Travel: Guadalajara, old and new 

Some of architect Luis Barragán’s best work can be found in and around Mexico’s second largest city


Somewhere on a leafy street in the Mexican city of Guadalajara a textured whitewashed house features a Spanish-Moorish tower, a silver door, windows made of blown-glass bottle bottoms and, inside and out, elliptical arches and colourful tiles.

Named Casa Cristo for its original owner, this is one of a handful of Guadalajara houses - along with parks and gardens - by modernist Mexican architect Luis Barragán, a Latin American equivalent of Arthur Erickson or Frank Lloyd Wright.

Another Barragán house, also built in the late 1920s but grander, is Casa Gonzalez Luna. Painted in soft mustards and yellows, this mansion features Barragán's trademark exterior staircases, a housetop slate-floor patio, and green-ceramic roof tiles that also serve as conduits for water that runs down to a luxuriant garden pool.

Born into an aristocratic ranch family, Barragán (1902-1988) travelled as a young man in Europe and North Africa, where he was influenced by modernist Bauhaus and Art Nouveau design and architecture, as well as Arabian and Moroccan courtyard houses. Back in Guadalajara, he worked as a self-taught architect, designing homes and gardens as monastic-like retreats from modern life. He later moved to fame in Mexico City.

This Guadalajara architecture tour showed another side of a metropolis best known for its Mariachi bands and quality art and artisan shops in the trendy suburban towns of Tonala and Tlaquepaque. (Guadalajara is also the Silicon Valley of Mexico - home to Sony, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, Intel and Motorola.)

Set in a valley, this second largest Mexican city was founded in the 16 th century. And like much of Mexico, it shows its age - not to mention its wounds and tribulations. Twenty years ago, I was charmed by the city's unvarnished, well, old-ness. On a recent visit, I found the Centro Historico - extending from the (still darkly authentic) Cathedral of Guadalajara and along the Plaza de Liberacion to the Cabanas Cultural Institute - radically tarted up, and lined (nicely) with public art and shops and restaurants.

And while this reconstructed central city is now bright and presumably tourist friendly, I prefer the side streets and off-centre barrios in which you still find the Mexico of imperfect life. I like the weather-stained colonial-era apartment buildings - painted odd greens or blues and graced with wrought-iron balconies or tracery (maybe in need of a coat of paint) and a profusion of pink or red bougainvillea.

Wiry old trees provide shade on streets where makeshift wagons or vehicles are not uncommon. Here life goes on in hole-in-the-wall eateries, late-night bars or taverns and cluttered shops that spill onto the sidewalks. Even just a few blocks off the Centro Historico, small businesses are decidedly unglamorous - or closed (Mexico was hit hard by the recession).

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