Ricardo Legorreta, College of Santa Fe (SFUAD) Art Buildings

Ricardo Legorreta, 1931-2011

Ricardo Legorreta, perhaps Mexico’s best-known architect, died in Mexico City on December 30, 2011. In the month since his death there have been several substantive obituaries with thoughtful reviews of his career, such as, and, and, and in Mexico, and. The New York Times did not publish an original obit, and instead ran a wire article, perhaps because the only project Legorreta did in New York was the redesign of an apartment interior in 2010.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Legorreta’s architectural language challenged Santa Fe’s prevailing “brown and round” aesthetic.  When he won the competition to design the College of Santa Fe’s Visual Arts Center and Santa Fe Art Institute in early 1995, those who were at the presentations at the time told me that they were impressed by how he arrived alone, accompanied only by a box of slides (remember those?). By contrast, the other firms invited to campus—Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and James Stewart Polshek and Partners—had teams of associates, models, plans, and wall charts. Legorreta and his team proposed well over 100,000 square feet of structures divided among the Santa Fe Art Institute and two phases of the Visual Arts Center. Only the first two, totaling about 50,000 square feet were built. Legorreta’s team included his son Victor (the firm is now Legorreta+Legorreta).

Legorreta and his local architects of record, Lloyd & Tryk, and the construction firm, Bradbury Stamm, dealt with myriad design issues on the way to the inauguration of the buildings. Although the College of Santa Fe, now the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, is located outside Santa Fe’s famously strict historic district encompassing much of the city’s downtown and east sides, Legorreta’s architecture still presented many challenges to the Santa Fe Style and building codes.

There was the rule that structures could not be built higher than 40 feet without a variance. And then there was the color. Legorreta’s architectural practice deployed color as an active design element. Santa Fe’s building codes require that exteriors be painted in earth tones—read shades of adobe. Legorreta’s team was able to convince city officials that brick red and burnt orange were in fact “earth tones.”

I arrived at the College of Santa Fe as an assistant professor of art history in 1998, while the Legorreta buildings were under construction, and I understood that he originally wished to use brighter colors for the exteriors, as one can see in many of his projects. In a speech delivered at the gala held in 1999 for the opening of the complex, Legorreta related how he spent a couple weeks in Santa Fe, absorbing the ambiente, the setting and environment, and studying the region’s history, culture, and landscape. The well-heeled crowd roared when he said he picked the colors —bright pink, royal blue and deep purple, canary yellow, as well as the red and orange—after heading to the mountains with a bottle of tequila. In the end the bright colors defined four courtyards in the complex: purple for the Anne and John Marion Center for Photographic Arts, pink for the Eugene Thaw Art History Center, canary yellow for a tiny courtyard in Tishman Hall, and blue for the Santa Fe Art Institute (originally the Art Institute courtyard was to be pink, but the board and artists of that organization vetoed the hue, arguing that it would drive the artists in residence mad).

Prior to the construction of the Legorreta buildings, the College of Santa Fe campus was a collection of World War II-era barracks (it was originally an army hospital), with some newer structures, most notably several Brutalist style buildings designed by Philippe Register (1919-2006), such as the Greer Garson Theater (1965) and E. E. “Buddy” Fogelson Library (1970), and two buildings designed or renovated by the local Santa Fe firm of Wayne Lloyd & Lorn Tryk, the Garson Communication Center (1989) and the Driscoll Fitness Center (1991-1992). The contrast between the foreboding corrugated concrete Register buildings and Legorreta’s joyous explosions of color could not be greater.

Many of the Legorreta obituaries describe him as a disciple of Luis Barragán (1902-1988), an unavoidable characterization, given that both men deployed a similar architectural idiom of color, light, massing, walls, courtyards, and water features. Diane Karp, who was appointed director of the Santa Fe Art Institute in 2001, after the complex opened, recalled Legorreta once vehemently asserting that “he was never a student of Barragan’s!.” If he was indeed Barragán’s disciple, despite his own views on the matter, one might say that he popularized the master’s work, adapting, transforming, and making it more palatable to post 1960s clients and audiences.

Facultad de Arquitectura, UNAM, by José Villagrán García

At the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, Legorreta was a student of José Villagrán García (1901-1982), the foremost proponent of the International Style in mid-20th century Mexico. After graduating in 1952 with an architecture degree, Legorreta worked for Villagrán for the rest of the decade, and his designs from this period show a commitment to his mentor’s vision of Le Corbusian Functionalism, such as the Hotel Maria Isabel in Mexico City (1960-1961, with Villagrán and Juan Sordo). Legorreta established his own practice in 1964, and reached his mature style with the groundbreaking Camino Real Hotel (1968), one of many buildings raised in the capital in the years preceding the Mexico City Olympic Games. Legorreta designed the hotel, but as Brenda Danilowitz, chief curator of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and author of The Prints of Josef Albers: A Catalogue Raisonné 1915-1976 (2001, revised 2010), noted, Legorreta retained Barragán as a consultant for the project.[1] She describes how Legorreta, Barragán, and the artist Mathias Goeritz (1915-1990), visited Josef and Anni Albers in 1967 at their New Haven, Connecticut home. In what can only be described as a Homage to the Albers, the trio discussed the Camino Real plans with the Alberses. Barragán was an admirer of Albers’s work; both men’s practice explored the subjective experience of color. Two ersatz Albers textiles printed with Homage to the Square images can still be seen in Barragán’s home in Mexico City. Although no such textiles are known to have been made by Albers, Barragán bought them in New York in the early 1960s.[2] According to Danilowitz, Barragán initially proposed that every room in the Camino Real be decorated with a Josef Albers screen print. But in the end Legorreta commissioned a textile from Anni Albers, which hung in the hotel bar. In a later survey of his work, Legorreta recalled how Albers’s work also inspired the magenta perforated wall he designed to screen the hotel from the busy street.[3]

