SANTA FE, N.M. — Pair “Santa Fe” with “architecture,” and most think of the rounded, earth-toned curves and jutting vigas of John Gaw Meem.
But this is a town of more than the stereotypical flat roofs and portals that came to define “Santa Fe style.”
The shadow of the late Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta encompassed buildings both in New Mexico and beyond. Legorreta, who died in December 2011, is most famous for designing the Camino Real Hotel in Mexico City and the IBM factory in Guadalajara.
In Santa Fe, he created the Santa Fe Art Institute, the Santa Fe University of Art & Design Visual Arts Center, Thornburg Investment Management and the Zocalo Condominiums. Through his work, Legorreta introduced Mexican modernism to the world and brought his crisp, brightly colored aesthetic to the Southwest, California and Santa Fe.
Today and Saturday, the Santa Fe Art Institute and Santa Fe University of Art & Design will celebrate Legorreta’s legacy through a series of lectures, receptions and an exhibition and film screening, as well as tours of the city’s Legorreta-designed buildings. Featured speaker Viktor Legorreta will talk about his father and present a short film about life.
Although Legorreta’s work featured the clean lines and spare forms of contemporary design, it also incorporated Mexican vernacular architecture — including thick protective walls, spacious courtyards and bold color.
His style, which rarely wavered over the years, attracted the attention of clients on several continents.
This allowed him to take advantage of the ballooning globalization of architecture in the 1980s and ’90s.
As a result, his designs embodied contradictions: He was a regionalist whose photogenic and widely-published projects made him well-suited for worldwide fame.
Before Legorreta’s mid-’60s passionate color palette, commercial buildings usually wore grays, browns and metallics, thanks to the influence of Bauhaus architect Mies Van der Rohe’s preference for “skin and bones” industrial steel and plate glass.
These were considered “serious” buildings, SFUAD art historian and professor Khristaan Villela said. “You can think of it as New York skyscrapers,” he added.
“These architects are not employing color as an active part of the whole architectural style.”
Although fellow Mexican architect Luis Barragan used a primary palette in his custom homes, Legorreta was the first to splash it on such a massive scale, Villela said.
“The Visual Arts Building at the college is 100,000 square feet,” he explained. “He took some of Barragan’s ideas to a place Barragan did not.”
The SFUAD complex incorporates three courtyards — another Legorreta trademark — in a rainbow of fuschia, purple and French blue.
“His architecture uses very sharp angles,” Villela continued. “That’s one reason it was so eye-popping (in Santa Fe) 10 years ago. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
Architecture was such a passion for Legorreta that on family vacations he would take his brood on tours to buildings he especially liked, his son Viktor said.
“It’s almost a way of living,” he explained in a telephone interview from his Mexico City office. “You are always trying to improve the building of it. You end up doing it 24 hours a day.”
Legorreta was inspired by the old Mexican haciendas and pre-Columbian art, but always imbued them with his own contemporary vision through color, light and the use of water.
“And also a sense of mystery,” Viktor said. “There’s a lot of interesting courtyards and terraces. You don’t discover it from the outside.”
The Santa Fe Art Institute was Legorreta’s first commission here, an award pushed by philanthropists John and Ann Marion.
His designs bear a strong sense of procession as well as a noticeable theatricality. Serpentine plans and hidden courtyards replaced direct angles and clear sight lines. He distrusted glass curtain walls, preferring the sense of enclosure and stability obtained through thick-wall construction.
“Modern architects want too much clarity in a building,” he told Architectural Record in 2000. “They miss the pleasures of mystery and intrigue.”
The Art Institute project led to the Zocalo Condominiums on the city’s southern outskirts.
“That was a challenge — how to do not very expensive but with a good sense of design,” Viktor said. His father tried to create a contemporary village, he added, using the principles of a traditional village through plazas and streets, offering from five to six prototypes to give buyers a choice of style.
“They were efficient but playful,” Viktor said. “They weren’t all the same.”
The sprawling Thornburg Investment Management campus was Legorreta’s final Santa Fe project.
“It’s a different office environment,” Viktor said. “Usually they are in New York or in big cities. It was very much adapted to the landscape; low rise with natural light. Also, there was great care in making it environmentally sensitive.”
Despite an obvious preference for a more modern sensibility, Legorreta liked the so-called “Santa Fe style,” his son said.
“He liked the architecture because it had a lot in common with the architecture of Mexico,” Viktor explained, adding his father especially appreciated the area’s porticos and plazas.
“He was very impressed by the light,” Viktor added. “There is such a strong difference in sun and shadow.”
His father also designed buildings in and around Los Angeles, including a house for the actor Ricardo Montalban in the Hollywood Hills.
Viktor Legorreta will attend a similar tribute to his father in San Francisco.
Legorreta established his own Mexico City practice in 1963 and used his first major commission — an automobile factory in the city of Toluca — to make his hybrid sensibility clear.
Although the 1964 design largely followed the modernist code, it included two large cone-shaped volumes rising dramatically from its center.
Legorreta saw the project as a symbol of Mexican autonomy.
By 1967, he was designing the Camino Real Hotel running up to the 1968 Summer Olympics.
It featured the dramatic colors, deeply set windows and sense of solidarity that would become his trademarks. He went on to land projects in London, Australia and Qatar.
Legorreta died of liver cancer at 80 in Mexico City.