MEXICO CITY – Memory, in its random way, erased the reasons I stopped going to Mexico City.
Visits that began with family trips in childhood and continued throughout my adulthood – when I made regular trips to experience this phantasmagorical city’s art and food and architecture – abruptly ended at some vague point just after the turn of the century. Sometimes this happens when you love and stop loving something; the retrieval function shuts down. Particulars vanish the way screen data does at the stroke of an errant key.
For almost as far back as I can recall, I have been drawn to the accreted material density of this chaotic capital of 21 million, a place whose successive warring cultures piled their monuments atop those of the vanquished; whose anthill tumult, against sense and logic, remains in some mysterious fashion orderly; whose public spaces often impart to pedestrians a distinct sense of processing across a vast stage set dressed with the architectural furniture of many ages. I loved that, at almost 8,000 feet, Mexico City feels like an elaborate altar laid under the sky.
Contemplating again the routine gorgeousness of the heavens above this high volcanic plateau, I found myself eager to return to the haunts of a younger self; in particular to retrace the steps of a pilgrimage once made to the houses of great Mexican architect Luis Barragán.
While contemporary Mexican architects of my acquaintance – and cultured Mexicans of a certain kind – sometimes affect weariness when the name Barragán arises as the inevitable emblem of the country’s high culture, you have only to check the Pinterest pages devoted to him to become aware of how Barragán’s cult abroad has grown in the years since his death in 1988.
Some obvious reasons are deducible from the graphic elegance of his structures and their seductive, saturated “Mexican” colors. Perhaps, though, new generations also are drawn by instinct to the deep humanism expressed in the work of this undervalued genius, a man who cited as his personal pole stars ideals like amazement, enchantment, serenity, silence and intimacy.
The urgency to experience his work feels greater than ever. At least two of the most important Barragán houses are leaving the possession of the families that commissioned them; lacking official landmark protection, those and others among Barragán’s projects are potentially at risk.
When I stopped into the famous Cuadra San Cristóbal (also known as the Egerstrom House), now on the market for $12 million, its owners expressed genuine surprise that no one from among the population of Mexico’s new superrich or its cadre of contemporary art collectors had come to see the place.
Commissioned by Swedish businessman Folke Egerstrom and built between 1966 and 1968, Cuadra San Cristóbal is the Barragán masterpiece.
Held in the Egerstrom family since it was constructed, the house had become a burden for its current owners, empty-nesters who split their time between Mexico and Nashville, Tenn.
Mia Egerstrom maintains the celebrated house, its gardens and stables and also conducts near-daily tours by invitation for architectural pilgrims.
Egerstrom remarked that to live with Barragán’s architecture was to be in a constant state of astonishment.
Take the hayloft, for instance. The open-sided utilitarian space, its raised platform backed by a stark vertical cut through with a ventilation seam, resembled nothing so much as a proscenium from a de Chirico painting. It seemed so like Barragán to introduce elements of theater to a space trafficked mainly by barn hands wheeling barrows of manure and bales of hay.
I felt a pang of regret that those who know Barragán’s work only from the vivid flash cards tacked to virtual walls on Pinterest or Tumblr miss out on the experiential dimension of his architecture, its deep humanity.
Although lamentably little of substance is known about Barragán, his sanitized and burnished legend zealously conserved by a core of devotees, it seems quite clear he was a man of faith. Barragán termed myth and religious experience the fountainhead of all acts of creation: “Without the desire for God, our planet would be a sorry wasteland of ugliness.”
At Casa Prieto López, where wide windows frame a distant view of the volcano Popocapetepl, the primitive chairs are reminiscent of those Barragán would have known from the haciendas of his Guadalajara boyhood. The lamps were created by Oaxacan potters imported to the site. The stone trough is filled with colored glass fishing floats like those that wash ashore on Mexico’s coast.
“He had them make the ceramics right here,” said Eduardo Prieto López, whose grandparents lobbied hard to persuade the diffident Barragán to build a house for them and their brood of children. As remarkable as Barragán’s agreement is the fact that the clients carried with them to their new home few of their old possessions.
“They moved in with just their suitcases,” Prieto added, as we toured a house said to have been sold to Cesar Cervantes, owner of a chain of taco restaurants and an art collector.
It was not to one of Cervantes’ Taco Inns this hungry traveler took himself, but to a restaurant inspired, as fate would have it, by Barragán. Opened in 2012 in a former medical supply shop on a corner in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Colonia Roma, Maximo Bistrot Local is increasingly renowned for the elegant fare turned out by chef Eduardo García.
Over a glass of brightly acidic local wine and a dip made from garlic, olive oil and both the flesh and charred skin of an eggplant, I sat talking with García, 36, one Sunday afternoon at an outdoor table.
García’s locavore culinary style pays homage to humble traditions.
“My mother, when she made her salsa every day, just threw the tomatoes in the fire while she chopped her serrano chilies,” Garcia explained. “She didn’t bother to peel them; she just mashed it all up.”
Something pleased me about García’s savvy adaptation of his mother’s crude culinary technique, his own kind of mash-up – a cultural one. I was struck by how offhandedly he described what is in truth a complex process of layering, as honest as it is sophisticated, and how reminiscent it was of Luis Barragán’s melding of high culture with the demotic, his linking of Old World to New. A current of deep cultural feeling seemed to join the two and at that moment me to each. I remembered clearly over lunch that day at Maximo Bistrot Local why it was I had long loved Mexico.