An Architect Shines Brilliantly On

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© Fundación de Arquitectura Tapatía Luis Barragán A. C.

Intense weather woke me up just after 1:00 a.m. a couple nights ago. Gale force winds, which I had not experienced before, provided such exhilaration that returning to sleep was not an option. I made coffee and sipped it in the dark, out of reach of the horizontal rains. We were prepared for the arrival of Hurricane Earl, expected to reach where I was sitting at 2:00 a.m. I was committed to witnessing the force of nature.

After realizing that I was still just hearing the warm up to the real thing, I decided to read until the main act arrived. I finished reading this story just in time to be ready for Earl.

The photo above is worth a gaze before reading what I read in those 40+ minutes. If you have not seen his architecture in person, especially, this snapshot is essential to better appreciate the story that follows. The photo below, which accompanies the story, is also excellent. But it is appropriate to capture the feeling of the story that follows, as opposed to giving a sense of the work that inspired the events in the story.

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Luis Barragán, who died in 1988, is revered for his geometric, brightly colored buildings, all of them in Mexico. PHOTOGRAPH BY RENE BURRI / MAGNUM

THE ARCHITECT WHO BECAME A DIAMOND

A conceptual artist devises an ingenious plan for negotiating access to a hidden archive.

Last September, in Guadalajara, an American conceptual artist named Jill Magid and a pair of gravediggers convened at the Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres, a monument where the most celebrated citizens of the state of Jalisco are entombed. With them were two notaries and a handful of bureaucrats. It was just after eight in the morning, and the area was nearly silent. The quiet was disturbed by the sound of chisels striking stone. The gravediggers removed a metal plaque, then a cement wall, and, finally, a brick façade. More than an hour later, they hit what they were looking for: an oxidized copper urn, filled with the ashes of Luis Barragán, one of Mexico’s greatest architects, who died in 1988. They removed the urn from the cavity, brushing off dust and ants. Then they opened the vessel and presented it to Magid, who scooped out half a kilo of what looked like dirt and transferred it to a plastic bag, which she then put into a box. The next day, with the box in her carry-on, she flew home to New York.

In April, a diamond—2.02 carats, rough-cut, with one polished facet—arrived in Manhattan. It was sent overnight from Switzerland, and Magid had been tracking its shipping status hourly online. The package was delivered to her husband’s office, and after work he took it to Brooklyn, where they live with their two young sons. Magid did not open the small black box containing the jewel for hours, and, when she finally did, she cried. “It was way more emotional than I expected,” she told me.

Mined diamonds are typically between one and three billion years old, but this one had been created in six months from Barragán’s ashes by a company that specializes in compressing cremated human remains so that they can be worn as jewelry. The diamond sat in a fireproof safe in Magid’s apartment for the next two weeks. At the end of the month, she flew with it to Guadalajara, Barragán’s home town. She hadn’t slept the night before she left, and she kept rummaging through her purse like a person convinced that she’s lost her passport. She laughed at herself as she did so. “I just need to make sure he’s still in there,” she said.

Barragán, who won the Pritzker Prize in 1980, is revered for his geometric, brightly colored buildings, all of them in Mexico, which blend vernacular hacienda elements with modernist influences from Europe and America. The architect Louis Kahn called him “completely remarkable” and praised the home that Barragán designed for himself in Mexico City as “not merely a house but House itself.” But, since his death, Barragán has slipped from view, largely because of an odd arrangement concerning his archive and his copyrights. Since 1995, when both were purchased by a Swiss manufacturing family, the archive has been held in a bunker in Basel. Researchers have been denied access, and even the use of images of Barragán’s buildings is carefully controlled. Among those who study twentieth-century architecture, the inaccessibility of Barragán’s archive and the bizarre conditions of its custodianship have become almost as much of a preoccupation as his buildings.

Magid, whose art addresses issues of institutional power and the law, first heard about the archive four years ago. An elaborate plan began to form in her mind, an extended performance-art work in which all elements of the story—the architecture, the archive, those fighting over it, and Barragán himself—could be crystallized into a single gesture. “How,” Magid wondered, “does one insert oneself into a dead man’s life?”

It was jacaranda season in Guadalajara, and the streets were carpeted with purple blossoms. Magid headed to a grand, lemon-colored house in the city center, one of Barragán’s early buildings, which is now home to a Catholic university. It was late morning, and Magid had arranged to introduce Barragán’s family to their carbonized relative. A banquet table had been set up in the back garden. Fountains gurgled; parrots squawked; dogs barked on the other side of courtyard walls.

People began trickling into the garden. A man with a video camera circled. (A film unit, co-created by Laura Poitras, has commissioned Magid to make a documentary series about the Barragán project.) A little after noon, an elderly man with a Freud-style beard entered through a back gate. In one hand, he gripped a wooden cane carved to look like a horse; the other clasped the arm of his young granddaughter. It was Hugo Barragán, the architect’s nephew. Magid embraced him, and beckoned the group to the table. Hugo sat directly across from Magid, his head shaded by a mesh baseball cap that was held aloft by a servant.

Magid took the box out of her purse and placed it on the table. She opened the lid and the sun hit the stone. Everyone gasped. Hugo peered at the diamond, as a nephew took a photograph on his phone. His granddaughter, tears in her eyes, took the diamond from the box and placed it in Hugo’s shrivelled hand. Magid explained that the diamond would be set in an engagement ring the next day…

If you can resist continuing, stop here. Otherwise read the whole story here.

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