The Untold Stories Behind the Legendary Homes of Luis Barragán
There is only one way to experience the work of the late Luis Barragán—and that is quietly.
Only then, through measured pause, can one begin to appreciate the exacting serenity mapped by the master of emotional architecture. Barragán, a Mexican engineer turned self-taught architect, designed homes with clean lines, controlled sound, and quietude. The colors, bold and intentional, allow the sun to cast different stories each hour of the day. Barragán's architecture evokes a sense of calm, of contemplation. And in a rather comfortable fashion, it leaves you speechless.
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In the middle of Mexico City's San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood, Casa Gilardi welcomes visitors with a flamingo pink facade and the bright yellow glow of a perfectly sited window. It teases passersby: What lies beyond? Where does it lead? Your mind goes one way, your feet another.
Eduardo Luque invites you through a wooden pivot door into an entry with seamless built-ins and not a hint of mechanical or electrical. The space is dark and intimate and draws consciousness of your transition. Eduardo is 25 and brings a youthful view of being raised here since birth—in the last home designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Barragán. Yet there is no ego.
He encourages you to walk ahead—not necessarily to be polite, but rather to allow the space to press upon you. Light beams down through a modest stair, casting shadows in the most intentional of ways—no rail to break the light. Go on, he insists. Sans handle, the large, white door deceives.
You push through to a monochromatic, perfectly proportioned hall with columns that elongate the space for days. The door closes, leaving sound and answers behind. A low ceiling offers a sense of comfort and safety. Ahead, a set of doors lures. Eduardo describes this moment as a "silence you can feel," so much so that you become aware of your hushed gasp when the compression and release unfolds.
It’s utter delight. The yellow tunnel ends only to reveal a bright, cobalt blue wall, the palette for which was inspired by artist Chucho Reyes. The room touts a 5-foot-deep pool where Eduardo learned to swim, a meditation nook, and a dining room overlooking the most glorious courtyard in Mexico City.
Eduardo’s father, Martín Luque, was a bachelor in 1977 when Casa Gilardi was completed. He and his advertising agency partner, Pancho Gilardi, brought Barragán out of a decade of retirement to design the home. It would exist to entertain. And its design would center around one single jacaranda tree. Each spring, its blossoms drop to create a dramatic lilac carpet that complements the home’s colors in a way too enchanting to think that it was designed for any other time than this exact and brief moment of beauty but once a year.
Barragán’s work is a story of characters. In one home, horses. At Casa Gilardi, the tree. "He’s letting you know it’s important to tell a story—to guide the inhabitant, the dwellers. It’s something I use to understand his work, a way for me to read it," said Roberto Davila, an architect in Mexico City. He’s one of only a few allowed regularly in Barragán homes as an architectural tour guide for The Traveling Beetle. Yet he stoically absorbs new perspectives of light and color, as though it were his first visit.
"Barragán is very bold and delicate about what he wants to show you. That’s why emotions can flourish." He says that architecture today has lost its sense of introspection, something Barragán mastered, even among the vast social space allocated in each of his designs. "It’s not only important for Barragán’s architecture. All spaces should have spaces of introspection. Architecture cannot lose that."
The phone rings inside Casa Gilardi, and you suddenly remember you’re in someone’s home. The shadows in the courtyard begin to change. The sun hits a pink wall. The light bounces and turns a blue wall purple. Eduardo tells of riding tricycles with his two brothers in the courtyard and climbing the beloved jacaranda. The concept of time has long passed.
"When people come here, they forgot all about context," he says, over family stories and photos. "They are focused on feeling." Eduardo possesses wisdom beyond his years and remarkable humility for a child who grew up with tourists more than toys, not to mention famous artists and architects. After Gilardi passed, Martín moved in with his wife, Arcelia, and raised a family. "When you’re a kid, you’re not thinking about the Pritzker Prize," says Eduardo. "Growing up here allows you to learn humanized architecture."
He values his books, family, and travel. The house itself, he says, is fulfilling in such a way that one needs less. "Architecture defines the way you live." And the family lives simply. The living room is home to the same buttery leather sofa from before Eduardo was even born. From that second-story perch, shirts and shorts soak up the sun in plain view along a clothesline on the terrace. It’s clearly a house intended for life.
"Living here, you give more value to simple things," Eduardo says. "It’s a famous house, designed by an iconic architect. But at end of the day, it’s the house of my parents."
Cuadra San Cristóbal
Luis Barragán loved horses. And in the 1960s, the Los Cubles project emerged from his affinity for the bold and graceful creatures. Located north of Mexico City, the property encompasses the public Fountain of Lovers along with the private home that is Cuadra San Cristóbal.
The entry alone captures the delicious sensory experience that is the art of Barragán. Once inside, you become quickly rooted by another jacaranda. While imagining the magic of even more lavender blossoms beneath your feet come spring, you forget you are on 100,000 square feet of property. The experience is not overwhelming—instead, it invites a sense of intimacy. Davila explains that’s because the sight is allowed to rest. The view ahead frames a spouting fountain and the notorious pink backdrop of the property. "The focal point is not contaminated with anything else," he says. This staged architecture offers layers of new sightlines and surprise around every corner.
It’s dinnertime at Cuadra San Cristóbal. Lola, a rescued donkey, makes her daily trek from the garden past the reflection pond to the feeding troughs. She’s one of 17 lucky creatures to call this haven home. And in turn, she brings life to the property, along with three cats, a parrot, seven dogs, and five horses.
Horses, the Catholic religion, and architecture were Barragán’s three passions, and Cuadra San Cristóbal is the only property that encompasses all three. The project was designed in 1968 for the family of Folke Egerström, a friend and fellow rider of Barragán’s. He passed away nearly 20 years ago, leaving the property to his son and wife, whose daughters grew up playing hide and seek among the hedges.
Nature is infused into every Barragán home, whether running water or an unmanicured landscape. At Cuadra San Cristóbal, an unassuming secret garden sparks another moment of delight. A framed tunnel of greenery snakes around, leading to a wooden table for one. It is a place for contemplation and solitude, reflective of the private lives of the descendants who inherited the property.
Inside the Swedish-Mexican home, bookcases command three rooms. Each of the family members has a preferred reading spot. For one, the garden; for another, the field. Like Casa Gilardi, the home receives many visitors, the majority of whom are architects and students. And like the family at Casa Gilardi, there is an immense appreciation for Barragán, but also the understanding that the home was meant to be lived in—it's a place for the family to appreciate moments with the children and the animals. A place to be simply enjoyed.
Barragán’s dedication to light is clear among the dramatic shadows at San Cristóbal. Back at Casa Gilardi, he would study the late morning shadows every day, the patterns beautifully cast throughout the interiors. But beyond a shadow of a doubt, the homes were about life.
Bruno the dog—without hesitation—drinks from the indoor pool. Bruno was a puppy in this home, just as Eduardo was once a young boy who stood in the very same spot. "Life is in cycles, and architecture is like that," he explains. "Houses are like living organisms. They’re going to change."
The families in both homes have gone through cycles of life, from bachelorhood to retirement. The one constant: Barragán’s inspiring design for life. "I love his work because of that," says Eduardo. "Architecture is beautiful, but what is it without people?"
Related Reading: The Vivid Colors and Textures of Luis Barragán