to work artfully), his son Icarus (he who had to test the wings his father created) and his father Metion (from Greek 'metis', meaning spirit). I don't think that one needs a lot of imagination to see that this represents the act of creation, the almost endless loop that an architect or designer has to go through over and over again, while he is working at a design; the trinity of thinking (Metion), making (Daedalus) and testing (Icarus) over and over again. And that was also what Barragán was constantly doing.

Wim van den Bergh
Wim van den Bergh is an architect, an educator and a scholar who studied building engineering, architecture and urbanism at Eindhoven University. As an architect next to other awards he won the Gold Medal of the ‘Prix de Rome for Architecture’ in 1986. His designs and research projects have been published and exhibited widely. Between 1988-93 he was Diploma Unit Master at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, in 1992/94/97 he was a visiting professor at the Cooper Union in New York and as a guest professor he was active in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and Scotland. From 1993 to 2002 he was the head of the Academy of Architecture in Maastricht, from 1996-99 he was professor for architectural design at Delft University and from 1997-2001 also at Eindhoven University. At present he is full time Professor at RWTH Aachen University, where he holds the chair for Housing and Design.  

This Piece was originally published in Farsi in Hamshahri Memari issue 34.

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