Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The Mexican standout
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
Architect Ricardo Legorreta has eye-popping ideas when it comes to using colour, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
Ricardo Legorreta is a Mexican architect. Symbolically, in fact, and in the world’s eyes, he is the Mexican architect, much as Glenn Murcutt is the Australian architect. Unlike Murcutt, who introduced Legorreta at his Sydney lecture last month, Legorreta hasn’t yet won the Pritzker (architecture’s top prize). But he was on its jury for 10 years and has won pretty much everything else – including the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal – so the Pritzker can’t be far off.
Like Murcutt, Legorreta has made a life’s work of mining and refining the regional vernacular. And, partly in consequence, his architecture, like Murcutt’s, is supremely photogenic. Legorreta sees the danger here, quoting his father’s warning: “Be careful, Ricardo, being published is worse than drugs.” Yet Legorreta remains one of the most widely published architects on the planet. Being published isn’t the point, of course not, but it helps.
What is the point of architecture? According to Legorreta, architecture is social service. “We architects have not yet understood that being part of society, providing a service for society, is the purpose of architecture,” he says. Easy to say, and I’ve no call to question Legorreta’s sincerity. But – and here’s the key – most social services don’t come in an eye-popping range of ochres and indigos, terracottas and lavenders, hot cadmium yellows and stinging cyclamen pinks.
This is the real take-home message. Use more colour. Colour is to architecture as flavour is to food. We know it, at some visceral level, and yet in Sydney, smart still means colour-free. So it was interesting indeed for Legorreta to drop the colour idea into Sydney’s architecture profession, where black is (still) the new black and few dare a broader palette than you find in a zebra crossing. Watch for ripples.
Of course, yes, it’s easy for him. He’s Mexican. As Britain’s Lord Richard Rogers says, with just a tinge of envy: “I particularly love Legorreta’s use of vivid pink, set off by sun and the tough, tropical nature of Mexico.”
Legorreta agrees, declaring with some passion, “I’m in love with my country,” before embarking on an acute exegesis of his very rich, very Mexican sources: pre-Colombian, Moorish, Spanish colonial. “We all copy,” he says. “Anyone who tells you they don’t is a liar. The only obligation is to do it a little better than the original.”
And so, arguably, he does, demonstrating his provenance for his Sydney audience in a practised procession of paired images. From pre-Colombian Mayan architecture, for instance, Legorreta has inherited a profound confidence in dealing with mass and scale. No prissing about here with bits of timber and brick. Inspired by the same vast platforms and colonnades that gave us the base of Utzon’s Opera House (but conscious that, like Greek classicism, the Mayan works were in fact plastered and brightly painted), Legorreta produced the vast spaces and columns of his Hotel Camino Real in Mexico City (1968), the great drum and ramp of the Monterrey Central Library (1994) and the big red San Antonio Central Library, Texas (1995). The massive walls with small openings appear in the Renault factory in the desert at Durango, Mexico (1985).
“I ask myself,” Legorreta muses, “Ricardo, how come you can be so savage?” It’s a question he leaves unanswered, except to show how, within this ruthless formalism, sit the softening influences of Spanish colonial architecture and, via the Spanish, the Moorish.
From Spanish colonial came Legorreta’s luscious, arcaded courtyards – “uniform but not uniform” as in the Televisa headquarters building at Santa Fe, where Legorreta plays “the fascinating game of sun, shadow and colour” – and from the Moorish, the use of water to bring a sensual serenity to the walled garden court.
Legorreta talks also of the formative influence of his early employer, Jose Villagran, leader of Mexico’s modernist movement; of the semi-mystical Philadelphia architect Louis “silence and light” Kahn; of painters such as Giorgio de Chirico and of colour-obsessed Mexican muralists such as Pedro Coronel, Jesus Reyes and Jose Clemente Orozco.
But the most obvious source and reference point for Legorreta’s work – the filter, if you like, through which this rich mix of Mexican art and culture has been so elegantly strained – is the only other world-name arquitecto Mexicano, the late maestro Luis Barragan (1902-1988). Barragan, whom Legorreta left unmentioned in the lecture but does acknowledge in interview (and who, as it happens, received the second-ever Pritzker in 1980) was making wild Mexican statements with purples, pinks and ochres well before postmodernism pushed both colour and regionalism high up the cool list.
Barragan burst into global consciousness aged 72, with a 1974 solo exhibition organised by Legorreta at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the subsequent monograph by New York-based Argentine architect-writer Emilio Ambasz. Barragan himself was a kind of poet, who only ever worked for himself or for clients who gave him absolutely free reign. His output was small, therefore, but breathtakingly handsome, with its simple use of water, colour and texture, its intense romanticism and its single-minded pursuit of spatial serenity. Luis Barragan was the Pablo Neruda of architecture.
For Legorreta, now 74 himself, Barragan was never a tutor or a boss, but a friend and mentor – “a philosopher, a bon vivant, a man of incredible taste”; a man who never married for fear of compromising his freedom, a surrealist who believed that “art is made by the alone, for the alone”. In Mexico, Ambasz says, where death is the central and ever-present tragedy, “the garden is the myth of the beginning and the chapel that of the end. For Barragan, House is the form man gives to his life between both extremes.” Barragan’s work is what Ambasz calls “stage architecture” – monumental, illusional and deliberately static.
And it is this theatrical approach, perhaps, that is Barragan’s primary legacy to Legorreta. Nowhere is it more obvious – or more appropriate – than in his 1993 Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua, its 63 earthquake-resistant domes rising out of the jungle like some crowd of exuberant angels. The owner of Domino’s Pizzas, so the story goes, offered to help the church and the Pope sent him to Managua, where the people were starving. Domino’s offered to match the starving Managuan faithful 10:1. The people raised $300,000 by selling their earrings and watches in Houston; Domino’s gave $3 million. Now, although they are still starving, the people have somewhere to worship.
Endearingly, Legorreta, craggy faced and aristocratically built, has the unpolished quality of an ageing John Wayne. And of all the works – grand houses in Tokyo, Israel and Hawaii, hotels in California and Spain, universities in Chicago and Qatar – it’s his own house, with its mess of books and pictures and its sense of a life lived for more than just show, that I find most appealing.
“We architects shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously,” he says. “We have to attempt great things, and still be able to laugh at ourselves. To the extent we do that … we are creating an architecture that is more human and free.”
TWO PHOTOS: Savage beauty … the swimming pool of a house in Sante Fe Valley, California, designed by Ricardo Legorreta (above). PHOTOS: GRACIELA ITURBIDE, LOURDES LEGORRETA