My house is my refuge,” wrote Luis Barragán; “an emotional piece of architecture, not a cold piece of convenience.”
A direct challenge to Le Corbusier’s contention that “a house is a machine for living in”, Barragán (1902-88) offered a poetic view of the home as a retreat. His highly individual house in Mexico City, built in 1948, is a minimal masterpiece and curiously monastic. He was intensely religious and an obsessive reader of theological and philosophical texts, and his house embraced layers of public-ness. Some rooms are expansive and generous; the most private ones small and spartan.
Inspired by north African houses, Barragán’s house presents a blank face to the street: just a solid white wall and a small door with a sliding panel – the kind of feature you might find at the entrance to a nunnery. Its entrance hall is modest but its combination of geometric simplicity, flush surfaces, rough plaster and a floor of dark volcanic stone offer an idea of a house luxurious in its attention to detail yet ascetic in its architecture.
There is, however, a flash of colour that draws the visitor in: a canary-yellow door leading to a bright pink room. Where Le Corbusier and his modernist contemporaries might have used the odd colour highlight – typically red, yellow or blue – Barragán was renowned for soaking his houses in bold, unforgettable colour.
Take his most photographed work, the San Cristóbal stables outside Mexico City. For its vivid blast of pinks and fuchsias set against the bright blue Mexican sky (and its reflection in the pool), the stables are a powerful Latin American riposte to the notion that modernism had to be anaemically white and allergic to colour.
A tour through Barragán’s house reveals layers in which the more public parts of the house are gradually stripped away to reveal the sparse rooms inhabited by the architect himself, and intended only for him. Each room features some nod to Christian art, ritual or iconography.
In the guest bedroom, a Madonna is placed not directly above the bed (Barragán was sensitive to those who might not share his beliefs) but to one side, her eyes turned towards her infant son – a Madonna not dominant yet still keeping an eye on the spiritual wellbeing of the guest.
The small, unassuming dining room reserved for Barragán alone (as opposed to the more public dining space) is among the most intense. A simple relief crucifix sits oddly to one side of the door frame. A low serving table is placed before it so that when the tray is picked up from it, the server automatically bows before the cross and then, in going through the door, passes beneath it so that the food is symbolically blessed.
Elsewhere, a gilded angel is illuminated from above; and, in one of the house’s most striking images, a window shutter is divided into quarters so that when its sections are left slightly open, the powerful Mexican sun penetrates the interior in the shape of a cross. Japanese architect Tadao Ando was apparently inspired by this image to create his Church of the Light (Ibaraki, Japan, 1989) in which the end wall is quartered to create a cross of light.
The most beautiful room in Barragán’s house is the high-ceilinged living room, in which the architect has carved out separate areas to create both public and more intimate private sections. Part of the wall here is composed entirely of glass and gives a wide-angle view of the gorgeous green garden so that the trees appear to be almost growing into the room and the boundary between interior and exterior seems to dissolve.
If this is the most beautiful space, the most surprising is on the roof: a terrace awash with Bárragan’s characteristic palette of colours, an abstract landscape of planes and sculptural volume but devoid of any signs of comfort. There are no plants, furniture or places to sit. There is something strange about this house: a sense of religion, asceticism – and perhaps of obsession that is at once moving and unsettling. It is a place to inspire but not necessarily a place anyone else might want to live.
The Casa de Vidro (Glass House) in São Paulo was built three years after Bárragan’s masterpiece. It too rebels against Le Corbusier’s concept of the house as a machine or as abstract sculpture – even if it is at least in part inspired by his use of concrete. But unlike Barragán’s insular, contemplative house, this is a dwelling that opens up to the landscape, that scoops up the surrounding rainforest and sucks it in. The Casa de Vidro was designed by Lina Bo Bardi (1914-92) for herself and her husband Pietro Maria Bardi, director of the São Paulo Museum of Art, not long after arriving in Brazil from their native Italy.
The site, which has now developed into the upmarket suburb of Morumbi, was in the middle of the rainforest. Even now, enough jungle remains on the hillside to remind people of the original wilderness.
Where Barragán’s house resolutely looks inwards, Bo Bardi’s looks out. Its living space is purely public, glazed all round, and the dining and living areas flow into each other. Like Barragán, Bo Bardi and her husband collected artworks – many of them profoundly Catholic images. Both architects consciously play with the juxtaposition of the emotional intensity of religious imagery and the asceticism of modernist architecture.
Bo Bardi thought Brazilian architecture should look to its indigenous past as well as to modernism. “Its source”, she wrote in a 1951 essay, “is not the architecture of the Jesuits: it comes from the wattle-and-daub shelter of the solitary man, laboriously constructed out of the materials of the forest; it comes from the house of the rubber-tapper, with its wooden floor and thatch roof.” Her house exhibits some of those fetishes and crafted objects that express that urge to make, alongside Catholic artefacts.
The houses also share a playful attitude to stairs. Barragán makes an exquisitely sculptural timber staircase that cantilevers from the wall and appears completely unsupported from beneath – which would be structurally impossible, given the thinness of the timber (it is in fact supported on a steel armature concealed inside the wood). Bo Bardi uses a seductively slender staircase to take visitors up from the winding forest path to the house. Its treads move and vibrate, putting a literal spring in your step.
The house is supported on piloti, the slim cylindrical columns that Le Corbusier made into a modernist trope – but where he seems to use them as pedestals on which to lift a sculptural structure, Bo Bardi’s are almost a counterpart to the tree trunks around the house, lifting it into the canopy of the Mata Atlântica forest.
In the courtyard a huge tree grows through the heart of the structure so that the house appears not to be imposing itself on the forest, but rather accommodating it and existing within it. Windows slide open so that the living space becomes as much like a terrace as a room. Works of renaissance and gothic art sit against the crisp modernist setting alongside striking native Brazilian pieces.
Yet her house never feels like an exhibition space; instead these pieces form a landscape of memory that stretches from Italy to Brazil. If there is a difference (beyond the obvious openness of the façades), it is in the sense of hierarchy between the private and the social, which is much less pronounced in Bo Bardi’s house. This feels like a house for company rather than contemplation.
There is an interesting parallel with Barragán’s religious dining room: where he used the threshold between kitchen and dining areas to “bless” the food, Bo Bardi sought to express her egalitarian political beliefs. A life-long communist, Bo Bardi was anxious that the staff should not be relegated to the back of house and that the boundaries should be more fluid, making the kitchen an in-between space at the heart of the house where the paths of employers and employees cross (she was not, of course, so much of a communist that she dispensed with staff altogether).
More obviously, the dining rooms’ floor-to-ceiling glass, each looking over lush greenery and bringing the landscape in, is the most apparent coincidence between the houses. Despite their differing approaches, these two architects worked at the same time and in the terms of the same modernist discourse.
Both houses, in their preoccupations with the delineations of public and private space, their concerns for transparency or opacity and their treatment of landscape or street, are very Latin American in spirit. Both depart from the more showy aspects of their contemporaries in Europe and North America, where houses were seemingly built as much for public consumption as they were for the client, and with the photographed image in mind. They are also among the most influential houses of the past century, their genius apparent in their constant rediscovery by each successive generation.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic