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A Look at Mexico’s Rising Architectural Star Emerging Architectural Star

Architecture professor John V. Mutlow said he hopes his book on Ricardo Legorreta will raise awareness of the vibrant architecture of Mexico. Mutlow poses at Pershing Square, whose new look was a collaboration between Legorreta and landscape architect Laurie Olin.

Photo by Irene Fertik

When architecture professor John V. Mutlow first walked into the Camino Real Mexico Hotel in Mexico City, he knew he had come to a special place.

One of the first projects by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, the hotel has only one entrance from the bustling street: a shocking pink screen described by Mutlow as “a void in the massive white walls,” leading to a courtyard. Situated in the courtyard was a low fountain with undulating waves that emanated peace, quiet and solitude.

From there, Mutlow entered a calm, minimalist lobby graced by the murals of Mexican artists Rufino Tamayo and Mathias Goeritz. Throughout the lobby and public areas of the hotel, Mutlow perceived a “true sense of spaciousness in which one’s attention is focused on a piece of art, an intimate corner or the guests themselves, rather than simply moving through the space.”

“This relaxed and gracious introduction to the modern architecture of Mexico was also my first encounter with architect Ricardo Legorreta,” writes Mutlow in the forward to Ricardo Legorreta Architects (Rizzoli, 1997). The volume, edited by Mutlow, showcases 25 of the architect’s most celebrated projects in Mexico, Texas and California. Mutlow’s critiques of each project are illustrated by rich color photographs by Legorreta’s daughter, Lourdes Legorreta.

Legorreta is known for his use of brilliant and saturated primary colors, thick-textured walls of stucco and plaster, and mysterious, light-filled spaces. His work combines an appreciation of traditional Mexican architectural elements and culture with a modernist sense of design.

The monograph comes at a time when Legorreta is gaining a reputation outside of Mexico, following in the footsteps of Luis Barragán as the new Mexican master of modern architecture. In fact, it was Barragán who taught him to understand how architecture and landscape must work together, Mutlow said.

Mutlow’s forward offers an analysis of the architect’s life’s work as well as an interview with Legorreta, who discusses issues ranging from the emotional quality of his architecture to the influence of his mentors, including Barragán and José Villagrán, from whom he learned the craft of building.

Legorreta is one of the few Mexican architects working outside of Mexico. In Los Angeles, for instance, Legorreta collaborated with landscape architect Laurie Olin to design the Pershing Square plaza downtown. The latest incarnation of this 120-year-old park, completed in 1994, is marked by a 10-story purple campanile and artistic interpretations of the city’s history and culture, such as a fault line traced through the plaza into the circular pool by artist Barbara McCarren.

Other projects featured in the volume include the Camino Real Ixtapa Hotel; the Renault Factory- tory in Mexico; vacation houses in Mexico, Rancho Santa Fe and Sonoma County, Calif.; the house of actor Ricardo Montalbán and the Greenberg House in Los Angeles; the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua; El Papalote Children’s Museum, the City of Arts and other high-profile buildings in Mexico City; and the new San Antonio Main Library in Texas.

When it comes to the architecture of Legorreta, what most people talk about first is color.

Intense yellows, blues, reds, magentas and purples seem to leap out from the architect’s buildings. But color is not the primary element of his work, according to Mutlow’s forward.

“The color is bright, vibrant and stands out,” Mutlow said. “But if you get involved in Mexican culture, you see that color is by nature Mexican. If you strip away color from Legorreta’s buildings, you see that the space still works.”

Foremost in Legorreta’s work are the wall plane, light, geometry and emotion. Color is an enhancement – an additive element, Mutlow said.

Mutlow said Legorreta’s use of the wall plane to enclose space and his attention to light also reflect the influence of Mexico. The wall, rather than the floor or roof planes, dominates Mexican architecture in establishing space. Walls are the vehicles through which Mexican muralists such as David Alfara Siqueiros or Diego Rivera depict the most potent human emotions. So it is natural that the wall became Legorreta’s most important architectural element, Mutlow writes.

Probably the best example of Legorreta’s use of wall plane is the Renault Factory in Durango, Mexico. The 500,000-square-foot structure is dominated by the exterior stone wall, painted terra-cotta red, which appears as infinite as the surrounding desert itself. The factory also demonstrates Legorreta’s mastering of landscape; he created a stone lawn as a transition between his building and the vast desert.

Another great example of Legorreta’s work is the Greenberg House in Los Angeles. Legorreta has adapted his architecture to the United States by subduing the colors but not changing the core elements, Mutlow said. Reflecting the minimalist quality of Legorreta’s work, the house is built around a simple stone courtyard, which is anchored by asymmetrically placed palm trees and yucca plants.

“Through the use of minimal elements, Legorreta moves you through the space,” Mutlow said. For example, the front door is obscured, so visitors must “read the space” and search for the entrance. The house, with its walls of different angles and heights in various tones of yellow, is also an example of Legorreta’s use of wall plane and geometry.

Two other critically acclaimed projects are the Camino Real Ixtapa Hotel, which gracefully cascades down a cliff face to the shore, and Solana, a mixed-use office and park development in Dallas. The Camino Real Ixtapa conforms to the topography by hugging a hillside, and integrates tropical vegetation into the architecture.

Solana, built in collaboration with landscape architect Peter Walker, is informed by Walker’s deference to the natural landscape and Legorreta’s desire to connect the project with Mexico and the region’s history, writes Mutlow. The master plan designed by Legorreta allows for integration of a variety of structures built by different architects. These structures – including a Marriott Hotel, two office buildings occupied by IBM National Marketing and Technical Support Center, a sports facility and several restaurants and shops – are unified through the interplay of the exterior stucco walls, diverse colors and forms.

Mutlow said his hope in compiling the book – which has been published in England, Spain, and Italy as well as the United States – is to raise awareness of the architecture springing to life in Mexico.

“It is simply to expose the fact that the architectural work of Mexico, a Third World country, is as interesting and vibrant as architectural work going on in a First World country,” he said.

For Legorreta, Mexican culture is infused with mystery and exuberance. He believes that viewers must become emotionally involved with the space and forms of his buildings and landscapes.

In his interview with Mutlow, Legorreta said: “To me, architecture without emotions is not architecture. A space can be beautiful, but if it doesn’t raise your spirits, it is not architecture.”

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