His grandson Alejandro remembered him as “very strict. Everything in his closet was perfectly color-coordinated … he had a row of suits in plastic bags with the belts already threaded through the loops and pocket handkerchiefs in the pockets, and shoes aligned beneath … He asked people to kindly dry the bar of soap after they’d washed their hands.” 1 The North American critic Esther McCoy wrote approvingly of his “fanatical neatness.” 2 Photographs show him as impeccably dressed, smiling from behind black-framed spectacles and a trim mustache. He shoots his cuffs just so and smokes like a movie star in a cigarette ad from the 1940s. His desk is meticulous, an antique pistol poised atop it, ready to dispatch anyone reckless enough to toss a coat too casually upon a chair.
Francisco Artigas was a man of order. The many modernist houses he designed in the 1950s and ’60s were as strict and exacting as his wardrobe, as tidy as his soap dish. The majority of these were in Mexico City, at the Gardens of El Pedregal subdivision developed after World War II by Mexico’s most acclaimed architect, Luis Barragán. 3 Artigas reportedly designed and built more than fifty houses there, making him the Pedregal’s most prolific architect by far. 4 (By contrast, Barragán produced no more than a half dozen buildings for the Pedregal, and only one of these, the Prieto López House, remains intact.) The houses Artigas built were occupied by top professionals, business leaders, powerful political families, film stars, and other native and foreign elites. They were featured in popular Mexican movies of the era and reproduced in newspapers and magazines around the country and beyond. 5 These cool, crystalline pavilions represent the glamour, optimism, and excess of their time and place much as the Beaux-Arts mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, or the modernist villas of Palm Springs, California, embody theirs. Their architect, however, though admired by well-informed mid-century modern enthusiasts, remains essentially unknown to a larger public. He is well worth a look.
The son of an army general, Francisco Artigas was born in Mexico City in 1916 (he died in 1999). As a youth, his family moved to Morelos, where his mother’s people lived, and there he studied at a French-language school. Later, he returned to the capital to study at the National School of Engineering, although he dropped out after only one year. By the late 1940s he turned to architecture, working first with his old school friend, the modernist Santiago Greenham, and soon thereafter with Fernando Luna, with whom he established a long-lived working relationship. During the course of his career Artigas worked extensively around Mexico, designing office and commercial buildings, chapels, hotels, urban renewal projects, school buildings (when he headed the Federal Program of School Construction), and most importantly, single-family houses. Unusually for a Mexican architect of his era, he also worked outside of Mexico. He traveled often to the United States, and between 1952 and 1958 he built a lavish, 7,200-square-foot showplace of glass, steel, and concrete in Apple Valley, California. Designed for Apple Valley’s founder and developer, Newton T. Bass, the Hilltop House —with its 360-degree views, indoor-outdoor swimming pool, push-button sliding walls, mahogany ceilings, and built-in television sets — so expressed the postwar California good life that it appeared in an episode of Perry Mason (“The Case of the Roving River”). 6 Had it not burned down in 1967, it would have made a fine lair for a Bond villain.
Artigas’s best houses are elegant exemplars of the postwar International Style. They are also regionalist works, although they don’t readily accord with what we’ve come to think of as modern Mexican regionalism. Some years ago I published a critique of Critical Regionalism — that once-pervasive theoretical model promulgated and more recently recanted by Kenneth Frampton and others — viewing it as a construct most often imposed by writers living and working outside the regions they surveyed. 7 In identifying putatively Critical Regionalist architecture as a form of “resistance,” these critics tended to flatten cultural and historical complexities, establish misleading binaries (artificial/natural, center/periphery, etc.), and effectively emphasize one regionally “appropriate” architectural model to the exclusion of all others.
Following upon a successful Museum of Modern Art exhibition and book about his work in 1976 and his subsequent receipt of the Pritzker Prize in 1980, Luis Barragán became a canonical modernist, a paradigmatic Critical Regionalist, the most famous architect in Latin America (alongside Oscar Niemeyer), and the leader of a legion of followers in and outside Mexico. His architecture was celebrated above all for appearing so very Mexican, or Mexican in a sense that people in places like New York, London, Berlin, and Tokyo could readily appreciate. His elegantly minimal and always photogenic compositions — rough-textured walls and stark voids, brilliant colors (red, yellow, blue, pink), subtle historicist elements, grace notes of water and rustic handicraft — were wrapped by the architect and his many admirers in a rhetoric of mystery, memory, poetry, and emotion. His work, which his contemporary Juan O’Gorman once described as “exactly what Mexican architecture shouldn’t be,” came for many to represent his country’s architecture at its best and most distinctive. 8 For a decade or more following his Pritzker win, his influence in Mexico was inescapable.
