Lightness of Being — Barragán’s Casa Gilardi

Lightness of Being — Barragán’s Casa Gilardi
Photo
Misha Tahir

Line, color, light. At Luis Barragán’s Casa Gilardi in Mexico City, the complementary combination of three design elements takes visitors to a higher plane. 

Native to south-central South America, the Jacaranda mimosifolia is a sub-tropical tree cultivated in nearly every part of the world where there is no risk of frost. It is renowned for its violet flowers — the commanding color of rough-hewn amethyst. These blooms appear in spring and early summer, lasting for up to two months. 

An exceptional jacaranda tree grows in Mexico City. And while not all jacaranda trees bloom, this one does. It is a secret garden unto itself, contained within a courtyard amidst the many homes of this densely populated area of Mexico’s sprawling capital. The residence, completed in 1977, is the work of architect Luis Barragán. Now open to the public by appointment, it is one of the few Barragán-designed homes that remains in great condition. The other is the architect’s former home and studio, not far from this exceptional jacaranda tree, and the only private residence to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site. But Casa Gilardi is just as special. For one, it is the last project Barragán completed before he died. It also constitutes a stunning combination of natural light, chroma, and sharp angles, all within a relatively compact interior space. An experience worth investigating, Casa Gilardi exists in large part thanks to the existence of this aforementioned jacaranda tree — a plant so impressive that it inspired Barragán to emerge from retirement and spend his afternoons observing how the sun’s rays could interact with the final space he envisioned, how this structure could come to life with a tree at its center. As Mexico City ascends higher and higher in the global art and architecture scene, we’re reminded through structures like this one that the Mexican capital has long been near the forefront of these creative fields, offering depth, nuance, and distinctiveness.

Today, Casa Gilardi remains faithful to Barragán’s intention and final touch — a hidden gem to be enjoyed for generations to come. 

A native of Guadalajara, Luis Barragán (1902–1988) came to personify the Escuela Tapatía de Arquitectura (“tapatía” meaning “hailing from Guadalajara”) in the Mexican architectural tradition. Inspired by the work of French architect Ferdinand Bac upon visiting Paris in 1925, Barragán — along with other architects from the region — sought to establish a school of architecture rooted in Bac’s teachings and Guadalajara’s local vernacular. The resulting movement came to be associated with stark geometries, indoor-outdoor spaces, large hallways, and locally sourced materials. Although the very last design of Barragán’s career, Casa Gilardi takes strong cues from the first half of the architect’s œuvre, the hallmarks of the Escuela Tapatía de Arquitectura tradition, and Barragán’s distinct Guadalajaran roots. In its totality, the residence feels mathematical — the sum of three categorizable elements that combine to create something aesthetically epiphanic: the neurological reaction to color, light, and line as one. 

Speak to someone who has visited Casa Gilardi and they’ll likely recall its jacaranda tree, as well as a bright yellow hallway with vertical apertures for the calculated admittance of natural sunlight.

Then there’s the brilliant blue room with a turquoise indoor pool. Color is not decorative here: it is integral to the house’s spatial complexity, and Barragán devoted meticulous attention to the creation of a harmonious color confectionery based on the intersection of bright, monochrome walls. Some of the home’s color palette was inspired by the work of Mexican painter Chucho Reyes, another Guadalajara native and Mexico City transplant. Reyes’ signature roosters gave rise to Casa Gilardi’s magenta and electric blue in the pool room — also a nod to the colors of Mexican markets and shades of Mexican candy. The magenta pillar in the pool room — ascending straight from the water — is a pillar for pleasure, only. There is something inherently pleasurable about swimming around a pink pillar; at least this is easy to imagine, and these outstanding moments of pleasure via color are purposefully sprinkled throughout the structure. That said, the home’s interior is more rational in comparison to its exterior, which features bright pink for the front and rear, jacaranda purple for the eastern wall, and white for everything else. This stands in contrast to surrounding structures — the shades a result of Barragán’s careful deliberation. In fact, the architect’s color selections were adjusted throughout the building process to account for the effects of natural light on the texture and size of the walls. Nothing is by accident. 

Indeed, Casa Gilardi’s colors wouldn’t pack as big of a punch if it weren’t for light — and specifically, if it weren’t for the light this particular home receives in its particular location.

At Casa Gilardi, light and color feature symbiotically — the effect of one cannot exist without the effect of the other. Barragán noted that both light and color were basic elements in creating an architectural space because they affected conceptions of that space to a high degree, and in Barragán’s work, this precise interplay between light and color is rendered especially dynamic through the careful structuring of quadrilaterals. Barragán’s sketches of the pool room testify to his assiduity in creating a harmonious relationship between the paved portion of the floor, the position of a vertical wall element, the horizontal surface of the water, and the size and position of a skylight. Artist James Turrell even spent a month living in this house, taking photos — all black and white — to study Barragán’s use of light as it interacted with line, shape, and color, all the way from sunrise to sunset, and perhaps even beyond.

Because sometimes we forget that there is also the moon and the stars: the lights of our sleeping hours. Through Casa Gilardi’s skylight, these also reflect onto the walls and glide according to the movement of water. 

To spend a month inside Casa Gilardi would be a privilege, and surely even Turrell — international master of neon lighting — was aware of this. But if you could stay a year and document the shifting environment according to the position of the earth over the span of 365 days, you’d discover even more. And this shifting experience wouldn’t need to center on light. It could be about temperature and humidity, or it could center on how a composite range of factors — including light, temperature, weather, and air — interact with structural elements, water, and color, offering visitors and residents the rare experience of a full physical immersion that varies according to the position of the sun. All of these interacting facets to the Casa Gilardi experience become even more significant when you realize this isn’t a museum or sculpture garden but an actual home. Of course, it’s unlike the majority of homes, and that’s why we’re writing about it here, but its attention to detail and emphasis on the shifting nature of natural light and color, specifically, are invitations for spatial mindfulness — invitations that we can apply to our own spaces and experiences, and especially to the spaces we regularly inhabit. In this sense Barragán’s work takes the outward inward, creating experiential stimuli for the sake of engaging — even imperceptibly — the human mind and heart. 

Casa Gilardi’s current owner says that if he were reincarnated, his reincarnated being would still be at Casa Gilardi, suggesting he believes it to be the structural reflection of his elevated self. He speaks of adapting his lifestyle to the architecture of this home, of adapting himself to its features. At the dawn of a fresh year these comments feel especially pertinent. What would our ideal spaces look like for our higher selves? What do our current spaces say about where we are now? What can we learn from them? A question many of us probably haven’t posed is: How do our spaces get us closer to where we want to be? 

Fresh space, fresh outlook. Casa Gilardi inspires an unconventional take on aspiration. 

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