Barragán’s Corpse

Why is this replica here? Why is there a deep-rooted collective association between Barragán and Mexican identity? What lies behind the towering terrace walls?

Drone photograph of the winning proposal Out of Place, beside El Caballito, an equestrian statue of Spanish King Charles IV from 1803, barred up in anticipation of the September 26th and October 2nd manifestations which take place in Mexico City. ©Marcos Betanzos

  • Out of Place, on view from September 22 to October 1st at Mextrópoli, Mexico City

I’ve been told that Mexico is the country with the most architecture students, a statistic that is hard to fact-check but not hard to believe. Communion between the country’s architecture schools is sparse and usually relegated to events like the annual festival Mextrópoli, which in September celebrated its ten-year anniversary. The festival, organized by a branch of the architecture-related media powerhouse Arquine (which, among other things, publishes a quarterly magazine), claims to “bring together […] students, citizens, professionals, tourists, creatives, public officials, artists, thought leaders and experts to generate knowledge, exchange, and a new vision of the city through architecture.” After ten years of recurring operations, Mextrópoli has perfected its formula. The festival is divided into two parts: an intense weekend program, free to the public, of temporary pavilions, exhibitions, guided tours, and book launches, all taking place in the centermost area of Mexico City; and a full day of back-to-back lectures from renowned architects, artists, or designers for which attendees must buy a ticket. This year, the lectures were headlined by Pritzker winners Kazuyo Sejima and Wang Shu, and around half of the presenters were from either Spain or South America. In order to reach the epicenter of the festival’s discourse, one ought to purchase a ticket to the lectures, even if just for the opportunity to be in an auditorium full of architecture-inclined individuals from all over the country and greater Latin America. Each year, the implicit theme has been increasingly connected to architecture’s relationship to sustainability. Overall, the event performs a fair effort at fostering discussion and discourse surrounding architecture.

The most thought-provoking fragment of the festival—this year, it even proved controversial—is a design competition, Concurso Arquine, that happens months before. Participants are tasked with submitting a proposal for a public pavilion, then the winning entry is constructed somewhere in the centermost area of Mexico City’s downtown, close to where the festival’s lectures are hosted. The winner of this year’s competition, announced in March, was Out of Place, a proposal to erect a mock-up of the walls on the rooftop terrace of Mexican architect Luis Barragán’s house. As soon as the winning submission was announced, I started anticipating the construction of a pavilion riddled with conceptual contradictions and discursive shortsightedness. First, the proposal sought to democratize an inherently undemocratic building. Further, the views framed by the mock-up would be riddled with buildings, directly contradicting the intention of the walls on Barragán’s terrace of framing only the sky. The thing hadn’t been built yet, and I was already scheming all the different angles from which I could discuss its many shortcomings. I thought Out of Place represented an embodiment to the latent superficiality and intellectual laziness in the acritical rhetoric surrounding the legacy of Barragán, who is often treated like a representative of Mexican architecture and, in turn, of national identity. Where many saw discursive profundity, I perceived shallowness. Above all, I considered the proposal an antiquated gesture: how could the jury of a competition set within the context of a festival that claims to be forward-thinking and sustainability-minded think it’s a good idea to bring a twentieth century architect’s corpse and place it, open-casket, in the middle of the room?

I was spiraling. I wanted to write about everything the competition winners overlooked: how the towering walls that their pavilion reconstructed in drywall had the purpose of not only framing the sky but also concealing Barragán’s domestic workers’ quarters; how the architect took drastic design measures to distance himself from the women of color who cooked and cleaned after him; how this attitude stemmed from his complicated relationship with his upbringing, religious devotion, and repressed sexuality. I was going to back these claims using Foucault. I was going to write about how failing to consider these interpretations around Barragán’s legacy further instills a historic wound that Mexico still has to confront: caste-based systems of social hierarchization cast a shadow that stretches from Mexico’s colonial past to its present. I was going to write about the conceptual complexities of the one-to-one scale model, since on some level all works of architecture are full-scale mock-ups of themselves. I had so many ideas. I thought about putting forth a phenomenological argument for the impossibility of decontextualization. I thought about making the case that the winners of the competition and its jury failed to acknowledge that the pavilion is archival in nature and that American artist Jill Magid had been light-years ahead of their ideas when she turned Barragán ashes into an engagement ring. I thought about putting forth that these gestures imply that making architecture is working with corpses. Finally, I was going to conclude by claiming that replicating Barragán’s rhetoric, as the winning participants did, is an example of the chokehold that the concept of individual authorship still holds over the discipline.