And where did all of this poetry and pink-walled wonder leave someone like Francisco Artigas, his suits sheathed safely in plastic, his hand soap dutifully dried, his glass villas gleaming like so many foreign-exchange Farnsworth houses? To paraphrase comedian George Jessel, rather like a pair of brown shoes at a tuxedo shop. The photographic record doesn’t do him many favors either, but that too is a part of his story.
In fact, Artigas’s work can be seen as embodying two distinct stylistic approaches: romantic historicist and rationalist modern. Both approaches were employed at roughly the same time, for the same building types (dwellings mainly), although for different settings. The historicist buildings were placed mostly in provincial or rural locales, while the modernist ones were for urban and suburban sites. Beyond this, Artigas offered no explanation for these two quite different modes. The former were less consequential and to my eye far less successful than the latter.
For houses built during the late ’50s and ’60s in Texcoco, Tlalpan, San José Iturbide, and Desierto de Los Leones, the architect produced heavy, neo-Baroque compositions which drew, as did Barragán’s work, on Mexican Colonial architecture, only without Barragán’s imaginative abstractions. For these non-urban works, Artigas favored dark wood paneling, carved beams and brackets, heavy wood doors and Moorish screens, classical moldings and plasterwork, wrought iron and patterned tiles, stone vaults and domes, fountain courtyards, and lots of shag carpeting. Architect-commissioned photographs show these places filled with sturdy wood furniture in a variety of throwback styles, wall-mounted guns and hunting trophies, crucifixes, gilt-framed pictures and figurines, pillows and potted flowers enough to stock a mid-size Pottery Barn. The skins of dead animals — lions, tigers, bears, zebras — are laid out welcomingly, if redundantly, upon the amply carpeted floors.
In one memorable image, a little girl reads a book while sprawled on the rug beside a large and cadaverous feline, its face eternally fixed in silent protest — side by side, two pals sharing a quiet day at home. In another, a man in boots and hunting jacket enjoys a blazing fire while caressing his rifle. Opposite him, a dead raccoon hangs beneath a hat. Dark wood beams support the ceiling, while pillows, nicely plumped, rest upon the floor. Above the fireplace hang ten-point antlers and another gun, while at the man’s feet, atop the orange shag rug, rest the earthly remains of something furry, white, and dead (a small polar bear?). Beside his chair, an antique wood chest supports a half dozen liquor bottles (somewhat inadvisably placed, perhaps, given the weapons at hand). Flowers abound: poinsettia and calla lilies. It’s cozy, if you’re okay with carnage.
Dramatically sited, seemingly weightless, the modernist houses are among the finest of the era.
Emerging a few years earlier but otherwise overlapping with the historicist work, Artigas’s modernist designs bear an evident debt to Mies and Neutra, and a close familial resemblance to the California Case Study Houses. At their best — the Pedregal houses for Federico Gómez (1952), Eduardo Echeverría (1955), José Alberto Bustamante (1955), the Fernández family (1956), Stanley Wasung (1957), and Enrique Rojas (1962) — his houses were among the finest and most luxuriant of the era. Dramatically yet sensitively sited, seemingly weightless, their exteriors are notable for crisp rectilinearity and elegant minimalism, for daringly long, straight, unbroken fascias above fully glazed walls which bring the buildings back to earth even while pilotis lift them from it.
In the photos Artigas commissioned, however, the interiors of these modernist villas received the same florid treatment as his historicist buildings. That his photographer, Roberto Luna — father of his colleague, Fernando Luna — used a film stock prone to lurid color saturation doesn’t help matters. 9 Otherwise rigorously minimal dwellings are stuffed with plants and flowers, fruit bowls piled high, colorful cushions artfully placed. Sober, open-planned pavilions are sometimes spiked with the same wood paneling, religious artifacts, the hides and heads we’ve already seen; the effect is dizzying, not unlike that of the Jungle Room at Graceland. Dining room tables are laden with candelabras and elaborate place settings. Marble is abundant on floors and interior walls. Furniture is admittedly sparser and more modern than in the historicist houses — Butterfly and Barcelona Chairs, long, simple sofas and low-slung tables — but shag rugs persist, and they are vivid. In one sequence showing the Echeverría House (as remodeled in 1969), an elegantly slope-shouldered young woman in a floor-length gown floats about ethereally, lighting candles, posing with peacocks. The color palette, a mélange of blue, orange, and yellow, calls to mind a commercial airline cabin of the era.
