In September 2015, a pair of gravediggers stood together, shovels in hand, intent on exhuming a copper urn buried at the Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres monument in Guadalajara, Mexico. Accompanying them were a few local bureaucrats, two notaries, and American artist named Jill Magid. The purpose of their macabre mission was to retrieve the mortal remains of one of Mexico’s most notable architects: Luis Ramiro Barragán Morfín.
Connecticut-born conceptual artist Jill Magid did not know Luis Barragán while he was alive but became interested in the renowned architect and landscape designer after learning that his professional estate had been sold to the owner of a furniture company in Switzerland in 1995. Considered priceless by aficionados of architecture, the collection includes the rights to the Luis Barragán name as well as to his lifetime’s work and all private photographs taken of the same. The buyer, Vitra company president Rolf Fehlbaum, purportedly purchased Barragán’s professional estate for $3 million to give as an engagement gift to his fiancée, 30-something Italian architectural historian, Federica Zanco.
Currently the director of the Barragán Foundation, Federica Zanco denies that the archive was given to her as a pre-wedding gift. Nonetheless, Zanco remains in full control of Luis Barragán’s professional archive and has not made it available for public viewing for more than 20 years, says the New Yorker.
Jill Magid thinks that’s a shame, so she proposed an excellent idea to Rolf Fehlbaum: Exchange the archive for a 2.02 carat diamond ring made from the ashes of Luis Barragán. That way, Barragán’s work could be returned to his Mexican homeland.
The process of creating a diamond from human ashes involves several ounces of cremains, a crucible that can withstand ultra-high temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit and 800,000 pounds of pressure applied over a period of many weeks. The resulting gemstone can be faceted and polished just like a real diamond.
Thus far, Zanco has declined Magid’s May 31 proposal, explaining that while she finds the artist to be quite charming and intelligent, the goals of the two women are decidedly different. She elucidated further in an interview in the New Yorker.
“I would like to ask Jill, ‘With your work, will you be able to face the facts? You say it [the Barragán archive] should go back to Mexico. Back to whom? Under what circumstances?’ Institutional control is cold, unfriendly, and bureaucratic. But foundations are established to address problems.”
Zanco continued, telling the New Yorker that she is concerned that unrestricted reproduction of Barragán images would somehow devalue the architect’s work.
“More and more, Barragán is becoming the Frida Kahlo of architecture. People ask for pictures, and they want them now! You agree, and then you see them in a spread in a fashion magazine for something about how pink is the new color for spring.”
Who was Luis Barragán?
Luis Ramiro Barragán Morfín was born on March 9, 1902, not very far from where his cremains were interred in the winter of 1988 and dug up again last summer. He graduated from the Escuela Libre de Ingenieros in Guadalajara, Jalisco with civil engineering and architectural degrees in 1925.
Following an extended stay in Europe, Barragán settled in Mexico City, where he busied himself with the design and construction of apartment complexes and small residences in the Cuauhtémoc neighborhood. The architect began work on his own home in 1947, around the same time that he started designing Mexico City’s most elaborate elite residential development, the Jardines del Pedregal. Today, Casa Luis Barragán stands as a museum that comprises the architect’s studio and residence at 12 and 14 General Francisco Ramírez Street in the city’s modest Tacubaya neighborhood.
According to his biography, Luis Barragán produced his greatest works between 1945 and 1985. Among his most notable designs are the El Pedregal gardens, his private home in Mexico City, the Chapel for the Capuchinas Sacramentarias del Purisimo Corazon de Maria, the Towers of Satellite City, Las Arboledas, Los Clubes, and Tlalpan Chapel, in Mexico City. In 1980, Barragán became the second person to win the International Pritzker Prize. Emilio Ambasz presented the award.
“We are honoring Luis Barragán for his commitment to architecture as a sublime act of poetic imagination. Luis Barragán has created gardens, plazas, fountains of haunting beauty, and metaphysical landscapes. A stoical acceptance of solitude as man’s fate permeates his work.”
The man who purchased Luis Barragán’s professional estate collects architects.
More specifically, Rolf Fehlbaum collects the work of gifted architectural designers from around the globe. According to a June 2004 article in The Guardian, Fehlbaum’s Swiss property is peppered with structures designed by such notable architects as Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando, and British-based Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. When he commissioned Hadid, her designs were celebrated as exceptional albeit impossible to build. That all changed when she designed a fire station that was successfully erected on Fehlbaum’s property. The cantilevered, cast in-situ concrete structure with walls that lean at strange angles now serves as a concert venue. Zaha Hadid was awarded the prestigious International Pritzker Prize in 2004.
The Guardian notes that Rolf Fehlbaum came by his appreciation of design naturally. His father owned a facility that specialized in the manufacture of furniture conceived by Charles and Ray Eames.
In September, The San Francisco Art Institute will present a multi-media exhibit based on Jill Magid’s four-year quest to retrieve the professional estate of Luis Barragán. The Proposal will be available for public viewing in the Walter & McBean gallery on September 9 and 10.
[Image via Francesco Bandarin | Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and resized | CC by-SA 3.0]