The prefix in the festival’s title, Mextrópoli, makes it seem like whatever it’s referring to is something resolved, taken for granted, obvious; but at no point during the festival, or at any past iterations of it, have questions of national identity been explicitly presented.

On the day of Mextrópoli’s lectures, around lunchtime, I visited the pavilion and confirmed all the things I already knew. Near midnight, I paid a second visit. Something changed that second time around: I was the only one there. The shrill bustle of the city had calmed. There was silence between the walls of the pavilion as well as inside me. I arrived at the pavilion after traversing Mexico City’s historic center at night on September, days after National Independence day and on the cusp of the anniversary of the October 2nd 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, when a week before the upcoming Olympics, more than three hundred students and workers who were peacefully protesting against the authoritarian politics of a single-party regime were killed by the Mexican Armed Forces. Haunted by the lingering discomfort of a months-old heartbreak—subtle cultural differences between my American partner and me had contributed to issues in our relationship—I was pondering what exactly, beside the place of my birth, made me Mexican.

As streetlamp shadows fell on its white and pink walls, the pavilion presented itself before me simply. It was a hastily erected set of drywall rectangles, the winner of a yearly design competition designed to temporarily bring architecture inclined individuals together. Through fragmentary references like the Mexican pink of its walls, it hinted at a rather simplistic national identity that Barragán’s legacy conforms to. To be Mexican has meant bearing witness to a collective myth; for me, that process has increasingly produced existential ruminations. The prefix in the festival’s title, Mextrópoli, makes it seem like whatever it’s referring to is something resolved, taken for granted, obvious; but at no point during the festival, or at any past iterations of it, have questions of national identity been explicitly presented. This acritical attitude, the same attitude collectively directed toward Barragán’s legacy, is the extension of an unwillingness to confront the mythical nature of Mexicanness. Upheld by a selection of narratives, events, and buildings, the state-sponsored narrative of Mexican identity is predicated on the idea that we are the result of the European colonization over Mesoamerica. Who is this we? Why have we become comfortable with such a reductive narrative of national history? How much self-esteem could a national identity premised on such an interpretation be expected to engender? Besides fostering a profound strain of self resentment directed at our history, the current founding myth of Mexican identity—of the victory of Europe over the defeat of Mesoamerica—has amounted to a discourse that is not very nuanced and doesn’t embrace the contradictions inherent to all nationalism. Barragán’s house, the temporary drywall replica of its terrace, and the barred-up, bronze-cast equestrian statue of Spanish King Charles IV directly beside it, all seem like monuments that implicitly subscribe to and solidify that simplistic narrative of Mexican identity.

The pavilion, in its shallow simplicity, gives form to the complexities of the myth of Mexican identity and, in so doing, has created an opportunity for visitors to confront them. Why is this replica here? Why is there a deep-rooted collective association between Barragán and Mexican identity? What lies behind the towering terrace walls? Beyond an increasingly fleeting sense of contempt for our current collective national myth lies the potential for a better informed identity, one more akin to the notion that our virtues today are what remains from the coming together of both worlds, Mesoamerican and European. Departing from this interpretation, one might realize that Barragán is not a folklore-inspired lone genius, but that he, alongside many other notable figures, belongs to a longstanding tradition of twentieth-century modern architecture from Mexico. Fellow contemporaries, architects dear to me, have recently begun inquiring into how architecture has directly informed matters of national Mexican identity. These are issues to be confronted collectively. After ten years of recurring operations at Mextrópoli, this conversation—about how the built environment shapes the myth of national identity, in the country with the most architecture students—might hopefully soon feel overdue.

Pablo Emilio Aguilar Reyes is a Mexico-City-based architect, ever emerging theorist, and former child raised elsewhere.