Elsewhere I’ve argued that one long-overlooked but essential factor behind Barragán’s success was his self-promotional acuity, his shrewd attention to the ways in which he and his works were presented. 10 If Artigas came up short here, it was not for lack of trying. The photographs I’ve just described were featured in a large-format monograph that he self-published in 1972 in Spanish and English editions, 2,000 copies each. 11 The frontispiece portrait, to which I alluded earlier, shows him sitting on the edge of his leather chair, smoking and smiling into the camera. He looks entirely too eager. According to a recent interview with Fernando Luna, Artigas wanted a major North American critic to pen the book’s introduction and thus lend his work “gravitas.” Before landing on the estimable Esther McCoy, who had already written articles on Mexican modernism for Arts and Architecture, the Los Angeles Times, and other papers and magazines, Artigas sent invitations to Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Vincent Scully. 12 I like to imagine their reactions upon opening the envelopes and finding those photos, those rooms full of pillows and death. Both men politely declined. The book McCoy eventually introduced was scarcely noticed when first issued and is now rare.
The photographs here make it is easy enough to dismiss Artigas’s historicist work. Significant architectural reputations are built largely upon visuals — the effective production and circulation of compelling, appealing, memorable images. Comfortable and substantial though these places may have been, in Luna’s photos they look eccentrically vulgar or opulently trite. Maybe the same was true of the actual buildings.
The photos make it easy to dismiss Artigas. Design reputations are built upon images.
The rationalist houses tell a different story, however garish they too sometimes appear in photographs. At a glance, it might be tempting to write them off as the work of another thoroughly competent Miesian follower, rather audacious at times, but still just one of many then toiling away around the globe, not least in Mexico. Yet it was Artigas — along with Manuel Rosen, José Maria Buendía, Antonio Attolini Lack, Fernando Ponce Pino and other largely forgotten figures — who gave built form to the “Mexican Dream” of the 1950s and ’60s, designing elegant upscale modern houses for the postwar economic boom, for the good life now available to the country’s expanding middle and upper classes.
The Gardens of El Pedregal was the primary setting for this, home to Mexican movie stars, former presidents, the rich, the powerful, the up and coming. The development may have been Barragán’s idea; he took the initial risks, he composed the regulations that builders and property owners were to follow, he oversaw the early site planning and publicity, and he designed some of the first houses, gardens, and public spaces. He also received most of the accolades that followed. But others were ultimately responsible for the buildings that filled this place — a place, said historian Alfonso Pérez-Méndez, that came to symbolize the ruling party (the PRI) and the new postwar bourgeoisie in the collective imagination of Mexico. 13 This was a world of flat-roofed, light-filled, open-planned suburban houses, well stocked with modern appliances and Knoll furniture, with small English roadsters and big American sedans parked out front and swimming pools shimmering out back, all of it set gracefully above and between the ancient lava and wild semi-tropical vegetation of the Pedregal. With the spectacular new University of Mexico campus rising right next door, this was the setting for modern Mexican glamour and sophistication circa 1960 — Palm Springs, Beverly Hills, Palo Alto, and Westchester County all rolled into one — the strictly limited architectural realization of President Miguel Alemán’s otherwise unattainable 1946 campaign promise, “A Cadillac for Every Mexican.” Artigas was its most productive architect. Prior to the late 1970s, he was also its most influential.
By 1950, lots were beginning to sell at the Gardens of El Pedregal, but few buildings had been completed. Architect Max Cetto’s own house was under construction, as was Barragán’s Prieto López House. That year, Cetto and Barragán completed the first of their two “demonstration” or model house collaborations. (Located at 140 Fuentes, this was demolished in July, 2014. 14) There was little else. Artigas’s Chávez Peón House, a long, low reinforced-concrete structure that literally bridged its rocky site and the small pond below, was completed that year — one of the first, if not the first building in the Pedregal not directly overseen by Barragán or Cetto. Soon after, at the behest of Barragán and his business partners, the brothers Luis and José Alberto Bustamante, Artigas designed a small, one-room real estate sales office near the Pedregal’s entrance on Avenida de las Fuentes. A glass-walled box of light and air raised above the rocks, approached by a dramatic, two-stage ramp, this replaced Barragán’s earlier sales pavilion — a typical (for him), thick-walled, earthbound block with a rectangular dove-coted tower. Together, these early buildings aimed to provide examples to prospective clients, illustrating the type and range of modern architecture that Barragán envisioned for his new development.
