In memory of Ricardo Legorreta (May 7, 1931 – December 30, 2011), Carlo Ezechieli (Ph.D., Adjunct Professor of Architecture Politecnico di Milano, Principal of CE-A Architects) has shared with us his story of discovering Ricardo Legorreta’s work and his recent interview with Ricardo and his son, Victor Legorreta.
The first time I came in contact with Ricardo Legorreta’s work, was back in 1998. Of course I was familiar with his name, particularly due to Kenneth Frampton’s “Critical Regionalism” writings, but I actually did not know much about his architecture. One day I happened to visit the Camino Real Hotel in Mexico D.F. which, according to my hosts, it was something that had to be seen, although none of us was really knew what architect had designed it. I was totally amazed. The entrance, an extraordinary space, was filled up by the sound and movement of an unconventional fountain that resembled the ocean waves. The interior was a huge, astounding introverted and essential translation of Pre-Hispanic monumental spaces. I was surprised to learn, later on, that this very contemporary building dated back to 1968 and was completed when Legorreta was not even 40.
I did not have many chances to meet Ricardo privately, nevertheless I believe that the few meetings we had, were sufficient to learn something really important from him in terms of ethics, approach to work and, eventually, attitude towards life in general. Ricardo Legorreta was the author of incredible works and was a great innovator exactly because he was able to move and orient himself, with complete freedom, within the coordinates of a culture and a tradition that he knew deeply and to which he felt he belonged totally. He did this always avoiding “architect’s” bizarre and unneeded brain-waves and remembering “not to take oneself too seriously”. A set of values, too often forgotten, that emerge from his narration in this interview and which finds full continuity in his son Victor. His death, last December 30, leaves a deep sense of sorrow and loss.
Continue reading for Ezechieli’s exclusive interview with Ricardo and Victor Legorreta.
How would you describe your work in 30 seconds?
Ricardo Legorreta: In my point of view, work is first of all passion, a passion which consists in the creation of spaces that improve the quality of people’s life, that makes them somehow happy. There is a kind of “rustic” definition of architecture, I like that a lot, and it says something like: “a good architecture is that something that makes happy both the lord and the peasant”.
Victor Legorreta: I agree. I think that the most important thing for us is creating spaces that are able to trigger an emotion.
What do you think are the principal features of making architecture in Mexico?
RL: A remarkable peculiarity of Mexico is that sort of resistance against the rise of specialized professional designers. I am convinced that the character of the “specialized” architect, ranging from the interior designer to the landscape architect, is something that results more from a commercial offer, which is frequently fictional, rather than a real need. Actually, all these are nothing more than niches of a job that has a very long history: which is designing spaces. Due to this market and money logic we ended up forgetting a number of fundamental values: as we say in Mexico “se nos fué la mano” (eng. we got carried away).
How does your work develop?
RL: I wouldn’t say that we follow a particular method. However, we develop hundreds of models in different scales, work is in constant evolution and, after an initial discussion, we can carry it on in relative autonomy, following a rationale of liberty and respect.
VL: Actually, after we have seen the site and focused the main design topics, we take 2 or 3 weeks to work a philosophy for the project, deliberately avoiding to start designing. In the end, I believe that aspects related to materials and technologies are becoming more and more relevant for us.
What are your main influences?
RL: Certainly Mexican culture, not much the one of the architects, but rather the one of the country in general. There is, obviously, Louis Kahn and, by now, we are aware that Mies Van Der Rohe wasn’t bad either, nevertheless Mexico has incredible aspects ranging from work and craftsmanship, to the use of color, to the way people celebrate. In short our inspiration it is not Mexican architecture but its people. Talking about inspiration, an interesting but more recent fact comes from a more than 30 years long friendship with Richard Rogers. Together, a couple of years ago, we took part in a competition for a tower on the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City (the new BBVA Bancomer tower, to be completed in 2012). In a meeting in New York, we outlined the design concept which, in the following phases, became an incredible mix between Richard’s architecture and ours. It happened to the point that Richard’s wife, looking at the project, said: “… Richard, but that’s Ricardo!”, while my wife as well as my staff replied more or less the same, but making reference to Richard.
VL: That was an amazing experience, based on a deep friendship and respect. The good thing is that we won the competition: I am just back from the building site.
What do you think of the role of Mexican architecture internationally?
RL: It is really unforgivable that Mexico participates only marginally in the international debate. What we are trying to do is to give our contribution to highlight and raise the value of our culture. In Mexico we have spaces that elsewhere do not exist. Once I had invited Massimo Vignelli to my house, and that was the first time he visited Mexico. When he got off the plane, he called me so that I could give him all the instructions to reach me. After a while, he called me back from the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square, just to say: “But you Mexicans are totally crazy or what? How on hell did you even think of building a square this size?!?” I could do nothing else but answer: “Well, I’ll tell you tomorrow” and the day after I took him to the huge spaces of the pyramids in Teotihuacàn, leaving him obviously awed. Mexico has had a series of important influences – the Pre-Columbian: unique and awesome; the Hispanic, rich of Islamic influences; the French Post-revolutionary and, to finally going through the explosion of Modern art and architecture: all that together has an impressive strength.
