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Luis Barragán’s Forgotten Works, Revisited

The property manager says that from time to time a guest rents an apartment in the building specifically for its architectural pedigree, but more frequently, people — young professionals, often foreign — are simply drawn to Melchor Ocampo’s prime location and its airy, light-filled interior, whose design remains conspicuously modern, especially considering the building’s age.

Seen from any angle, Melchor Ocampo 38 is revelatory. It proves that even at his most commercial, Barragán was trying out essential hallmarks of what would become his signature vocabulary: scenic framing, dramatic changes in scale and other minimal gestures with maximum impact, all while displaying unusual brilliance in handling space, light and volume with a poet’s precision and, perhaps above all, towering ambition.

So why has his early Mexico City work effectively been denied, and why does most of it remain stuck in neglected anonymity? It’s easy to assume Barragán, who would edit his Wikipedia entry from his grave if he could, wanted it this way. It may be more that we have wanted it this way.

One reason, perhaps, is that to talk about this phase of Barragán, or really to talk honestly about any phase of Barragán’s productivity, means to acknowledge him as a visionary salesman as well as a prodigiously gifted architect. The myth of Barragán often tends to leave out his sharp entrepreneurial instincts. In truth, the monk-like aesthete was also an avid businessman who engaged in speculative real-estate development for most of his career and made no secret of it. Even his greatest creative and aesthetic success, the exclusive residential subdivision known as Jardines del Pedregal de San Ángel — envisioned in 1945 as a collection of Modernist homes designed to both complement and contrast with the native vegetation and rock formations of a millenary lava field — was conceived of by Barragán as a business opportunity.

Barragán didn’t discover El Pedregal, which had enchanted travelers and artists before him for its dramatic, purplish-black wilderness, but he was the first to realize its commercial potential through a highly refined Gesamtplan, which encompassed selling it to the right people before it even existed. Barragán cocreated (with Cetto) the initial template for an innovative type of residence that integrated signifiers of modern affluence and high-end architecture with an unusual respect for the existing landscape, and oversaw the development’s defining design details — high walls, winding roads that followed the natural terrain, de Chirico-like plazas — which together converted the inhospitable terrain into one of the world’s most spectacular residential enclaves. But his achievement consisted just as much in finding the right business partners to execute his brilliant bigger-picture vision: To purchase inexpensive land with the intention of selling it for a profit after dividing it into large parcels and maximizing their perceived value through an elaborate promotional campaign — masterminded by Barragán himself — that emphasized an aura of exclusivity and otherworldly beauty. As Keith Eggener, a renowned scholar who has written extensively on the subject, told me, “I don’t see anything preventing one from being a soulful, sophisticated artist and savvy businessman. The peculiar way in which Barragán combined these is at the heart of what I’ve long found so fascinating about him.”

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