designboom visits cuadra san cristóbal by luis barragán in atizapán de zaragoza, northwest of mexico city.
the project that luis barragán, in collaboration with andrés casillas, designed in 1966 and built between 1967 and 1968 for swedish-born folke s. egerström (1921-2002) and his family, consists of a house and a complex of stables, barns and grounds for the breeding and training of thoroughbreds. egerström and barragán had met while riding at the nearby club hípico francés, both shared a passion for the equestrian life.
walls separate cuadra san cristóbal from the street, entrance patio (outside)
all images © designboom
passing the ‘fuente de los amantes’, approaching via calle manantial oriente and seeing the low windowless white street façade, one would not suspect what lay behind. the long white façade gradually recedes from the street towards a portico with a large wooden gate, before a perpendicular wall with metal letters saying ‘cuadra san cristóbal’.
entrance patio (inside)
one would enter the house (which is not open to public) via a flight of three steps towards a platform that, guided to the right by the back wall of the entrance patio, and would lead into a portico cut into the white volume of the house. passing through the front door one would enter a large hall, which to the left gives access to the children’s wing and the more private spaces overlooking the enclosed garden and fountain.
(we did not see this) from the entrance hall to the right, there are the kitchen and the service quarters, accessible through the servant’s quarters above via a separate staircase. the grand staircase, visible in the hall, leads to a guest room and the library, all situated over the living areas below. a corridor, to reach these living areas from the hall, opens to the left revealing, through a huge window, a magnificent view of the purple gate situated in the far distance between the two perpendicular pink walls that define the northwestern corner of the plaza for the horses. going further into the living area there is an entry to the dinning room to the right and a little further also the entrance to a studio. this studio can also be reached from outside via a flight of three steps visible already from the entrance patio the moment one had entered the complex.
after entering the complex, into the patio paved with square tiles of brownish basalt lava, we were drawn towards the surface of water, the group of trees and the pink wall, all visible in the distance between the opening left free by the white wall of the house and the red wall of the stables.
ornamentation is scarce, the grand stage for promenading horses, with a corresponding scale in terms of architecture, is a mix of vernacular tradition and modern experimentation. barragán worked within the constraints of a frugal formal vocabulary, with very few architectural elements.
one of the most striking features of cuadra san cristóbal is the presence of water
barragán saw his country in desperate search of an architectural identity, looking backwards to the tradition of mexico’s secular society, the spanish colonial style or fully embracing european modernism. the complex cuadra san cristóbal is characterized by flat planes, minimalist geometric lines, but softened by pink and earth tone walls, moorish motifs, texture, water and light to evoke a sense of calm.
barragán was intensely religious and an obsessive reader of theological and philosophical texts and when asked why he only built homes for the wealthy, he added: ‘… and for horses. horses are neither rich or poor, they’re just horses.’
we were the only guests and could contemplate the silence of the space, enhanced by the sound of the fountain – a thick stream of water spouted in an arch. the owners turned on the waterfall for us and just a few minutes, as the mechanism is still the original from barragán’s time and it has to persist…
water falls, runs, fills, moves, acquiring an almost tectonic presence
the space around the fountain for the horses is defined by a long, five meter high longitudinal pink wall and an eight-meter-high transversal pink wall (that serves as a cover for the south façade with a rear haystack) with two deep incisions.
the gap between these unequal heights is closed of by a 3-meter high purple screen with pivoting gate, made of sheet metal.
layers of color enter your field of vision as you walk through slabs of concrete, immense walls of stucco – the gate
building with haystack
walking in the grooming gallery under the projected overhang of the stable’s roof one experiences a change of scale, mediating between the horses and the human beings, since here man and horse would stand next to each other.
the stables with their surrounding walls in pink and magenta somehow emphasize stability and a distinct relationship to the earthen hues of the mexican soil.
table with benches and water pond
inside the stables, the inner walls don’t reach the ceiling, they are designed so that the horses can communicate with each other.
the clubhouse/resting area for the riders is located at the end of the grooming gallery next to the thick red wall.
detail of photo on the rear wall – barragán horse riding into the fountain
we wished we could cross the agitated surface of water by means of the help of a horse. ‘after schooling or hacking in the mexican sun, the horses love being ridden through the fountain’, say the owners.
the bottom of the fountain is a paved carpet of small stone strips running from the gallery/veranda in front of the clubhouse. the water would touch the belly of the horse in the fountain’s deepest area.
‘in barragán’s work the wall is both the supreme entity and the inhabitant of a larger metaphysical landscape; in the de chirico-like settings he creates, it is at once a screen for revealing the colors of mexico’s almost white sun, and a shield to suggest unseen presences. his magnificent gardens and carefully constructed plazas seem to stand either as great architectural stages for the promenade of horses or as echo chambers for the constant cascade of water.’ emilio ambasz in the book ‘the architecture of luis barragán’, published in 1976 by the museum of modern art NY.
in recent years the cuadra san cristóbal has been the site of contemporary art installations and fashion advertising campaigns. with that exposure has come revived interest, and the owners (held in the egerstrom family since it was constructed) have graciously opened its gates to increasing numbers of visitors. it is possible to see the outdoor complex by appointments only. you might want to contact the TRAVELING BEETLE, to organize this for you, a true alternative to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ group tours.
luis (ramiro) barragán (morfín)
was born on march 9, 1902 to a family of catholic aristocrats, spent his childhood on horseback on the family owned ranches of his native jalisco. he received his formal education by marists and jesuits, and at the local free school of engineering he became interested in architecture. after graduating in 1924, the aspiring (self-taught) architect got his parents to fund a two-year grand tour of europe (mostly spain, france, italy, and greece) and north africa. profoundly moved by the mud architecture of north africa and the moorish alhambra in granada, he visited mies van der rohe’s german pavilion (built for the 1929 barcelona world fair), the gardens at les colombières by ferdinand bac in menton, france, and was introduced to le corbusier, whose lectures he attended in paris.
on his return to guadalajara, barragán began to conceive new methods by which he could create what he called an ‘emotional architecture’, one that would encourage meditation and quietude. ‘silence. in the gardens and homes designed by me, I have always endeavored to allow for the interior placid murmur of silence, and in my fountains, silence sings’.
the pritzker prize jury honored luis barragán for his commitment to architecture as a sublime act of the poetic imagination. ‘any work of architecture that does not express serenity is a mistake’, he said in his 1980 laureate acceptance speech.
barragán’s output was not large. the majority of the structures he built are in guadalajara and mexico city. after luis barragán died on november 22, in 1988, mexican institutions were unable (or unwilling) to purchase the personal and professional archives. so they were split, the former is still at the luis barragán house and studio, a UNESCO world heritage site, in tacubaya. the latter was purchased in 1995 by rolf fehlbaum, chairman of the swiss furniture company vitra and federica zanco, an italian art historian (the girlfriend, later wife of fehlbaum). zanco has studied and maintained the archive in basel and created a not-for-profit institution – the barragan foundation – below vitra’s headquarters in birsfelden.