BLUE HOUSE, 1941

Apartment Building at 17 Calle Francisco Ramírez

1961

Residential

Location: Calle General Francisco Ramírez 17, Colonia Ampliación Daniel Garza, Mexico City

Client: Luis Barragán

Note: Not built

 

[Proposing the construction of residential units, this study addresses an elongated lot owned by Barragán opposite the Barragán House. Conceived as a speculative venture, the diverse apartment size options optimize spatial yield. The end of the lot sees the renovation of a single, pre-existing dwelling.]

[BF: actually, the renovation of the rear dwelling isn’t part of this, but of the B+F office project]

 

[BF / Vera: Try to shorten the text when editing; certain details might be omitted for a better reading of the overall story]

 

Among several other properties in Tacubaya, Barragán owned a plot opposite his house-studio, approximately 900 m² in size and separated from the garden of his friend and colleague Enrique del Moral by a strip of land about ten metres wide. The archives contain some plans of the area which although not dated can be traced to the early 1940s when Barragán was preparing to purchase the plots on Avenida Madereos, known today as Avenida Constituyentes. At that time, the plot at no. 17 Calle Francisco Ramírez was occupied by residential buildings which the owner, Señor Donaciano López, lived in for a while.[1] The planimetries provide no further details that might hint at any interest on the architect’s part in the aforementioned plot. Furthermore, gaps in the records make it impossible to clarify the circumstances surrounding Barragán’s acquisition of the site.

 

Before 1956, the project site had no specific identity and even lacked its own street number. This was applied for in November of the same year and the first survey of the whole irregular, long and narrow plot, lying on an east-west axis, was drawn up at the same time.[2] The west front, overlooking Calle Francisco Ramírez, is approximately 13 metres long and the opposite one 10 metres long. The total depth varies from 73 metres on the north side to 86 on the south one, which also features an approximately three-metre indentation half-way along it.[3] The terrain slopes slightly downwards from the Calle Francisco Ramírez street level towards the interior, developing a total height difference of almost three metres. The measurements attached to the application for a street number roughly match those calculated during a second and more precise survey conducted in November 1961 (fig. 1).[4]

 

At that time, the topography of the entire plot drawn in a scale of 1:100 also shows the planimetry of the pre-existing buildings. As suggested by the land-registry estimate dated 5 November 1961, these are unassuming buildings identified in the document as: Moderno corriente (trans. low-cost) and Moderno. The total built area measures approximately 340 m2, plus 58 m2 of temporary constructions.[5] The only building of any worth is a recently constructed one at the eastern end of the plot. It stands one storey above ground and consists in a series of four rooms arranged around a central spine wall dividing the layout in two. Access is via a small loggia and the flat roof is reached up a single flight of steps built against the outer north wall. Despite the presence of this 136 m2 construction, the overall value of the buildings is far lower than that of the land.[6] Indeed, such is the state of abandon of the buildings near the street that they are pencilled in dotted lines on the survey and described as: ruinas.

 

In the 1960s, Barragán began to consider the plot’s potential, simulating several options in which he envisaged the construction of one or more residential units and a building to provide office space. Generally speaking, the records are fragmentary and do not allow us to develop an exhaustive and univocal project narration. Indeed, the documents reveal a complex and empirical design process, constantly featuring the parallel development of an array of solutions. The drawings can be divided into two separate sets, based on their production by different people and, very probably, at different times.[7]

 

A few months after the land-registry survey, in August 1962, the Dirección general de obras públicas / the public works office sent its own surveyor to quantify the land subject to expropriation for the widening of Calle Francisco Ramírez, probably to build a pavement.[8] As a result, some of the unstable constructions described above were expropriated and eventually demolished. The entire operation also reduced the total area of the site, which fell from 908 m2 to 886 m2.[9] Following the demolition of these buildings, Barragán redesigned the enclosure on the street front. In September 1962, he was granted permission to construct a “Barda de Tabique” (wall) 13.7 metres long and 2.5 high.[10] Some sketches of the elevation along the street-front are conserved in the archives. These are very similar, differing only in small details but these do make a major contribution to its overall perception.[11] What appears to be the final version envisaged the erection of a 4.30-metre wall and the insertion of a large gate, probably metal, for vehicular access. A pedestrian entrance was to be opened beside this as well as a small window, probably intended to convey light into the gate-lodge (figs. 6, 7).[12]

