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Barragan in aspic

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Luis Barragan: The Quiet Revolution At the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 until 8 July

There are two sublime moments (both on video) when this exhibition comes alive and captures the essence of Barragan. The first is when the gaucho on the horse comes languorously out of the water and trots slowly along the cloister. In the second, in a dappled light, horses drink from the long basin under the trees and we hear the trickle of water in the quiet heat of the siesta. This meeting of landscape, nature and architecture is what distinguished Barragan's small and seemingly perfect oeuvre.

If only these two moments had been the centrepiece of the whole exhibition, projected on film rather than slightly grainy video.

While Barragan's work is beautifully presented in this touring show from the Vitra Design Museum, it is suspended in aspic, as if prepared for its funerary rites. The exhibition is even laid out like a cemetery. The interactives are like columbaria, the video booths are in black, and there are rows of tables of drawings.

There is nothing that is contemporary, and there are no connections between the different media - each remains separate. A helicopter swirls around the five towers of Ciudad Satelite but not a person is in sight, though we are in a country that teems with people, noises, smells, firecrackers, and mariachi music. A small monitor in among the original drawings and photographs would have been a help, as would simple models rather than the interactives (which only reference the photographs that they are taken from).

The exhibition has been conscientiously curated, but it is neither narrated nor mediated.Visitors have to move from frame to frame or booth to booth, reassembling the exhibit from their own prior knowledge, triggered by familiar images. (For the non-architectural visitor there are obvious problems. ) The voice of Alvaro Siza commenting on one film is almost lost, as is the drama of seeing some of the drawings for the first time.

It is quite apparent in the opening room, with its large blow-up of Barragan's studio, that his whole language really comes from Le Corbusier, gleaned during two formative years in Europe. The window-detailing, the planes in space, that much-reproduced staircase, the slightly surrealist landscape - this is a whole oeuvre based on the roof terraces of the Villa Savoye and the Beistegui apartment. They remained the basis of much of Barragan's work, and a much stronger influence than - in a simplified form - Spanish colonial design.

Two factors led to Barragan's success - Mexican light and a few rolls of HP4 film.

You can't go wrong with those skies and those monochrome walls. But, like Armando Salas Portugal's iconic images, Barragan's whole world is an enormous edit job. Photographs of him and his riding friends at the equestrian village of Los Clubes (which he was the developer of as well as the designer - see picture) all reveal which Mexico was Barragan's.You just know that, off camera, there is always a servant in white gloves.

Architects of the minimalist tendency conveniently ignore the noises-off in Barragan's work, the texture and structures of everyday life that surround it, either when it was made or later when it was used. Nowhere do we see Mexico's rich heritage of Mesoamerican architecture, let alone its people.

Stephen Greenberg is director of Metaphor

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