From the ARCADE Issue 35.3 feature,"Rethinking Efficiency." Articles from the issue will release online over the following weeks. Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

Luis Barragan stairs

Photos © Patrick Brennan

In Mexico in 1934, the architect Luis Barragán was 32 years old. He had just completed a group of small houses in the vicinity of the Parque de la Revolución, a public park in Guadalajara he designed with his brother at about the same time. The four or five houses are clustered around a cubist house designed by former classmate Rafael Urzúa and are bordered by other small houses designed by another classmate, the architect and priest Pedro Castellanos. All three architects were enormously talented young men. In time, many people would consider Luis Barragán a genius. In 1934, some of the Tapatío intelligentsia already recognized that to be true.

These houses designed by Barragán, Urzúa, and Castellanos are all sympathetic to one another, and it seems obvious that each architect was working to create a unique building while at the same time carefully considering the others’ work. The overall effect is one of visually interlocking structures with shared walls and a shared goal of being separate but together. One common feature of all these houses is the patio de servicio. These working patios are located at the back or side of each house, creating a cluster of spaces open to the sky in the center of the dense modernist block.

Three of the four or five houses that Luis Barragán designed contain sculptural staircases (escalera) that lead from the ground-floor patios de servicio to small first-floor (primier piso) bedroom terraces, then continue up to roof terraces (azoteas) and cubic laundry enclosures. These spaces are strung with cord lines for hanging clothing, sheets, dish towels, and other household laundry to dry in the warm Mexican sun. Each patio de servicio is entirely outdoors with the exception of a small enclosed sleeping or resting room (siesta) on one end and a tiny toilet and bathing sink on the other. In addition, each has a floor-level mop-sink and a lavadero, a deep concrete wash sink with a shallow concrete scrub sink attached. The patios are three and a half by ten meters. The walls surrounding the patios rise up six to eleven meters and scoop a section of pure sky.

Luis Barragan stairs

To look closer, let’s take one house’s patio, and its staircase, as an example: at different times of the day different areas of the patios de servicio are hot with sun or cool shade (sombra). In this house’s patio de servicio, the deep concrete sink is gravity fed by a water tank (tinaco) on the roof terrace (or neighboring roof terrace), which in turn is fed by the water stored underground in the cisterna, which receives water from the public system. The sink sits in the southeast corner in a nook created by the overhang of the bedroom terraza above. It is the coolest place on the patio. The subtropical sun never reaches into the cold waterworks of the lavadero. It is also protected from the intense summer rains. It is a perfect place to wash laundry. To work.

The task of laundry was, and still is today, accomplished by midmorning. It comes after the sweet breakfast or Mexican coffee or juice and after the entire house is swept and then wet mopped, including the sidewalk, the patios, and the stairs—in other words, after the household gets moving into the day. When every piece is washed and placed into a basket, it is then carried up to the azotea to hang on the cord lines and dry. The stairway to get there is made of steep one-to-one risers and treads of 25 centimeters. Halfway up is a spot to pause, and a few steps after that pause is another as the stair changes its south-north orientation and heads west. It continues west until reaching the top.

The movement of the staircase has the feeling of a rising musical octave. There is a different sound with each step and along the way a sensation of moving from the cool, wet shade of the wash sink into the brilliant and dazzling sun. It is a difficult climb, a strenuous climb, and all the while through all the bodily sensations one must stay present. The stairway has a quality of danger. There is a metal railing to help with the lift, but if one fell, there would be serious consequences. It forces a sort of consciousness. An attention.

Just as one reaches the top, the spires of the Templo Expiatorio, a gothic cathedral, come into view. It is a sort of reward for the work. Now one is with the Gods, whether the church, the sun, the clouds, or the deep blue sky. One is on top of the world after climbing only 10 meters. One with the universe. Transformation.

Hang the laundry.

Luis Barragan stairs

On the way down, back to work and real life, the same quality of attention is required. The reflected sun reminds and informs throughout the remainder of the day in the form of cubic patterns, square suns that change with the hours and the seasons.

The experience of climbing the great pyramids of the Maya and the Aztecs is recreated in this way daily as one struggles to reach the top. The azotea. The full octave.

 The contemplative view.

 Washing laundry in 1934 and today in a small house designed by Luis Barragán. Architect. Genius.