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The 'Three Lives' of Luis Barragán

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25 Aug 2020

Ines Weizman on the legacy of Luis Barragán

When an architect or artist dies, they lose all agency. The last will—signed at a legal office, passed on as a letter to a friend, or whispered on the deathbed—is the only instrument that can help create a measure of agency beyond death. The disadvantage being that, as far as the deceased is concerned, there is little in the way of ensuring their wishes are met.

An architect or artist’s life is generally divided into three stages: One is the extent of the biological life, the period when the work is being produced and when the archive is under the control of the author, a living human being. The second begins at the point of death. According to the Berne Convention, this life is calculated as having a minimum duration of seventy years for legal copyright protection after the death of an author. Many countries have raised this figure to as much as seventy-five years, somehow aligning the life of a copyright with the average lifetime of a person. This time, which we could call the 'second life' of an artwork, is the time when the rights belong to the inheritors of the deceased. The 'third life' begins immediately after the end of the second and is in principle infinite. In the third life, the work is public property.

Trouble often begins after death. It is in the second life when most controversies to do with the benefits of artwork occur, when maneuvers, intrigue and power games play out. Trustees who initially aimed to protect and promote the work and reputation of the author sometimes begin to inhibit publications and exhibitions and make the works largely inaccessible to the public, essentially distorting and manipulating the author’s reception.

We are now entering an era of 'modernism’s third life'.The second life of an artist such as Hermann Muthesius (1927), Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1928), Lars Backer (1930), Adolf Loos (1933),Hans Poelzig (1936), or Bruno Taut (1938) ended recently. But we are bound to be engaged with controversies concerning the second lives of the postwar modernists.


The Proposal stands as a product of a whole series of exhibitions Magid has staged in venues since 2013

Jill Magid’s film The Proposal focuses on the second of the three lives of Mexican architect Luis Barragán. He wrote his will shortly before his death in 1988. When he left his professional archive to his associate, he must have hoped that the archive would be useful for works they were about to pursue, but also that it could eventually be available publicly through an institution. Unfortunately, Barragan’s growing posthumous reputation meant that it would fall prey to those who could pay for it. A private collector in Switzerland acted more swiftly than heritage institutions in Mexico. The result is that the archive is closed to researchers and the public; requests for access and filming rights are being declined or remain unanswered; and drawings, plans, and related correspondence remain obscured. This privatisation is denying a portion of globally important debate about one of the greatest modernist architects.

The Proposal stands as a product of a whole series of exhibitions Magid has staged in venues since 2013, in which she—well aware of the copyright limitation on exhibiting Barragán—carefully tested the boundaries of what is possible to present while also trying to engage with Federica Zanco—who reportedly received the archive as a gift from her spouse and who is now the owner of Barragán’s professional archive and holder of the full copyright on Barragán’s work—on a personal and more intimate level. Although the Barragan Foundation (the foundation spells Barragán’s name without an accent) is registered as a nonprofit institution that promises in its statute to be a publicly accessible institution devoted to preserving, studying, and promoting knowledge about the work of the architect, the archive has not been accessible to the public since the foundation was established in 1996.


a woman looks against a pastel sky

When Magid contacts Barragán’s family to produce a diamond from the architect’s ashes, she is aware of the macabre nature of this request, but does so in order to bring about public awareness of an uneasy situation regarding an architectural collection that has, for over two decades, lapsed into obscurity. Magid describes the film as the last chapter of her endeavor to intervene in a seemingly irrevocable deal that has left the archive of Mexican architect Luis Barragán out of public view. Diamonds are known for their ability to cut through materials that other substances cannot. It is the fetishised nature of the diamond that shall break another fetishised art convention—the tyranny of collectors and copyright law. And it is the medium of film, circulated and discussed in public or private screenings, that will create an archive entry to mark a missing archive.

In a sense, one can understand Magid’s work as trying to affect the conniving intrigue of the second life, perhaps to shorten or accelerate it and to precipitate the arrival of the third life. She does so by using organic carbon material from first life that, conceptually, acts like a time machine, leading us to the year 2063. The diamond is a symbol for the entire promise of Barragán’s work. It stands at the centre of a network and a set of relations that brings together actors, human and nonhuman, as well as works, drawings, people, and finance from Mexico to the United States to Switzerland.


The diamond is a symbol for the entire promise of Barragán’s work

And perhaps Magid’s work is even more radical than that and points to a fundamental revision of copyright laws—something that I have elsewhere called the 'rights of the object'. If copyright is to objects what human rights are to people, then the right of copying/reproduction will have to be rethought. Copyright is nowadays understood as the consequence of determining the identity of a maker of an object, a thing, an idea, or a building, and eventually the privilege of a maker. But what if copyright is not to be thought of as the right of designers, but as that of the objects/buildings themselves? For this to happen, we need to imagine turning objects/buildings into something like subjects—the bearers of rights. What would be fascinating to pursue, also in the light of Magid’s film, might be to rethink the designer’s role as no longer being the sole creator and prudish regulator of architecture, and instead to understand architecture as an 'interpretative act', as media, and thus to understand media in matter. Only in this way will it matter.

Ines Weizman is an architectural theorist. She is Head of PhD at the School of Architecture, Royal College of Art, London, Director of the Bauhaus-Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture and Planning at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, and founding director of the Centre for Documentary Architecture. Ines is also one of multiple contributors to the book The Proposal (Sternberg Press), which details and reflects upon Jill Magid’s multi-year project, The Barragán Archives.

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