The Future Looks Bright

With the imminent completion of his Fashion and Textile Museum in London's Bermondsey, Mexican Architect Ricardo Legorreta is finally enjoying the limelight on this side of the Atlantic. Kieran Long reports.

The last two years have taken Ricardo Legorreta's reputation to hitherto unscaled heights. In that time, the 69-year-old Mexican has scooped the AIA gold medal and the UIA gold medal and he has now definitively stepped out of the shadow of his compatriot Luis Barragan to make it onto the international A list as Mexico's premier living architect.

Legorreta: unafraid of being bold

The last two years have also seen him deciding to make his mark this side of the Atlantic. London's Bermondsey Street is already basking in the reflected glory of his new Fashion and Textile Museum: an 11-storey hotel is underway in Bilbao, and Legorreta Arquitectos is also to design 108 housing units in the outskirts of Madrid with Aguinaga & Associates.

Ricardo Legorreta was born in Mexico City in 1931, and graduated from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in 1953. After working for Jose Villagran Garcia in Mexico City for seven years he established Legorreta Arquitectos in 1964.

He is an unrepentant colour terrorist, and described his relationship with colour as "true love"

To the uninitiated the shocking pink of the Fashion and Textile Museum may seem more influenced by client Zandra Rhodes' hair colour than architectural preference. However a glance at Legorreta's back catalogue will confirm that he is unafraid of being bold. In fact his obsession with colours has forced American journalists to search for more descriptive names for the colours he uses. Magazines have been forced into more imaginative terms like mango, enchilada red, fuschia, cadmium yellow and magenta to try to communicate the array.

Legorreta's Solana office complex for IBM in Texas nearly cost the client a lawsuit, after local residents threatened to sue, saying the bold colours "loud and un-Texas".

He is an unrepentant colour terrorist and once described his relationship with colour as "true love": "As happens with true love every day I love colour more."

Barragan was a profound influence on Legorreta's work. A sense of the history of construction in Mexico and of the importance of context informed Barragan's work and has continued through into Legorreta's. Both men have a sense of the need for some kind of mystical connection with nature in their work. Legorreta talks about the wall in his architecture as "always present, first as natural element and then when we begin to look at it more deeply as a primary player, both governing and essential, ending as the basic element as the true Mexican architecture." There are clear echoes in this of Barragan's idealisation of the Mexican village and his notion of religious spirituality and mythical roots as the "roots to the reason of being of the artistic phenomenon".

There is a palpable sense that Legorreta has given himself the self-imposed task of tending the flame of contemporary Mexican architecture. He has the expressed the intention of nurturing in his late career a community of Mexican architects who are "good and serious", taking the US architectural scene in the 40s and 50s as his model.

But not everyone agrees that he is the best person to do it. Some critics say that although Legorreta learned much from Barragan, his architecture, while more colourful and ostentatious than that of his predecessor, lacks formal expertise. There is also a sense that Legorreta has enjoyed the commercial success that was denied Barragan: always rather frowned on by the purists.

After the Solana building, he was offered commissions for major public buildings in the early 90s - the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua, a new innovation museum in San Jose, and a library in San Antonio - and continued to win work with large corporates, such as headquarters for Televisa in Mexico City.

One review of his work in the US claimed that he has had too much success, with indulgent clients and astronomical budgets hiding his weaknesses. His San Jose Children's Discovery Museum was forced into a 350,000 refit just three years after it was completed, when leaks developed in skylights and the roof. There were also complaints that the interior spaces were not suitable for many of the museum's exhibitions. Many of his earlier buildings are weathering badly, and some have questioned his insistence on a Mexican palette of materials.

He deals frankly with these criticisms. As he says about his project for Chicago University: "I never thought before how any of our buildings would do in the snow. And the moment you consider snow, then you start to realise it's not only insulation and all those other technical aspects that are different. It's the philosophical aspoect - what you feel when you enter a building when it's freezing outside. In Mexico we integrate the inside and outside. In Chicago, that would not work."

In this comment you csan almost sense his brain working on the problem. Despite this , his belief in his his architecture remains unshaken, and his cultural identity is his touchstone. "There is a give and take in al of this. It is very difficult because you still have to be yourself," he says, "I cannot say, now Ricardo Legorreta is going to be one Ricardo Legorreta in Mexico and another one in Chicago - it's just not possible."

And it is Mexico that has forged and continues to form his identity in architecture. Legorreta reacted against the prevailing international style in Mexico in the 50's, advocating sa long with barragan, the tradtional thick wall architecure of the country. It was legorreta who founf a a way of elevatin thids doemestic sensibitlity to a monumental level, as with his classic 1968 prioject, the Camino real Hotel in mexico City.

Following this, a series of large scale projects exprtessed his heady mix of solid, colourful forms, and luxuroius envirnments in a new Mexican neo-vernacular. This can be tracked through aproject such as the Camino real cancun (1975), the Renault factory Durango (1984), the Camino real Ixtapa (1981), the Solana IBM campus (1988), and Managua Cathedral (1994).

Given this invention of a new mode of expression for a Mexican architectural language, it is ironic that his great wish to do more low cost housing its to be realised outside of his own country. The municipal housing corporation in Madrid has commissioned Legorreta Arquitectos in collaboration with local practice Aguinaga Associates, to design 108 social housing units in La Latina district, 8km from the centre of Madrid.

Ten volumes of 428 storeys will be linked by a series of plazas and gardens and connected to a public park on the roadside. The locals there nmmight be a bit more comforatble with the Mexican vernacular than the residents of Bermondsey conservation area, but that doesn't mea to say that they will enjoy it any more. It is about time we had a building from this fascinating figure, and it could just make him odds on to win the RIBA gold medal in the next couple of years - it's the only one he hasn't yet won.

from Building Design, September 22, 2000