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Master Builder: Ricardo Legorreta

January 31, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: The prestigious American Institute of Architects gold medal was presented to Mexico’s most renowned architect, Ricardo Legorreta, this weekend. The award, the highest honor the AIA bestows on an individual, recognizes an architect whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.

Legorreta, the 57th AIA Gold Medallist, joins the ranks of Frank Lloyd Wright, IM Pei, and 1999 medal recipient Frank Gehry, names etched into “The Wall of Honor” located in the lobby of the AIA’s headquarters in Washington, DC. Born in Mexico City in 1931, Legorreta went on to study architecture at UNA, the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. In 1959, Legorreta started his own architectural firm, Legorreta Arquitectos. And since its opening, the architect has worked extensively in Mexico and the Southwestern United States.

His early projects include the Camino Real Hotel in Mexico City, designed in 1968. In this work, the architect’s design is in keeping with the traditions of Mexican and southwestern architecture. For centuries, Hispanic builders have used water as a building material. It is incorporated into courtyards and patios, in pools and fountains. Here, Ricardo Legorreta used water in an unconventional way in a hotel lobby. Legorreta’s first commission outside of Mexico was the residence of Hollywood actor Ricardo Montalban, with its stunning view of the Los Angeles basin.

During the 40-year span of his career, some of his most celebrated works include the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua, and the Monterrey Central Library, in Monterrey, Mexico. Legorreta’s signature integration of landscape and building is his 1985 design for the Renault factory in Durango, Mexico. But there is also a sense of humor to Legorreta’s work. Take, for example, the large watermelon slices at the Camino Real Ixtapa Hotel, or the less obvious geometric shapes, cutouts, and columns designed to playfully interplay shadow and light at the San Antonio main library. Legorreta’s use of water, walls, and light-filled spaces has set him apart. But most of all, Legorreta’s work stresses color. Legorreta remains busy in his native Mexico while the demand for his work in the U.S. increases.

RAY SUAREZ: And Ricardo Legorreta joins us now. And as exciting as it is to get an award any time, it is especially exciting to get one from your pierce?

RICARDO LEGORRETA: It is very special to get the recognition from your colleagues. It is much significant than anything else.

RAY SUAREZ: When you design a building, do you want people to be paying a lot of attention to the building, or do you want it to work so well with them that they don’t even notice it so much?

RICARDO LEGORRETA: I want them to be very happy. If the building calls attention, that’s another thing. The most important thing for the building and for architecture is really to understand that our profession is to make life of the people more pleased, not imposing our ideas, but really understanding what it’s all about, the building.

RAY SUAREZ: So how does the architect in his studio with his drafting tools on his table understand human happiness? Do you have to go out and be with people?

RICARDO LEGORRETA: Of course, yes, you have to go out, at least each one of us has a different way of doing things. But I personally, I want to understand people for who we’re designing. And very often, more often than not, we during the design process, we work together, not only with the client, but with the users. In a house, in a home, of course you get with the client and the user, which is the owner — when you are in another type of building such as a library, school or whatever, we start to talk about people. And I don’t like that. I want to really get together with them, have their reactions to the design, and to really understand what they want out of the building.

RAY SUAREZ: Because you designed a children’s museum in your native country, Mexico, and a lot of things that are designed for children are sort of an adult’s idea of what a children…what children would like rather than what a child’s idea of what children would like.

RICARDO LEGORRETA: I’m glad you give that example. That’s a very good example of what we’re talking about. Every time we adults talk about children, we immediately draw little house with a fireplace and the smoke going out. And that’s not the idea of the children. In that museum what I thought was the important thing was to offer the kids the possibility to dream to, feel free, and to have the space belonging to them. And fortunately we had found out that they love to go again and again to feel they know the building, the building itself. And we did some things, some parts of the building in which only they can get in. The parents can’t. And that has developed that idea of property for them, of freedom. There is no other users here. They can run back and forth, et cetera. So that’s a good example of trying to understand the users of the building.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, where– we’re in Washington, D.C. where many buildings are saying to the street, I am serious, and one of the ways they say I am serious is by being all one color, often white, marble, a cold, solid material. Let’s talk a bit about materials and color.