 

In the same years, Barragán presumably started assessing the timeliness of making a profit from the plot after increasing its estate value by designing and building one or more apartment blocks there. The design proper was preceded by several financial feasibility studies that probably filled more than the two sheets of paper currently in the archives. What can, in hindsight, be considered the first bears the heading: “Cuanto hay que construir para vender la tierra en 1 million de pesos” (fig. 2). This wording leaves no doubt as to the purpose of the table that follows which compares the costs and returns of constructing residential units ranging from 50 m2 per apartment to 300 m2, all sold at 1800 pesos/ m2. The end purpose of this overview is to identify the best solution to exponentially increase the price of the land, boosting it from an initial land-registry value of approximately 110'000 pesos to a market one of 1,000,000 pesos.[13] The aforementioned table was probably drawn up in conjunction with type studies ascertaining the sizes, layouts and spatial quality of the apartments in architectural terms. Traces of this work appear in the archives in a set of plans which resemble each other in drawing style.[14]

 

Documents belonging to this first design phase include a set of studies for three duplex apartment options. The spatial structure of the apartments is anything but flexible and strongly bound to a central vertical distribution block. The 100 m2 and 175 m2 apartments are designed as house/studios with a single aspect (figs. 9, 10). The house spaces are manifestly disproportionate to those allocated to the large dual-height lounge/studio, the heart of the home. Service spaces are reduced to a minimum, as too those allocated to the domestic staff. It is interesting to see that in both cases, despite their generous overall size, only one master bedroom is envisaged, and with its own bathroom. This is clearly a strategic decision, dictated by a desire to aim the residential proposal at a specific target market: upper middle class childless couples and singles. The set described above also contains studies for 200 m2 apartments aimed at a totally different consumer: middle-class families (figs. 11, 12). In this case, the apartments are on two levels and have a dual aspect. The total area is equally divided on two levels with the first containing the living spaces: kitchen, office and rooms for the domestic staff. The second level is accessed via an internal staircase and contains the sleeping quarters, with the two master bedrooms.

 

Both the house/studios and family apartments are designed to be linked vertically to create an apartment building configured by two vertical blocks, coupled and interconnected by a staircase block placed in the middle. Two similar compositional strategies are adopted to visually lighten the blocks, in the case of the house-studios adopting units of the same size and in the other using units of the same size but slightly shifted along the symmetrical axis (fig. 5).[15] Generally speaking, the use of the tower-block type has advantages in terms of ground occupation and by reducing the footprint the rest of the plot can be used as a communal garden.

 

There is a planimetric positioning drawing for each duplex apartment. The planimetric and volumetric drawings in the archives are similar and can be linked to a common settlement strategy based on positioning the apartment block approximately ten metres from the east boundary and reserving the area in front for green space.[16] There are probably two objectives behind this choice: reducing the impact of the shade cast by the building on the architect Barragán’s own home and not creating discordant changes in scale from the pre-existing urban facade. In both cases examined, the continuity of the front on Calle Francisco Ramírez is guaranteed by the construction of a gate, near which are the stopping places and probably also an indoor carpark, as suggested by the presence of a ramp on the planimetries.

 

During this first design phase, as well as the duplex housing options, three standard 78 m2, 100 m2 and 160 m2 apartments were designed, the last of which is the most interesting spatially speaking (fig. 8). A single apartment per floor leads off an entrance hall that also serves the central distribution, functionally dividing the layout in two. The living area consists in a large lounge, a kitchen and an office. The sleeping quarters comprise two bedrooms and as many bathrooms. A third room for the domestic staff with a private bathroom has its own entrance on the landing of the building.

