Filed Under





Julie Muniz

Luis Barragán

Modern Master of Color and Light

Filed Under



Julie Muniz


San Cristóbal stables in Mexico City designed by Luis Barragán, from the 1960s. image courtesy of René Burri via Magnum Photos

Modernism. Planes of color. Minimalism... And many more reasons that architect Luis Barragán is one of the icons of FORME.

With a distinct architectural style, Barragán drew influence from diverse sources — from modernist Le Corbusier to the writings of artist and garden designer Ferdinand Bac. He loved color, often pulling inspiration from the regional traditions and landscapes of Mexico. Since so much of FORME was inspired by Barragán, we thought we’d take a look into his life and what makes his work endure to this day. 


Luis Barragan's Casa-Estudio Mexico City, 1948 — Images courtesy of Kevin Francis Design and Openhouse

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A modernist in the making

Born in Guadalajara in 1902, Barragán trained as an engineer at the city’s Escuela Libre de Ingenieros. Upon graduation, he traveled extensively across Europe, developing a love for mediterranean architecture and the writings of Ferdinand Bac. He remained in Europe to attend the 1925 exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris where he heard lectures by Bac and Le Corbusier.

Upon his return to Mexico, Barragán began working for several building contractors before setting up an architectural practice in his hometown of Guadalajara. Here he led the Escuela Tapatía de Arquitectura, a movement that took much of its inspiration from his European visit, particularly Bac’s writings: “the soul of gardens shelters the greatest sum of serenity at man’s disposal.”

Though Barragán infused his work with European touches, his structures of this period largely retained elements of the city’s vernacular traditions (Tapatía translates to “from Guadalajara”), including tiled roofs, adobe walls, and rounded arches. In 1931, Barragán traveled to New York and Paris where he briefly met Le Corbusier, as well as functional modernist Frederick Kiesler and Mexican muralist José Clement Orozco. This time he returned to Guadalajara and began blending elements of each master into his work.

In 1935, Barragán moved to Mexico City where his style matured. He continued to live and work there until his death in 1988. ▪

Sublime style

While Le Corbusier’s modernist rules had some influence on Barragán’s designs, the young architect did not believe in their strict adherence and ultimately rejected the idea that buildings should be “a machine for living.” Rather, he strove for emotion and serenity over formalism and functionalism, claiming “any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake.” Indeed, the Pritzker architecture prize jurists described Barragán’s work as “a sublime act of poetic imagination” because of his ability to create work with “haunting beauty.”

Barragán achieved this by successfully blending the minimalist geometry of Le Corbusier with the emotive elements of Bac and the expansive color of Orozco. He juxtaposed raw materials and natural elements against clean lines and bold geometric shapes, punctuating each with the vibrant colors of his native country. His work made dramatic use of light, color, texture, and form to evoke a sense of tranquility and spirituality. ▪


Casa Estudio José Clemente Orozcoimage courtesy of Casa Orozco and Lorena Darquea


Casa Gilardi — image courtesy of sight unseen


Gasa Gilardi — image courtesy of sight unseen

Let there be light

While Barragán used color in his early work in Guadalajara, he mainly limited it to minor elements. It was his meeting with Orozco that inspired him to begin using color on a large, dynamic scale. By the 1940s, Barragán incorporated the strategic placement of color to create visual depth. To Barragán, color elevated the way people experienced his architecture by lending a sense of mystery and surprise. He understood its power and was strategic in how he used it. Upon his acceptance of the prizker architecture prize in 1980, Barragán remarked, “throughout my work, I have always strived to achieve serenity, but one must be on guard not to destroy it by the use of an indiscriminate palette.”

Much is often written about the architect’s use of vibrant color, but Barragán also understood that light played an equally important role on emotion, mood, and perception. He often combined color and texture with dramatic lighting (both natural and artificial) to create shadows, direct attention, and alleviate tension.

Because Mexico’s harsh sun could become overpowering, he sought ways to soften it. Water elements were used to create calming reflections; tinted windows were employed to not only block light but also produce an interior glow of color; shade and shadows allowed for relief from the heat, and also altered a wall’s color as the sun moved. This can be seen in his own home built in 1948 in Mexico City’s Tacubaya neighborhood, where he created a sequence of complementary colors which welcomed visitors as they entered: a corridor of ochre yellow that yields to the pink walls of the vestibule and their reflected shadows on white volcanic stone. 

In the Mexico City townhouse designed for advertising executive Francisco Gilardi in 1975, Barragán used light and color to evoke awe in the entrance to the swimming pool and dining area, using narrow rectangular windows to create an illuminating glow that frames the vibrant blue and pink walls seen at the hall’s end. ▪

He strove for emotion and serenity over formalism and functionalism: “any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake."


Luis Barragan's Casa-Estudio Mexico City, 1948. View from the terrace — images courtesy of Armando Salas via arch daily

In partnership with nature

They reminded him of his visit to the Alhambra where, after walking through a dark, narrow passage, he was suddenly greeted with the serene expanse of the court of the myrtles. “Somehow I had the feeling that it enclosed what a perfect garden, no matter its size, should enclose: nothing less than the entire universe.”

This experience remained with him throughout his career. Whether composed internally or externally, Barragán’s designs showcased a reverence for the natural world. Out of respect to a site’s existing landscape, Barragán designed winding walls that followed the natural terrain. He often incorporated water elements and other biophilic materials including rock and natural timber.

In his gardens, he created multi-level terraces and hidden pathways, as well an abundance of native flora. His designs always worked in harmony with nature, never against it.

But Barragán was not strictly a builder of interior spaces. Heavily influenced by Bac, he considered himself a landscape architect and included garden design in many of his works. His earliest landscape designs were at El Pedregal, a vast arid area of volcanic rock south of Mexico City. Within the lava crevices, Barragán discovered hidden green valleys that local shepherds called “jewels.”

Barragán’s architectural legacy continues to inspire designers around the world. Regarded by many as the founder of modern Mexican architecture, his influence is felt in the work of many of Mexico’s contemporary designers including Ricardo Legorreta and Javier Muñoz. Even modernist Louis Kahn consulted with Barragán for his design for the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Like the path of the sun shifting color and texture on a stucco wall, there’s always a new depth or element to discover in the work of Barragán. ▪

Dolce Vita Terrazzo | Torrone I | Large Field Tile | Rosso | Honed


Cement, Terrazzo

Dolce Vita Terrazzo: Torrone I

16" x 16" x 0.625" | Large Field Tile | Honed


Origami | Coves | Slipper | Matte



Origami: Coves

8" x 8" x 0.88" | Coves | Matte


Colore Frattura | Petite | Celestia | Matte



Colore Frattura

4" x 4" x 0.625" | Petite | Matte