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Nostalgic images


Luis Barragan's Gardens of El Pedregal By Keith L Eggener. Princeton Architectural Press, 2001. 162pp. £28

The story of El Pedregal - literally 'the stony place' - is familiar. Moved by the beauty of an otherwise unpromising site on the edge of Mexico City, Luis Barragan returned from semi-retirement to design, to quote from the introduction by Marc Treib, 'the first truly non-romantic yet native building(s) distilled from international Modernist sources'. With his own house, designed around the same time, and this large-scale housing project, Barragan laid the foundations for his mature style. Worldwide fame soon followed, eventually consolidated by the 1980 Pritzker Prize and acclaim as a pioneer 'critical regionalist'.

Soon after development was seriously under way on his stony ground, Barragan withdrew, disillusioned that his model houses and demonstration gardens were not being emulated. The vast site was destined to be massively over-developed and yet, besieged by streets choked with traffic and polluted air, it is still considered a highly desirable place to live.

The familiar story, as so often, turns out to be as much myth as history. Eggener's excellent book, based on meticulous archival work on documents which have only recently become available, paints a much more complex picture.

The reclusive, contemplative genius celebrated by Emilio Ambasz in his famous 1976 MoMA retrospective turns out to have had quite a shrewd eye for business. He was still actively involved financially three or four years after he claimed to have walked away from the project, and the celebrated aesthetic qualities were astutely matched to commercial values.

El Pedregal's acclaimed Mexican quality stands up well to detailed scrutiny, although intriguingly it is found to owe much to Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work (in particular Fallingwater) the painter Diego Rivera commended to Barragan's attention. The layout may also be indebted to American suburbs, notably Olmsted and Vaux's Riverside near Chicago, but in place of openness are high walls. Barragan described these as 'vertical gardens', designed to secure privacy and serenity amid the clamour of modern life, but they were also marketed as security features appropriate to a country where memories of the land seizures and violence of the Revolution were still vivid.

The serenity of the gardens and other public spaces - most famously the entrance Plaza of the Fountains - were superbly captured by Barragan's photographer, Armando Salas Portugal, and proved all but irreconcilable with speculative development. Eggener makes a good case that from the outset Barragan saw the photographs as celebrations of a nostalgic reverie which could not survive in the 'real world', and provocatively suggests that the celebrated stillness of the mature work resides as much in the images as in the places.

The photographs were used both to market the development and to promote Barragan internationally. Like US advertising of a decade earlier, they drew heavily on Surrealist imagery.

On first encountering a De Chirico painting, Barragan declared: 'This is what I can do with landscape architecture.'

The public spaces have long since been overwhelmed but they live on in these perfectly judged images as landscapes of memory - much, it seems, as Barragan always envisaged.

Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University

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