Armchair Traveler

Intoxicating Color

Dung Ngo

Our resident wanderer, Dung Ngo, reflects on Luis Barragán’s Casa Gilardi from the comfort of his living room

I first visited Mexico City in the spring of 1995. It was a very different city then, quite polluted with the swarms of green Volkswagen Beetle taxis fueled by lead gasoline. But it was April, and the jacaranda was in bloom everywhere. The clusters of deep violet, trumpet-shaped flowers falling from the trees that lined the streets were visually intoxicating, and you knew that you were in DF.

Views of Casa Gilardi: the exterior and the central courtyard. Photos © Dung Ngo

Nowhere is this magical jacaranda color more amplified than at Casa Gilardi, a house by legendary Mexican architect Luis Barragán. The story is well-known: in 1976 the young owner of a tight urban lot asked Barragán to design him a house for the land. By then in his mid 70s, Barragán initially refused but changed his mind when he saw the mature jacaranda tree on the property. The Gilardi house’s plan revolves around a central courtyard where the jacaranda tree dominates, with the triple-floor, private living spaces in the front, and a single-floor “entertaining” room in the back, connected through a side hallway.

Inside Luis Barragán’s Casa Gilardi. Photo © Dung Ngo

The large entertaining living room—with its painted pool—is why the house is famous, and for good reason. A hidden clerestory brings a shaft of light to the pool, which slowly changes as the sun moves around the house. It is the essence of Barragán’s masterful manipulation of color and light in a single move.

The Casa Gilardi pool, illuminated by a shaft of light streaming through the clerestory above. Photos © Dung Ngo

It was the courtyard, though, that truly entranced me on that first visit. It was peak jacaranda season, and the entire ground surface of the courtyard was covered with the flowers. Barragán had selected the complimentary colors of magenta for the exterior of the private living volume, so that the two played off each other—the natural and the abstract. It was a vivid expression of how all inspirations come from nature.

Inside Luis Barragán’s Casa Gilardi. Photo © Dung Ngo

This year I had a chance to visit Mexico City again, and I made sure to arrive in mid-April, when the city was in bloom. But disappointingly the jacaranda at the Casa Gilardi was not yet flowering. “The tree is too old,” said the Gilardi son who gave the tour. “It now blooms several weeks later than the rest of the city.” But it was also the first time that I noticed that Barragán painted the side wall the exact color of the jacaranda flower, as if for it to be a year-round reminder of why he accepted his final commission. ◆