VL: Another important element, that is typical of our culture, is that we have a relationship with the client and with the building process which is totally different, and much freer, if compared, for instance, to any American architect or builder. In the United States, an aspect such as recurrent visits to the site, which for us is crucial, is seen as something totally exceptional. The same, on the other hand, are considered changes in progress, which here in Mexico are completely normal and often crucial for a good outcome, elsewhere is seen as a consequence of some mistake or omission.
And what is your relationship with your clients? Something that I find as much admirable as rare, is that a firm like yours is committed to building private residences.
RL: That’s true. Yesterday I was on the phone with Frank Gehry who, surprised asked me: “But, do you still make houses?” Designing villas or private residences is a fundamental activity for us. And we, basically, always become friends with our clients, to the point that we usually have a room available almost everywhere. Meeting a client is a pleasure and together with them we go through a sort of adventure. We don’t get overpaid, our fees are reasonably normal, and if for any reason there is a delay of a month or two, we don’t make it a big deal: the result is what we care about.
VL: Someone speaks about “educating the client”, in my opinion that is nonsense.
Victor leaves, heading out to other appointments. Ricardo stays.
What is your favorite work?
RL: Well, it has just left, …it was sitting right here a minute ago.
RL: Exactly! I am really happy to work with him, we have a great relationship, which is not easy between a father and a son working on the same thing. That did not happen right away. Everyone would tell Victor: “Don’t work with your father, you will end up living under his shadow ” and things of that sort. And at the beginning he was hesitant. He worked in Barcelona with Bohigas, in Japan with Maki, for a while in Milan with Aldo Rossi. Then, when the Children’s Museum competition came out, he asked me to participate with him. He involved all of his recently graduated friends. That was an wonderful experience, with myself being the elder one in the middle of all these enthusiastic young people.
However, to give you a more concrete answer, I would say that the works that have left me the strongest impressions are linked to particular moments of my life or to my specific experiences. When I designed the Camino Real in Mexico City, that was my first important work, I had just survived a pancreatitis, a disease that in the sixties had a tremendous death rate. This, albeit painful experience, totally changed my way of looking at things. I felt like everything had been reset and that a new life had begun. And, at some point, here comes this extraordinary opportunity. At that time the interior design mania was starting to rage, particularly for these great hotel chains, therefore I was asked to take care of the overall architecture and to leave the interior design to others. And that was when I set my conditions: either they would have left me the interiors or I would have given up the assignment. My uncle, who was my patron, told me: “but how is it possible: you cannot let go of such an opportunity just for that “, I couldn’t do anything else other than tell him: “Exactly, because it is such a great opportunity, that I cannot conceive another way of doing this job!”
…It is an amazing work: it has more than 40 years and seems it was finished yesterday.
Another incredible situation was a project I made for the Managua cathedral. The founder of the Domino’s Pizza chain is a multi-millionaire, one of the world first collectors of sports cars, an architecture amateur, and a fervent catholic. At some point, I received a crystal cup from him: a sort of recognition he gave to some architects for their work, including myself. After a while he called me asking about the cup. I answered that, sure, I had got it. Actually the reason for the call was a different one: he was willing to hire me for a project that was outlined during a talk he had had with the Pope in person. Answering his question: “What can I do for the church?” the Pope had answered: “A cathedral in Nicaragua” a country that, during that period, was in a civil warfare. After a few days I found myself sitting on a private jet flying to Nicaragua. The whole project, almost entirely financed by my client, was incredible. The cathedral was basically built by the people. The day of the inauguration, there was an immense crowd as well as an incredible participation and warmth. At a point of the ceremony, my client, at the peak of commotion, burst into tears without being able to stop. As for myself, I ended up genuinely moved and with tears in my eyes, too. Given the semi-guerrilla situation, the return was quite an adventure, but in the end that was really a fantastic experience.
Thanks to Marianna Guernieri for first English text editing.
Carlo Ezechieli, Ph.D.
Architect, Ph.D. in Architecture and Urban Design, Adjunct Professor of Sustainable Design in Politecnico di Milano. Principal of CE-A Architects whose activity is committed to designing spaces that enhance places, above all through involving environmental aspects and processes as part of a formal and aesthetic research. Editor in Chief of the Milan based architectural magazine “IoArch”. Design Critic in 2002 at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), Cambridge Massachusetts. Developed several projects with Martha Schwartz Partners, landscape architects, Cambridge, Massachussetts (USA) and London (UK). In 1996, won a CNR/NATO grant for graduate training and research in the School of Architecture and Planning of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In MIT developed several projects involving landscape and environmental topics. Carlo Ezechieli articles and works were published by: Netcom International (France), Kineo, Urbanistica/Informazioni, L’Arca (Italy) and Costruire, of which was foreign contributor during his stay in the US. He lectured internationally in several institutes among others: the Institute of Regional Planning of the University of Ancona, the Michigan State University (East Lansing, USA), the Department of Architecture and Planning of the Universidad Iberoamericana, Santa Fe Campus (Mexico D.F.), the Department o Urban Studies and Planning of the University of Georgia (Athens, USA). Under the appointment of the City of Milan, Carlo Ezechieli designed the “Via d’Acqua” (or Expo Park) preliminary project, part of the Milan EXPO2015 program.