Ricardo Legorreta: Architect whose work included the Fashion and Textile Museum


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The Independent Online

Blending modernism with vernacular influences, textures and vibrant colours from his native Mexico, Ricardo Legorreta helped put Mexican architecture on the world map. His works brightened up his nation's often smog-grey capital, Mexico City, as well as towns and cities in the south-western US states that were part of Mexico until the mid-19th Century – California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Initially inspired by his modernist and European-influenced mentors José Villagrá* and Luis Barragán, Legorreta, while retaining traditional Mexican art and architecture as his spiritual base, found his work reflecting the increasing globalisation of his craft. In the end he became far more prolific – and internationally recognised – than his great predecessors, designing banks, public buildings, hotels, colleges, museums and private homes around the world.

The "soul" of his work generally reflected the art and culture of his homeland; he incorporated the geometry of Aztec and Mayan pyramids, the vivid colours worn by Mexico's indigenous women; the imprint of the Spanish conquistadores, including their own massive influence from the Muslim Moors of North Africa.

Behind the fortress-like walls of many of his buildings he often used Moorish-style latticed moucharabieh windows, internal courtyards or Spanish colonial-type "stable-door windows" to let in air or light as needed in the often-glaring sun of Mexico and the southern US. "Light symbolises knowledge, creativity, imagination and spirituality," he once said.

Last October, the tall, patrician Legorreta was in Tokyo to receive from Prince Hitachi the prestigious Praemium Imperiale for architecture awarded by the Japan Art Association. He shared the stage with Anish Kapoor, who won the prize for sculpture, and Dame Judi Dench, honoured for theatre/film.

In 2003, Legorreta brought a flavour of Mexico to London with his design of the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, founded by Zandra Rhodes, who lives above it. For the sheer gall of its pink and ochre walls, the building attracts curious tourists from far beyond the realm of fashion.

Among his best-known works is the deep pink and yellow-fronted Camino Real hotel in Mexico City's Polanco district, which was designed to attract visitors to the 1968 Olympic Games in the city. Its dramatic façade and reputation as the place to see and be seen helped shift the centre of gravity of the capital away from the colonial centre around the famous main square. Legorreta followed it up with other Camino Real hotels, one in Cancun and another on a steep, wooded cliff outside the Mexican Pacific resort of Ixtapa, now called the Las Brisas hotel, featuring an elevator to the secluded private beach.

He designed the Sheraton hotel in Bilbao; the new Metropolitan Cathedral in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey, Mexico; parts of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar; and a remodelled Pershing Square in Los Angeles featuring a 10-storey, bright-purple bell tower. In Texas, with its large Mexican-American population, Legorreta brought his unique style to the San Antonio Central Library and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History whose central tower, with an "urban lantern" motif, has become a landmark beacon not only for the museum but for the city itself.

Ricardo Legorreta Vilchis was born in Mexico City in 1931. His father founded what would become one of the country's biggest banks, BancoMex, but young Ricardo became more interested in buildings than the money in them. From the late 1940s he studied architecture at the country's biggest university, UNAM, under Villagrán, at the time Mexico's best-known architect. After graduating, he worked for Villagrán's firm for 10 years and also came under the influence of Barragán.

In 1963, conscious that Mexico's history offered as much as Europe's in terms of art and architecture, he set up his own firm to follow his own path, nowadays called Legorreta & Legorreta and run by one of his sons, Victor.

After his first major commission in 1964, a car factory called Automex in which he included two pre-Columbian-style cone structures, Ricardo Legarreto said: "It was like an explosion in me, a rebellion against ... the foreign domination of my country. I felt like yelling 'Viva Mexico!' and 'Viva the Mexican worker'!" He reflected that passion for his people, including those who long pre-dated his own family's arrival on the continent, through all his work. Among the most famous private homes he designed were one for his friend and fellow Mexican, the Hollywood actor Ricardo Montalbá* in the Hollywood Hills, and another for Chicago philanthropist Cindy Pritzker, a renowned supporter of architects.

In 2000, Legorreta was awardedthe Gold Medal of the Washington-based American Institute of Architects (AIA), their highest award. He hadbeen due to speak in London in March this year until it was found that he had liver cancer.

Phil Davison

Ricardo Legorreta Vilchis, architect: born Mexico City 7 May 1931; married (divorced; three sons, three daughters); died Mexico City 30 December 2011.