Luis Barragán’s Universal Garden

The charms of a tall slightly crooked jacaranda pulled the great Mexican architect, Luis Barragán, out from semi-retirement. It was the mid 1970s in Mexico City and Francisco Gilardi – ad man, art collector and bachelor – telephoned his family friend Barragán, asking if he’d consider taking on the brief for a house on a modestly sized block in San Miguel Chapultepec. The architect visited the site but seemed unsure. He hadn’t accepted work for nearly ten years, and had recently suffered an illness. What changed his mind was a single tree.

Barragán decided he would build a house for Gilardi, on the condition that the lone jacaranda located in the middle of the block stayed. Gilardi agreed and what resulted was one of Barragán’s most brightly conceived houses – Casa Gilardi – built around the jacaranda as centerpiece.

But we’re not here just to talk about a tree.

“The perfect garden no matter its size should enclose nothing less than the entire Universe,” declared Barragán, when awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1980. I like to think that his steady, singular philosophy for garden design came into being only after a long time spent in the garden, or staring out into it with a cup of tea. Barragán was a tall, sharply suited man – a crisp handkerchief routinely folded in his top pocket, an ascetic black tie – with thick reading glasses and the full elegance of a bald head. While it’s hard to imagine him spade in hand, labouring in a garden, his precise vision of nature resulted in remarkable landscapes of all sizes and shapes that do convey a feeling of universality. His own garden is one of those places.

Casa Barragán is only 10-minutes’ walk from the infamous jacaranda tree, which still presides over Casa Gilardi. Barragán’s house, built in 1948, is nothing to look at from the outside – a front boundary wall falls flush with the street; there’s a plain door; a grilled window; a buzzer – but visit and you’ll find something entirely profound. “Most architects regard building design as their primary responsibility, and they approach garden design like an after thought,” Chakceel Rahen – Barragán scholar, artist and engineer – tells me. “Barragán up-ended that way of working and did both at the same time. He considered the house and garden as equals, two elements that should be complementary. He said that a garden should contain the whole universe – and by that I think that he meant it should be capable of making people dream and experience beauty.”

I’ve visited Barragán’s house a handful of times, on days full of rain and sun, and at times when the city seems impenetrably frantic. On these visits I’ve been surprised by the privacy and silence of the house behind the door of General Francisco Ramirez 12, in San Miguel Chapultepec. Barragan’s architecture slows you down, gives you pause, and radiates new colours and light at all intervals of the day.

Walking through the house, you begin to notice the garden as a persistent influence in every room. It’s the Barragán touch, an architecture that dismantles fixed boundaries between the inside and out.

“Barragán wanted the garden to be an extension of each room,” Chakceel tells me. “He wanted you to experience the garden even when you came indoors.” He pauses. “One of the consequences of this is that we have to keep the windows meticulously clean – as if there were no glass at all.”


Barragán scholar Chakceel Rahen

Casa Barragán is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its upkeep is constant and inspiring work. “About five years ago our gardener was unwell, so I took over from him for a brief stint,” Chakceel says. “Standing in the middle of the garden, I started to feel an absolute peace. The noises around me disappeared, and the garden seemed like an oasis. I mentioned it to some co-workers and the following day one of them took over from me, then another. We started to fight about who’d take care of the garden, even arriving at work early to claim gardening duties before anyone else. Amazing, isn’t it?” Chakceel laughs. “Each of us wanted to experience the solitude and peace in Barragán’s garden.”

That peaceful feeling is nature talking, according to Barragán, who described its transformation into a garden as “the most efficient haven against the aggressiveness of contemporary life.”

The main garden at Casa Barragán encloses the rear of the house and looks informal, despite being the result of careful design. Age-old peppercorns and a coral tree convey height and privacy, all weighed down with ivy. Clivias form a knee-height under-storey and jasmine winds its way through the whole setting, chasing light. “The garden is so warm,” says Chakceel. “When the light comes through from the garden in the afternoon it fills the living room. Barragán achieved this by building up layers of colour in the garden: you have the orange of the clivias; the light yellow of the jasmine; and the red of the coral tree.” Even an open space hidden behind the trees creates warmth by delivering intense light, broken here and there by dense greenery.

There is mystery to Barragán’s garden. His modern, minimalist house is contrasted by maximalist colour and landscapes that seem to grow exclusively under the influence of nature; but to say this is telling only half of the story. “One of my favourite parts of the garden is the deformed peppercorn tree,” Chakceel says. The tree sits in front of the largest window in the house, an invisible wall of sorts between the main garden and living room. “Barragan planted the peppercorn in this spot when it was young. His plan was to deform it into a whimsical sculpture, which he did by tying weights to the branches as they grew.” Today the branches create a curtain across the view from the living room, helped by elderly waterfalls of ivy.

Push aside the ivy and you enter into an open space, mirroring – physically – the steps in a thought-process. There are places for solitude: an enclosed courtyard with a reflecting pool and sculpted vases; and upstairs an open patio where the walls are painted pink, white and orange and a golden trumpet vine bursts in, the sole botanical presence.

“There are many levels in the garden and they create a real sense of discovery,” says Chakceel. You have to step down into the courtyard, and up into the main garden. Paths of volcanic rock trail off into deep green abstraction, and an indoor stairway leads to the outdoors patio, where the whole universe awaits.

“I would like to describe the spiritual and physical repose one can enjoy from the habit of spending a few moments of every day in a garden,” said Barragán. Use beauty as your daily bread, he went on to say, and let nature in while you abandon yourself to spontaneous meditation. I’ve walked up to the jacaranda at Casa Gilardi and watched it cast shadows across the pink and blue walls that Barragán built. I’ve stood in the rain in Barragán’s own courtyard and watched droplets hit and dissolve into the reflecting pool. Mornings spent in these spaces are easy reminders of beauty, silence, joy – all things that get beaten down in a fast world. I don’t have a huge garden myself, or an extravagant one, but neither of these things is essential for building a Barragán-like world. Make a garden and spend time in it, he’s saying, and let the peacefulness of the garden be your permanent companion.