 

The overall size of the layout, 10.50 wide and 15.50 metres long, roughly matches that on a couple of planimetric and volumetric options, each proposing a different settlement solution (fig. 4). The first hypothesis of those contemplated involves the construction of a single apartment building, a tower block rising ten storeys above ground. The same width as the plot, it sits 11 metres from its eastern edge and probably beside the pre-existing building, which is kept for the most part unaltered and the roof of which becomes a communal terrace. The space in front is turned into garden save for the area set aside for parking, beside the entrance on Calle Francisco Ramírez. As well as the open-air parking area, designed for eight cars, there is an underground carpark for up to 19 vehicles. By contrast, and for the first time, the second hypothesis introduces a new settlement strategy, different from those previously described. Instead of amassing the apartments in a tower block, it breaks the total volume down into two four-storey blocks, each positioned at the eastern and western extremes of the site to exploit its overall depth. The first apartment block is built on the footprint of the pre-existing building, eight metres from the eastern boundary. A long, narrow strip of communal garden separates it from the second block, set 5.50 metres back from the street front. The block overlooking Calle Francisco Ramírez has another underground level to provide a carpark for eight vehicles.

 

The division into two or more constructions brings considerable financial benefits compared with the tower block – stemming from an increased built area and a reduction in the incidence of construction costs. It is no coincidence that the settlement solutions, to be regarded as an afterthought, show a clear change of direction as demonstrated, among other things, by an archive document (fig. 3).[17] It is another table estimating the costs and returns on the construction of three apartment blocks rising five storeys above ground and interspersed with patios and gardens. Each block was to provide a total of eight working-class apartments, two per floor, each of which 75 m2 in size.[18] What is probably a coeval sketch shows a standard apartment layout with three bedrooms, a bathroom and a lounge with kitchenette in a central position that, together with the communal staircase block, divides the masterplan into two specular halves.[19]

 

As previously mentioned, the second set of documents was certainly drawn up at a later stage by a different person working in Barragán’s office. It consists in four plans bearing Roman numerals and each pertaining to a settlement solution. Generally speaking, each of the five options is illustrated in a ground attachment planimetry, a standard apartment layout and a longitudinal section of the entire plot. Of the five options, three are accompanied by comparative overviews illustrating the built-area ratios. The options numbered I and II show the same planimetric and volumetric structure, the only substantial difference lying in the apartment block (figs. 13, 14). In both cases, the block sits in the centre of the plot, occupying its entire width and dividing the plot into two functionally and altimetrically separate areas, east and west. That on the west and entrance side is approximately three metres higher than that on the east side and is entirely allocated to diagonal surface parking for up to nine cars. Part of the parking area is protected by a portico on pilotis that serves also as an entrance to the apartment block. The difference in level between the front of the plot and its innermost part is absorbed and resolved by the apartment block’s attachment to the ground which leads pedestrians to the lowered eastern garden via two half-storey ramps. This green space separates the apartment block from the pre-existing block by just one storey above ground, converted to an apartment overlooking both the block’s green space and its own patio-garden, created against the eastern site boundary. As a rule, the apartment block has two wings – east and west – staggered by half a storey and connected by a communal staircase. The position of this staircase varies according to the arrangement of the apartments. In option I, the staircase block is central and serves a total of eight duplex-studio apartments with a dual aspect and a one-level apartment on the ground floor.[20] The total height of the apartment block is five storeys above ground.[21] Diversely, in option II, the staircase is moved close to the northern edge of the plot and serves a total of eight apartments, each approximately 115 m2, for a total height of four storeys.[22]

 

Option III is very similar to option II, except for the insertion of an office space on pilotis beside the entrance gate on Calle Francisco Ramírez (fig. 15). This building rises just two storeys above ground and is accessed via a stairwell beside the gate-lodge, positioned, as previously, on the vehicle threshold.[23] Option IV differs significantly from the others. Unlike those previously illustrated, the hypothesis of gaining substantial profit from dividing up the plot does not seem to have been discarded here. Indeed, most of the entire subdivision area is allocated to parking for up to 17 cars. The only constructions are at the eastern and western ends: one is the pre-existing building converted to a one storey single-family house; the other is the gate with its lodge (fig. 16). Option V is the last one and appears on the same drawing as option IV. This option is a hybrid of the previously described scenario and a feature of option III. The idea of building an apartment block is side-lined in favour of a construction at the front end of the plot accommodating 315 m2 of office space. With the exception of the east apartment building, in this case again the entire plot is occupied by a carpark. This option is certainly chronologically the last.