RICARDO LEGORRETA: Well, it depends very much on the environment. One important thing I will go back a little bit is that I believe we have to respect the environment. If there’s something I think we architects have to do now is to really devote our time and effort to do better cities, not only outstanding buildings. So the first thing is to react to the environment. And that doesn’t mean to fall into an anonymous thing. If it’s very simple, you should do it very simple. If it’s in the case of a specific building, you have a to do it. Light is very different. I was looking at Washington this morning with the snow. Even if it’s bright, there’s a complete different light than what you would find in California or in Mexico. So that’s again a reaction. Culture has to do with it. Mexico is a country of color. So to use color in Mexico, I sometimes say that we are almost irresponsible in use of color. To use color on the East Coast is completely another thing.

RAY SUAREZ: So a building in Mexico that would have roses and pinks and turquoise blues, if you were doing it for Boston, you wouldn’t use those?

RICARDO LEGORRETA: I would use different colors, and I would use it very carefully. We’re doing the students residence for the University of Chicago. It’s very interesting because they’re asking us for color, and at the same time, we want to respect Chicago and not just arrive there and say, here we are, the Mexicans, with our bold colors. And that goes for materials. It has to represent the philosophy of the building.

RAY SUAREZ: When you build on a green field site where there’s no other building, you can do one kind of thing. But what about a block where there are already many other buildings and there’s just a lot. How much does that building have to speak to the other buildings on the street?

RICARDO LEGORRETA: It has to speak 100%. I think it’s a mistake in that case, which is very common, to come and say, “now I’m going to do a building that is completely different on the block.” Because what… You don’t have the right of changing the environment just because… A very good example is every time we talk about the cities we like. And let’s say we talk about beautiful Barcelona, for example, outside of Mexico and the United States. And the value of Barcelona, those streets which are very simple, very humble, it has certain specific buildings. But the rest, the city is just the city that was based in a very regular block. And that’s what makes a city. So I think that just by… Just because you want to do a very outstanding building in the middle of the block on just one lot and then hurt the other properties I think is a mistake. We have to respect our neighbors.

RAY SUAREZ: Recently in the United States a lot of architects have talked about the separation that exists between architects and the people, the people who walk by their buildings, who use their buildings, who live and work in their buildings. Now that we’re in this new century, and as someone who has been at this a long time, 40 years, do you feel that that gap is narrowing, that architects are ready to build buildings, build places that respond to people’s desires more?

RICARDO LEGORRETA: Yes. I see a new movement towards that. I think we hit the top of that attitude some years ago, especially the young people are much more willing to design buildings to really connect with the people and even the… I see that reaction. I’m optimistic by nature, and I see that movement coming which I think is the right thing to do. I don’t think architecture should belong to an elite. We design for us. Sometimes I say that women dress for women and architects design for architects.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’ve done all kinds of things, museums, factories, library, private residences. Are there any projects that you are still getting… Waiting for a chance to do you haven’t had a chance to do yet?

RICARDO LEGORRETA: Yes, there are some. I want to keep going, but there is one particular one that I’m really interested on it, which is affordable housing. The reason is because we talk about that always that it has to be cheap and ugly and that we don’t want to get involved because politics and all that plays a very important role. To me that’s an excuse. We all go for inspiration to the hill towns in Italy, to the villages in Mexico. And those were affordable housing. So I think that that’s a problem I would like to get involved, even if it is a tremendous effort. But that’s the problem of the world.

RAY SUAREZ: And a real challenge for an architect because to keep the costs modest and make something beautiful at the same time and easily used, very difficult.

RICARDO LEGORRETA: It’s very difficult, but that’s a real challenge. To have an open budget is not easy. It’s a possibility of making a lot of mistakes. I prefer the other, those limitations. That’s one of the things I would like very much to get involved with.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, thank you very much for being here.

RICARDO LEGORRETA: My pleasure. Thank you very much for inviting me.