First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Every day in August, we'll profile one architect's first finished building—often surprising, always insightful—as a solo practitioner. Within the vast field of great building design, we aim to uncover the significance of first acts.
Robles Castillo Houses in Guadalajara, Mexico
Date completed: 1928
Getting the Gig:
"I had a feeling that it enclosed what a perfect garden, no matter its size, should enclose: nothing less than the entire universe." Such a sentiment, coming from Pritzker winner Luis Barragán, comes as no surprise, seeing as how the Mexican architect's particular genius for creating spaces for escape and contemplation—what his Pritzker citation called "metaphysical landscapes"—is clear. But this recollection, written after his encounter with the Moorish palace of Alhambra in Spain during a formative trip to Europe, suggests that his personal spin on the Mexican vernacular has its roots in the Mediterranean. Barragán always drew inspiration from his hometown of Guadalajara, as well as his upper-class family's farm near Mazamitla, Los Corrales ("memories of my father's ranch underlie all my work"). But upon graduating from the Escuela Libre de Ingenieros de Guadalajara in 1923, his father felt that the time was right for the young man to expand his worldview and see Europe (political instability at home made a trip even more attractive). Barragán's timing couldn't have been more fortuitous for an architect; he was able to see modern works by Le Corbusier and others at the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris. But the Frenchman who made the most impact during his journey was landscape artists and illustrator Ferdinand Bac. His Jardins enchantés, one of the most underlined books in Barragán's library, espoused a connection between buildings and the landscape, and the Mediterranean influences found within seemed to gel with the heritage and climate of the central Mexican city where Barragán would launch his career. When he returned home in 1925 and started working with his brother, Juan Jose, on building homes for the rapidly growing city, he had a nascent vision of what he wanted to create.
Description and Reception:
Before moving to Mexico City and creating works recognized worldwide, Barragán built a series of villas for the Guadalajaran elite, finishing 17 homes between 1927 and 1929. Beginning with his first job, an expansion of the Emiliano Robles Leon Villa, the architect began toying with a kind of colonial romantic style, a conservative start informed by the Mediterranean-ism he picked up from Bac. His first renovation even included a Moorish fountain and pergola. The Robles Castillo Houses, two buildings located at the corner of Calle Argentina, a main residence for Adolfo Robles Castillo and a smaller unit for rent, were his first start-to-finish design. Wrapped in white exterior walls, luminous roof tiles, and windows with wooden shutters, it wouldn't stand out from the rest of the neighborhood. But there were subtle influences, such as the loggias and living rooms, that show a European influence, and the entrance portico is a direct reference to Bac. Barragan once described the buildings in Guadalajara as being "bright on the inside and sophisticated on the outside, conducive to a life like the one we had in the country," showing how his nostalgic connection to Los Corrales infused his work with a respect for tradition and purity. But he was slowly beginning to lean toward a more modern approach.
Impact on His Career:
His first independent project didn't make an impact on its own, but it represents the beginning of a slow stylistic evolution. The apex of his early period was probably the Efraín González Luna House from 1929. Many elements that would become hallmarks—geometric, right-angle design, double-height rooms with filtered light (think of his later convent project), using the roofs of lower volumes as terraces—start to come into focus. While the his early works don't have the grand private gardens of later works, they do begin to showcase his focus on the wall as a source of comfort and protection. "All architecture that does not express serenity is not fulfilling its spiritual purpose," he said. "That is why it has been a mistake to substitute the shelter provided by walls with the inclemency revealed by large expanses of windows." After his father's death in Chicago, Barragan found business drying up, and departed for better prospects in Mexico City in 1934, embarking on what he disparagingly called his "commercial phase." He spent those years focusing on more rationalist, modern design without the integration of culture and narrative that would inform his later masterpieces. Only when he managed to integrate both early phases of his career was he able to create something truly unique.
Famous Future Works:
Luis Barragan House and Studio (Mexico City: 1948), Convento de las Capuchinas Sacramentarias (Tlapan: 1960), Las Arboledas (Mexico City: 1962), Cuadra San Cristobal (Mexico City, 1968)
While they play an important role in his evolution, Barragan's Guadalajara projects have received minimal attention from scholars, researchers and preservationists. Some, such as the Enrique Aguilar House, have been demolished, and there is scant information about the Robles Castillo homes. At some point, the houses were eventually converted into restaurants; one of the more recent tenants of the space, the recently closed La Barragana, provided a somewhat commercial means of protecting the architect's name, while leaving much of the interior intact.