 

The archives contain no further documentation on the housing project for plot 17 on Calle Ramírez and the intention seems gradually to have been abandoned. The reasons behind such a decision, whether personal or financial, cannot be conceived. The fact is that the above plot remained the architect’s property throughout his lifetime. Towards the end of the 1970s, Barragan and his young partner Raúl Ferrera recommenced the design process with a totally different aim. On that occasion, they considered converting the pre-existing east building to the premises of the partnership / B + F office. As had previously occurred, this last project remained unfinished and, to date, the entire site looks much as it must have in the 1960s.

 

[1] The planimetry, undated and untitled, probably dates from the early 1940s. It shows the two street blocks in the quadrilateral forming the streets known today as: General Méndez, Gobernador José Ceballos, Avenida Parque Lira and Avenida Constituyentes. The drawing, in pencil on tissue paper, shows the boundaries of the properties and has annotations regarding their legitimate owners. Barragán’s name does not appear.

[2] “Solicitud de alineamientos y numeros oficiales”, 9 November 1956, is a paper form, printed front and back, that Barragán completed to apply for a street number. On the front are details of the applicant and owner, which in this case are both Luis Barragán. The same page contains information on its use: “Para uso de habitación”. Finally, a rubber stamp confirms that the aforementioned plot was assigned the street number 17 on 19 November 1956.

[3] On the back of the same certificate is an off-scale survey of the plot in question. The measurements on the sketch are as follows: Calle Francisco Ramírez side 13.70 m; north side 73.40 m; east side 10.70 m; south side 86 m (54.00+32.00); Total area: 901.70 m2.

[4] The measurements on the general planimetry of November 1961 differ, sometimes substantially, from the previous survey: Calle Francisco Ramírez side 13 m; north side 73.46 m; east side 10.6 m; south side 83 m (51.00+32.00). As a result, the calculation of the total area does not match either and its overall estimated size is 908.80 m2.

[5] This information is stated on the document drawn up by the Dirección General de catastro e impuesto predial Dept. de liquidación y giro, dated 5 November 1961, which notifies the owner, Luis Barragán, of the land-registry value of the buildings and land at no. 17 Calle Francisco Ramírez.

[6] The land-registry survey drawn up by the Dirección General de catastro e impuesto predial Dept. de liquidación y giro estimates a total area of 890 m2. The square metres that would, just a few months later, be subject to expropriation had already been subtracted from the total (908 m2). Nonetheless, the total value of the land is 177,500.00, of which 109,146.80 pesos for the land and 68,350.00 pesos for the buildings.

[7] The archive documents on the plot at Calle Francisco Ramírez 17 consist in approximately 60 drawings and plans plus 20 or so sketches and notes. The documents were erroneously linked to type studies for the houses to be built at Lomas Verdes. This erroneous location would appear to have been a mistake caused partially by the similarity between the works. This circumstance cannot, however, be verified as much of the material retrieved, especially the drawings, is undated.

[8] In August 1961, a new urban front was realigned to the pre-existing west façade of the house that belonged to Enrique del Moral. The house, as too the Barragán house-studio, was created in 1948 and occupies the corner plot at the intersection of Calle Francisco Ramírez and what was then known as Calle Madereros but is now Avenida Constituyentes.

[9] On 17 August 1962, the Dirección general de obras públicas, oficina de planificación, servicio de localización y trazo proceeded to expropriate a strip of land from plot 17 equal to that required to construct a pavement on the east side of Calle Francisco Ramírez. After this operation, the total site area was reduced by 22.59 m2. The document was approved a few days later as shown by an official stamp dated 21 August 1962.