Legorreta’s architecture has been described as Mexican minimalism and Mexican Modernism, questionable rubrics that automatically situate the work as a regional variation on Euro-American modern architecture. After all, do we call Le Corbusier’s work “Swiss Modernism?” Latin-American artists, architects, and writers have always struggled with the often contradictory goals of whether they wish their work to be perceived as reflective of their nation of origin, or whether it participates in a wider dialogue with Europe, the United States, or global cultural trends. There is no doubt that Legorreta’s mature style combined many of the aspects of the International Style with elements derived from the climate, colors, and architectural history of Mexico.

This work differs fundamentally from that of Villagrán, as well as the styles practiced by other mid to late twentieth century Mexican architects, like Abraham Zabludovsky, Teodoro González de León, Mario Pani, and Felix Candela. There is no doubt that Legorreta’s work inhabits the shadow of Barragán, and unsympathetic writers might say that his work is purely derivative. Legorreta adapted some aspects of Barragán’s work, but he expanded them both conceptually and in terms of sheer scale. Whereas we remember Barragán primarily as a designer of domestic spaces and housing developments, like the Pedregal in Mexico City, Legorreta will be remembered as a master of large public spaces, from Pershing Square in Los Angeles (1993) to the Managua Cathedral (1994), and from the college campus to the museum.

Legorreta described his architecture as emotional.[4] In an interview with David Dillon, for Architectural Record, written about the College of Santa Fe Visual Arts Center and Santa Fe Art Institute in 2000, Legorreta commented that “modern architects want too much clarity in a building,” …“They miss the pleasures of mystery and intrigue.”[5] I am not sure that Legorreta’s peers in world architecture in 2000 really sought clarity. After all, what’s “clear” about the design of Gehry’s 1997 Museo Guggenheim Bilbao? But certainly Legorreta’s work can be viewed as a reaction against the clarity of International Style architects, his peers when he designed the Camino Real Hotel in Mexico City. Legorreta’s work more naturally inhabits a niche occupied by the Mexican historicist and individualist work of Pedro Ramírez Vásquez, Agustín Hernández, and Juan O’Gorman. For O’Gorman, Edward Burian mapped a similar development as we observe in Legorreta’s practice, from “rational” functionalist to “irrational” organicist architecture.[6]

Legorreta was often said to have employed elements derived from the Pre-Columbian and vernacular architecture of Mexico. Specifically, the courtyards so common in his work, with covered walkways, evoke the arcades and loggias at the Pre-Columbian cities of Teotihuacan and Palenque. They also remind me of the courtyards and walkways that characterize the convents and palaces of Colonial period Mexico. Legorreta renovated three such structures in Mexico City, the Palacio de Iturbide (1972); the Colegio de San Ildefonso (1993); and the Club de Banqueros (1994). James Enyeart, who was Anne and John Marion Professor of Photography and director of the eponymous photography center at the College of Santa Fe, recalled how Legorreta described courtyards as the connective tissue between nature, people, and functional space.

After the College of Santa Fe and Santa Fe Art Institute commissions, the Legorretas completed several other projects in Santa Fe, including the Zócalo condominiums (2002, 2005), the offices of Thornburg Mortgage and Investments (2009), and a private home. These projects have led to a “Legorreta effect” in the architecture of Santa Fe and Albuquerque. There are now numerous buildings where local architects have deployed bright colors and architectural forms that evoke Legorreta (and Barragán). Mexico is also littered with pseudo-Legorreta and pseudo-Barragán buildings, which use color and Modernist massing, but misinterpret essential elements of these men’s styles.  At the same time, there is what might be termed a school of color in contemporary Mexican architecture, which I would not characterize as derivative, whose members include Jorge Alessio Robles, Jose de Yturbe, and others. This group differs dramatically from the work of Isaac Broid and Enrique Norten, for example, whose designs consciously engage with Euro-American styles of the 1990s to the present, and emphatically turn away from color as an active element of design.

No discussion of contemporary architecture in Mexico could pretend to completeness without a discussion of the work of the Legorretas and their firm. Part of Legorreta’s legacy has been to show that there are many Modernisms, not solely a smooth narrative from LeCorbusier to Mies to Johnson. Viva Mexico!


[1] See Brenda Danilowitz, “Towards an Ending: Anni and Joseph Albers’s Final Journey to Mexico.” In Josef and Anni Albers: Latin American Journeys, edited by Brenda Danilowitz and Heinz Liesebrock, 200-205. Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, Germany, 2007.

[2] Danilowitz 2007, 202, interview with Andrés Casillas, who worked with Barragán at the time.

[3] See The Architecture of Ricardo Legorreta, edited by Wayne Attoe and Sydney Brisker, 52. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1990.

[4] Quoted in John V. Mutlow, The New Architecture of Mexico, p. 11, Images Publishing, 2006; and John V. Mutlow, Ricardo Legorreta Architects. Rizzoli, 1997, p. 75.

[5] David Dillon. “Using Ancient and Modern Tools, Legorreta has Created a Powerful Architecture of Suggestion.” Architectural Record 188, No. 5 (May 2000), 156.

[6] Edward R. Burian, “The Architecture of Juan O’Gorman: Dichotomy and Drift. In Modernity and the Architecture of Mexico, edited by Edward R. Burian, 127-149. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1997.


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