Luis Barragán’s Jell-O® House

This is not a picture of Casa Luis Barragán - but a horrible recreation, with a steeply pitched roof.

This is not a picture of Casa Luis Barragán – but a horrible recreation, with a steeply pitched roof.

While in college, I had the pleasure to visit one of the most revered modern houses: Casa Luis Barragán. The house (and studio), located in the Tacubaya section of Mexico City, was designed by the Pritzker Winning architect Luis Barragán. Trained as an engineer, Luis Barragán became a revered landscape architect and architect – with his seminal house and studio completed in 1948.

Casa Luis Barragán is located on a non-descript street, with a banal flat concrete façade. The house could be located in a back alley of a warehouse district, if not for a single window proud of the wall – giving one a clue as to the careful detailing that lies within.

The building itself turns it’s back on the chaos of the city and instead focuses inwards, towards remarkable spaces flanking a feral courtyard. However, beyond all the amazing spaces, and incredible details, the most amazing features were the Jell-O® walls. No, you do not need to re-read that last sentence, I did spell (in a sing-song voice) J-E-L-L-O. 

If you plan on traveling to Mexico City, a visit to Casa Luis Barragán will be well-worth your time.|1| But be warned, once you you step past the barren concrete threshold, you are transported into another world – a world of unbelievable architectural marvels. There is no humanly perceptible comparison to the stark transition between these disparate worlds. The best analogy would be similar to Dr. Nicholas Rush, and his band of soldiers, on the TV series Stargate Universe stepping through the Stargate and experiencing a mysterious, yet almost utopian celestial planet.|2|

Our fantastic tour guide was an architecture student at the nearby university, and she explained that the entrance foyer (or portería) acts as a buffer between the street and the house. A transitional space where your senses acclimate to the dimly lit space. Your awareness slowly grows within this sensory-deprivation chamber until the realization that you are completely immersed within a colorful James Turrell exhibit. The tour guide then said, “As you can see, the colored-light cast upon the space creates Jell-O walls. And the Jell-O emanates from under the door, and the volcanic stone floor also becomes Jell-O.”

Perhaps you understood what the tour guide was actually saying. But I was completely behind the Jell-O concept. I had even convinced myself that the stone floor was indeed Jell-O, and thus walked like a Vertigo patient cautiously toward the pink radiosity-filled Lobby. 

There were so many indescribable spaces within the house – the floating staircase within the library, the large frame-less window capturing the garden oasis, the studio beaming with natural light – but it wasn’t until we were on the roof that my mind began to correlate the words with the experiences of the spaces. Fittingly, the roof terrace has tall walls – forcing you to look introspectively within. At the back of the roof terrace is a tall wall painted bright pink,|6| and the tour guide was telling us that Luis Barragán could never decide on the perfect color to paint this wall. Every year he would re-paint it another color. He painted it lime green one year. Red another year. Jell-O the next year. Until he painted it pink before he passed away, and it has remained a pink wall ever since.

This was the moment that I, introspectively, realized that many Spanish dialects pronounce the letter “Y” similar to a soft English “J”.

Unfortunately, I did not take a single photograph of Casa Luis Barragán – or its Lemon Gelatin Dessert walls. On most architecture tours I usually belly-crawl around places attempting to take 200 pictures of a bolted-connection detail, but I didn’t take a single picture at the house. I have found that this is a tendency of everyone when they are too immersed within an experience to bother getting out their camera. A picture can capture the moment of reminiscence, but it cannot re-create the Jell-O Yellow foyer.

Furthermore, people take pictures while on vacation to remember the events. They take pictures of themselves having fun at Disneyland, but they are too caught up in the sheer thrills of the Tower of Terror to bother grabbing their phone. Perhaps that is why Disneyland adds hidden cameras on their rides; you couldn’t possibly take a picture at the highlight of the ride, so they conveniently take a picture for you. It’s unfortunate that Casa Luis Barragán didn’t have hidden cameras. Unless their was a hidden camera behind the Mathias Goeritz gold painting – capturing my contorted face in a slack-jawed trance of awe and splendor.

Architecture is Disneyland. Architecture is the Tower of Terror. And Architecture is Casa Luis Barragán. Mindful architectural detailing allows you, and your senses, to become immersed within the space. The tour guide could have said, “The walls and stone flooring feel like the prickly hairs on a baboon’s back the exact moment after grooming.” And I probably would have been walking about with a tingling sensation analogous to a fresh shower with Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Peppermint soap.

Oftentimes, amazing architectural spaces have an ambiguous nature; and even if your brain doesn’t fully comprehend the metaphor, great architecture allows you to become fully immersed within this ethereal realm. Ultimately, the quest to experience great architecture is an enlivened sensation that propels you to wander into the Stargate – for great architecture becomes the experience of the unknown.




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1 However, tours are by appointment only.
2 Yes. I realize the members on Stargate Universe were in search of a way back home, and a visit to Casa Luis Barragán is (seemingly) a visit beyond Earth. But Stargate Universe was cancelled too early, and this is my ill-fated attempt to bring more attention to this under-appreciated TV series.|3|

  • 3 Yes! A footnote within a footnote. What is below a footnote? Could this be called a groundnote?|4|
    • 4 Oh crap. Now I’m in a sub-grade footnote. But in response to footnote #3, if I’m actually honest – I previously assumed Teal’c and all the Jaffa warriors existed within all the Stargate spin-offs. But Stargate Universe was actually my wife’s favorite; therefore, this is how I know that the Jaffa are genetically engineered to incubate larval Goa’uld – and are far superior to the crappy insect-human Wraith in Stargate Atlantis. And if you don’t know what Goa’uld are, then I think you need to start watching more Stargate SG1 episodes.|5|
      • 5 I should stop adding sub-grade footnotes, but beyond groundnotes do they become mantlenotes & then corenotes? Perhaps, but then after that you should probably learn how to properly cite footnotes.
6 The same pink wall on the cover of Alain De Botton’s book, The Architecture of Happiness.

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