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Why is the work of Mexico’s most famous architect hidden in Switzerland?

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Since 1994, the archives of Luis Barragán have been locked in a Swiss bunker

Casa Luis Barragán, the architect’s home in Mexico City
Photo by Forgemind ArchiMedia

In this week’s New Yorker there is a bonkers story about a conceptual artist who attempts to gain access to the heavily guarded archives of Mexican architect Luis Barragán. I don’t want to give away the story, which you should read for yourself, but there’s a deeper question embedded in the narrative: Shouldn’t the archives of this incredibly influential architect be available to the public?

Barragán is arguably the most famous Mexican-born architect in history. He won the Pritzker Prize in 1980, an honor that was especially notable because all of his completed works are in Mexico. That’s also the best argument for making the drawings, photos, and publications of his archives public—unless you live in Mexico or are making a well-planned architectural pilgrimage specifically to see his work, it’s logistically difficult to see much of it in person.

The home page for Barragán’s archives. We can’t show you more because all the images are copyrighted.
Barragan Foundation

But since 1994, his archives, which are apparently voluminous—containing not only thousands of drawings and photos, but also architectural models and furniture—have been ensconced in an old fallout shelter beneath Vitra’s headquarters in Switzerland, where hardly anyone has seen them. This is much to the dismay of the Mexican architectural community, who compared Vitra’s acquisition to the conquistadors (ouch!).

Why are Barragán’s archives under lock and key in Switzerland? An Italian architectural historian named Federica Zanco—who is now married to Vitra’s director, Rolf Fehlbaum—appointed herself as caretaker of the archives after Vitra bought them (it was rumored to be an engagement present from Fehlbaum). And for the past 20 years, while Zanco supposedly works on a catalog, an endless parade of architects, scholars, and students have been denied access. Zanco also manages all photographic rights for the archives, which is the source of endless frustration from curators and authors which want to exhibit and publish his work.

The current campaign for Louis Vuitton features Barragán’s Cuadra San Cristóbal ranch.
Patrick Demarchelier/Louis Vuitton

Zanco’s reasoning for denying so many requests to the archives is maddening. From the New Yorker article, it appears Zanco does not like the fact that Barragán’s work has become—gasp!—popular:

Zanco said she was worried that endless reproduction of the same sun-drenched Barragán images had cheapened the architect’s work. "More and more, Barragán is becoming the Frida Kahlo of architecture," she said. "People ask for pictures, and they want them now! You agree, and then you see them in a spread in a fashion magazine for something about how pink is the new color for spring."

It’s true that we have seen Barragán’s work a lot more in recent years. Pastel adobe walls fringed with tropical flora—Barragán’s work could not be more Instagram-ready.

But so what? Is that a bad thing? This idea that the embrace of his buildings by a new generation of design-lovers has somehow "cheapened" Barragán’s work is ridiculously pretentious. Denying access to more of Barragán’s photographs and drawings, especially of the structures which are not open to the public, is denying inevitable inspiration to young architects, including the ones working in his home country.

Luis Barragán sure knew his way around a corner. #casabarragan #curbed

A photo posted by kelseykeith (@kelseykeith) on

At the end of the story, Zanco worries that development in Mexico City will eradicate some of Barragán’s projects. But without the proper historical documentation about those structures made available, how could local developers, city politicians, or the general public be expected to know the value of these buildings and step up to fight their demolition?

In a way, the overprotective treatment of Barragán’s work might actually be responsible for destroying it.

Architecture that comes to life in Game of Thrones