The contrast between Barragán’s approach to building in the Pedregal and Artigas’s is profound, representing two poles: solid and transparent, rooted and raised, earthbound and skyward. We see it in the two sales pavilions just noted and in their most significant houses. Compare Barragán’s Prieto López House (1949-1951) with Artigas’s nearly contemporaneous Gómez House (tragically demolished in 2004). Like Barragán’s own house in Tacubaya (1948), the Prieto López House is a blocky, introverted structure with thick walls that emphasize the building’s solidity and its capacity as shelter. On the brightly tinted but otherwise austere entrance side, walls are forbidding and openings are few. Inside the protected interior, enormous windows open to short and long-range views: to the north, partially sheltered by the house, a square swimming pool set between manicured lawns, rugged lava mounds, and dense clumps of vegetation; to the east, a mile or two away, the University City complex. The plan is full of twists and turns, changes in floor and ceiling height, and dramatic light effects that charge one’s movement through the space. White stucco and polished wood predominate, accented by bursts of pink, burnt orange, red, and yellow. Echoes of Mexican Colonial architecture appear in the labyrinthine plan, the high, waxed-beamed ceilings, the deep window reveals, the thick, roughly plastered walls. Earthbound, the building seems embedded, or even sunk, into its rocky setting.
Artigas’s House for Dr. Federico Gómez, by contrast, was in the main a low glass box raised on pilotis, lightweight and volumetric. In effect, the building was the opposite of the Prieto López House: all windows, no walls. Or rather, its walls were made of blue-green sheet glass framed by thin white metal mullions and the long unbroken horizontals of floor and flat roof. (Glass walls do seem reasonable here given Mexico City’s temperate climate, comparable to that of San Diego or Santa Barbara, although in photos of the house, the curtains were usually drawn.) Floated above an impressive bloom of purple-black volcanic rock, the building scarcely touched the ground. Stairs were carved into the rock, giving access to the interior from below. A grotto-like swimming pool was fitted into the rough natural rock beneath the house, reflecting the severe forms and shining surfaces above. The plan was open, logical and relatively simple, the interior flooded with light and views that once extended all the way to the skyscrapers rising in the city center ten miles to the north. A small, glass-walled, tree-filled interior court, set into the main living area like a large terrarium, added light, color, and texture.
Artigas sometimes turned from the open, glazed facades of houses like the Gómez to closed facades such as that of the Wasung House. Yet even there the buildings looked much lighter than anything by Barragán. The Wasung’s long, stuccoed façade was a thin white screen lifted on slender columns, broken by just one small, off-center window; the roof was floated atop a continuous clerestory. The whole barely grazed the rocks beneath. This design also exemplified how Artigas integrated and showcased automobiles in his designs through carefully situated driveways and carports. At the Wasung House, the cars nestled comfortably beneath the building; one ascended directly from vehicle space to living space above. The more reticent and technologically averse Barragán preferred to stow automobiles away in enclosed garages, or leave them at a distance outside on paved terraces. Here as elsewhere, Artigas was unabashed in his modernity, in his welcome of the machine into the body of the house.
My point is this: other than those by Barragán, and a handful of others by Juan Sordo Madeleno, Enrique del Moral, and Mathias Goeritz, there were few buildings standing anywhere in Mexico before the 1970s, before Barragán became famous, that look much like the Prieto López House. Artigas’s designs, on the other hand, set the standard for modern architects working in the Pedregal and in upscale residential developments elsewhere around Mexico City, Acapulco, and beyond throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. It seems fair to say that Artigas’s work was far more representative of the buildings of El Pedregal, and of his era writ large, than Barragán’s. Barragán was always something of an outlier, personally and professionally, and his work was similarly outside the norm. Yet his houses — formally exceptional though they may have been — were no more inherently Mexican than those of Artigas and his fellow modernists, no more regional or critical, at least not until foreign observers declared them so.
Artigas — like Neutra, Pietro Belluschi, John Yeon, or Harwell Hamilton Harris — mediated the clean lines and cubic forms of the International Style with local materials and site-sensitive planning. Like Neutra, he gave close attention to the lifestyles, cultural practices, and psychological well-being of his occupants. McCoy highlighted “his emphasis on the people who use the building,” and how he “moves inside their skin to plan the floor layout and the sequence of spaces in relation to visual angles.” 15 The photographs in his book, weird and laughable though they sometimes appear, support this view. Mid-century modernist buildings were so often represented without people that it can be easy to forget they were designed for human habitation. 16 Artigas rarely lets us overlook this. There his people are, looking right at us, living large in the environs he made for them. Artigas aimed to situate his buildings among individuals operating in a particular place and time. His houses were conceived in full awareness of modern technological and formal norms, yet they stand as determinedly site- and culture-specific — localized modernism in the fullest sense.