[10] The archives contain a document authorising the construction of a “Barda de Tabique”, to be erected along the new street front established on 17 August 1962. The permit issued by the Dirección general de obras públicas, Oficina de vía pública lasts 30 days within which time the applicant, Barragán, is authorised to construct it. However, the documents in the archives do not establish whether the aforementioned outer wall was erected between 24 August and 24 September 1962.

[11] One option in the archives shows a wall of a different size. Instead of being 4.30 metres, it is just 3.60. The only opening that changes substantially is the vehicular gate which, instead of being 3.85 m high, is exactly three metres high.

[12] No entrance gate plans were found among the archive material so presumably, although this cannot be verified, the intention was to build a small construction adjacent to the outer wall.

[13] The purpose of the feasibility study was to achieve a gross profit of approximately one million pesos. To this end, it envisaged investing two million: half of this sum was the initial capital, the other half came from a bank loan. With this profit in mind, it considers a wide array of options ranging from creating 33 50 m2 apartments to the possibility of building just five 300 m2 ones. It establishes a selling price of approximately 1800 pesos/m2 based on two contingent factors: the land value, 1/3 of the total, and that of building, 2/3 of the total.

[14] The drawing style suggests they were produced by Andrés Casillas who, in those years, had just started working for Barragán’s office. In 2006, an interview edited by Juan Palomar was published in his monograph. On that occasion, Casillas looked back at the start of his career and, among the others, mentioned working with Barragán from 1962 until 1968. Andrés Casillas de Alba, Juan Palomar Verea, Monografías de arquitectos del siglo XX, [Gobierno de Jalisco,] 2006. p. 21.

[15] The tower block, formed of two vertical and parallel constructions, was a recurrent compositional theme, seen on several occasions in the 1960s. We must remember the volumetric sketch of the apartment block at the entrance to the La Alteña development (1965-1967), as too the sketches of the office block in Lomas Verdes (1964–1967), also called Edificio Símbolo [BF: not bold as this refers to the first version developed along with Lomas Verdes].

[16] In this set of planimetries, the plot configuration is simplified and so its outline is not precise in the overall layout. In particular, the south side is drawn without its distinctive three-metre indentation.

[17] The document is entitled “Analisis del conjunto condominial FR. 17, estudio para habitación popular con prestamo bancario sobre habitac. de 80.000”. It is a one-page document, undated, showing a sketched general planimetry with several notes alongside; the handwriting suggests they were written by Andrés Casillas.

[18] The working-class nature of the apartments is demonstrated not only by the greater settlement density but also by the cost of approximately 1000 pesos/ m2, much lower than the 1800 envisaged in the previously described prospectus. With the same square metres, an apartment of the same size would cost 80,000 instead of the 135,000 initially planned.

[19] The approximate apartment layout is sketched on a sheet of paper which also contains a sketch of a building clearly inspired by the Siedlung Halen (1955-1961) by the Bernese/ Swiss Atelier5. This fact is however not enough to suggest a conceptual and figurative proximity to the project for Ramírez 17.

[20] The duplexes are spread over a total of 146 m2 on two levels. The lower one contains the living area with a dual-height lounge and the upper one provides the sleeping quarters, comprising a bedroom, bathroom and mezzanine.

[21] The table on the option I areas gives the following details. Total built area 1605 m2, of which: 1168 m2 for eight duplex-studio apartments; 197 m2 for two apartments; 240 m2 of horizontal connections, stairwells and concierge. Finally, 440 m2 are set aside for patios, gardens and parking.

[22] The table for the option II area gives the following details: total built area 1120 m2, of which 920 m2 for apartments; 200 m2 for horizontal connections, staircases and concierge. Lastly, 505 m2 are allocated to patios, gardens and parking.

[23] The table for the option III areas gives the following details: total built area 1120 m2, of which 920 m2 for eight apartments; 200 m2 for offices; 200 m2 for horizontal connections, stair wells and concierge. Lastly, 320 m2 are set aside for patios, gardens and parking.

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