And this brings us back to Critical Regionalism. As a theoretical model, Critical Regionalism was a product of late-modernist priorities — and tastes. While its proponents trumpeted process and cultural effect over style, Critical Regionalism effectively placed a high value on form and originality. The paradigmatic Critical Regionalists — Barragán, Niemeyer, Botta, Ando — all possessed distinct signature styles. Next to Barragán’s, the work of an architect like Artigas, however “situated,” simply did not look original enough or Mexican enough to register as Critical Regionalist; either that or it looked too Mexican, but in the wrong way. Beside the perceived sensuality and spirituality, the color and dash of Barragán’s lush, beguiling compositions, Artigas’s cool, orderly modernist houses looked almost mundane, like something you’d find in any number of North American settings — school of Mies or Neutra — only with more extravagant landscapes and gaudier accouterments.
Today, in our rather late-breaking awareness that we are running low on ozone, potable water, pollinating insects and other useful things, that site-specificity without a brashly personal style is a key lesson in Artigas’s work. From the standpoint of environmental sustainability, what was most important about El Pedregal was not the individual buildings, which were often excessive, but the approach to landscape. Undoubtedly, the project was suburban sprawl on a grand scale: large, lavish houses built on vast lots (early on, some were as large as 10,000 square meters) for wealthy urban émigrés. Its previously undeveloped land stood well beyond then-existing neighborhoods or city services and, until the late 1960s, was accessible only by private car. Yet at their best, the buildings here were integrated into the landscape in ways that preserved the native rock and vegetation, that celebrated a distinct place and nurtured both the land and its admittedly privileged occupants, contributing to an ever-fragile sense of being in an environment worth caring about, worth knowing, loving, protecting.
Much the same effect can be achieved with more modestly scaled dwellings and plots. It can be done even in dense urban settings. Think of Portland, Oregon’s Pearl District, established around 1990 amidst the derelict rail yards and light industrial buildings just northwest of the city center, its redevelopment guided by the Portland Development Commission in tandem with private developers, planners, and architects. Shops, galleries, restaurants, and high-rise apartment buildings are fitted into the existing gridded street network, set amidst renovated warehouse, brewery, and commercial buildings, with ample street trees and small, welcoming, well-used parks and squares that draw attention to local history and landscape (Jamison Square, Tanner Springs Park), taking full visual advantage of landmarks both natural (Mt. Hood and the West Hills) and man-made (the Fremont Bridge, the North Park Blocks, the 1896 Romanesque Revival Union Station), well connected to the rest of the metropolitan region by bus and light-rail systems. As designs, few of the individual buildings stand out from the others. It is the whole that matters, and the whole is humanely scaled, richly textured, captivatingly walkable, a remarkably cohesive and distinctive setting for contemporary Northwest living.
Neither Artigas, Barragán, nor Critical Regionalism had much to say about the concerns that drive today’s discussions of sustainable architecture — energy efficiency, waste and land-use management, renewable resources, broader ecosystems, permaculture, social equity. To the extent that it concerned itself with we now call sustainability — or resilience, to note the term now in vogue — Critical Regionalism was primarily about cultural sustainability achieved through architectural style. Its proselytizers focused on the making and the recognition of architectural styles as more or less politicized expressions of cultural identity. Barragán was nothing if not a powerful and memorable stylist, yet his famously autobiographical designs were in the end always about himself. This is one reason why his best-known and most effective design was his own house. Such individualistic style-consciousness was precisely what most alarmed José Villagrán García, dean of Mexican modernists, about Barragán’s work back in the 1950s: that its picturesque, autobiographical qualities would distract people from more pressing and widespread needs and issues. 17 Artigas’s carefully wrought houses were far less concerned with signature style and autobiography than with the physical and psychological needs of his buildings’ occupants, with their relation to the land they lived on, with the collective. As he put it, “With a house you try to make one family happy, but when you renew a neighborhood you make many families happy.” 18
The Critical Regionalist paradigm that contributed to Barragán’s fame overlooked Artigas and other less singular Mexican modernists. It focused on identifying forms rooted in local cultures, materials, and ways of building, in climate and topography. It did so with the aim that these might help sustain limited groups against the leveling effects of global culture. This place-consciousness remains an idea well worth retaining, for when places all look and feel the same, people become insensitive to them, disconnected from them. When that happens, further human and environmental depredations inevitably follow. The form this place-consciousness takes, however, might well be most sustainable when it is not too closely associated with a single individual; when it can be imagined as belonging to a broader group, it becomes more accessible, adaptable to a broader range of demands and desires. That is to say, sometimes a little less style is just what’s needed.