Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

The Spatial Sense and Sensibility of Mexican Architect Ricardo Legorreta

Architectural travel and playfulness

At The Westin Resort & Spa in Cancun, you are never entirely sure whether you are inside or outside; and this is the fundamental enigma and challenge that award-winning Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta has not only conceptualized but internalized in this very human-friendly space.

It is a place in which you get a sense of permission-giving; permission to play. And in my experience, human play and playfulness are highly underrated; often misperceived as the sole domain of children. And yet at the Westin, it is very clear that Ricardo Legoretta has indulged himself and us in a higher order of play.

Play is how we learn the basics, how we discover and relate to our physical surroundings, how we become sensitized to the sights, sounds, forms, shapes, and feelings inherent in our personal and public spaces. And from the moment you arrive at this hotel, it is clear that what Legoretta has created is a liberated sense of space — and flow.

“Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.” — Swiss architect and urban planner Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (known as Le Corbusier)

A multilateral space

For those who enjoy architectural-conceptual travel experiences, this particular work by Legoretta will heighten your awareness of the art form, especially because it is a highly sensory experience as well as a very clever contextual frame of reference in which numerous fundamental elements are constantly at play.

This is architecture that appeals to both cognition and the affect. The geometrical elements that Legoretta has incorporated into the hotel are proof positive of the relationship between mathematics and architecture. The lead photograph in this article, for example, demonstrates how the architect must have calculated mathematically in his mind’s eye the equivalencies that would create a harmonious, airy, and elevated space but which would at the same time preserve a human scale.

Note the telescopic effect of the view, which reflects the essential landscape he had to work with; the ocean on one side (behind us) and the lagoon on the other. And given that the space he had to work with was a relatively long (and very beautiful) beach on and equally narrow strip of land, the horizontal and lateral flow he has achieved throughout the entire multi-level series of buildings is quite remarkable.

And even though the actual property is extensive but not sprawling by any means, as you meander through the hotel you can easily get lost. This is part of the structural playfulness that is neither didactic nor pretentious, but instead invites the visitor to take alternate routes throughout the property. In this regards there is a touch of the whimsical in The Westin.

This open concept effect can also be achieved in part because the property is at the far end of Cancun’s famous Zona Hotelera and gives onto a wide beach that is also sheltered by a breakwater, thus extending the interior spaces both visually and literally. Furthermore, because The Westin is not “where the action is” in popular Cancunand has the ocean on one side and the lagoon on the other, Legoretta had a slight advantage in that he could create an architectural environment that can be more uninterrupted, and consequently more idiosyncratic and creative.

Principles, ideals, and ideas

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was a Roman writer, architect and engineer. He is also a classical source on things architectural and is often referenced when defining the fundamental principles of architecture: order, arrangement, harmony of proportion, symmetry, congruity, economy, to mention the major themes.

As you will see from the slideshow (see link below), each of these principles has been integrated into this particular property. Because it is a resort where guests come in search of the proverbial “island of tranquility in a sea of storms,” the design has inherent in it a quiet sense of order but not the overly ambitious or even arrogant opulence that can actually intimidate some guests.

This understated order is in part created by the many private spaces that Legoretta has managed to insert here and there throughout the property. One does indeed feel far from the madding crowd but never isolated in an ambiance of luxurious excess.

Now don’t get me wrong, The Westin is indeed a luxury property (always a relative term) but Legoretta’s design features do not overwhelm nor intimidate. You never feel that you must make yourself “presentable” before venturing outside your room. This personalization of the space also adds to the spatial economy of scale and congruity of the hotel. It becomes a matrix in which diverse and surprising spaces seem to greet you at every turning. The guest is certainly indulged by this heterogeneity, but you never get the feeling of being overindulged.

Niche architecture

What I enjoyed most about this particular work by Legoretta is the way in which he uses rectangular and cubic shapes and spaces of varying size that give the property both a sense of that which is “inside” and that which is “without.” And herein lies the narrative of Legoretta’s work. All architecture tells a story; some more obvious than others, others subtle and surreptitious.

As I often say, “Landscape shapes culture”; and Legoretta’s very Mexican expression of this form of “high culture” is a three-dimensional visual tale of the aspirations of Cancun and its bold plan.

One is reminded on many levels that The Westin Resort & Spa is also a property in Cancun, Mexico; a tropical environment in a nation with a very distinct culture and sense of place. And when you visit this hotel, you are always aware of where you are; you never feel that sense of cultural anonymity or contrived reality that other resorts sometimes project.

This is indeed “sunny Mexico” and with all due respect to mad dogs and Englishmen who go out in the noonday sun, Legoretta has created an architectural space that filters and diffuses light in many ways.

It isn’t just the obvious design features that allow indirect light to flow through the large airy spaces of the hotel, but there are other elements that use the laws of physics in reflecting and redirecting light to accentuate the interior spaces, and to bring the attenuated Mexican sun indoors. In addition, the carefully juxtaposed flow-through spaces of the hotel convey ocean breezes in which it seems to me both air and light coalesce.

Subtle “accessories”

This is the first Westin resort property to place great emphasis on artistic elements throughout the venue. And this too is in keeping with one of the main principles of fine architecture: the arrangement of “accent pieces” which includes the artful and strategic placing of them in “their proper place” in order to create a desired effect.

Now the accent pieces at The Westin happen to be fine art pieces and artifacts that collectively create a truly Mexican ambiance and a genuine perspective (another key architectural principle) on the art and artistry of the Mexican people both from ancient times and in a contemporary sense as well. The blending of art and architecture also enhances the cultural principles of historical reflection and indigenous self-expression.

And I must not forget to mention the architectural principle of symmetry which, as you will see in the images, is fundamental to Legoretta’s vision. But while he clearly emphasizes harmony, balance, and equilibrium throughout the property, he does not hesitate to experiment nor to integrate elements that are original, even asymmetrical, in their own right.

Legoretta also uses materials, furniture, and other design elements that are intrinsic in the cultural landscape of Mexico; creating an overall sense of purpose, common sense, and an affirmation of the culture that nurtured him.

A Mexican architect

The following biographical information is courtesy of The Westin Resort and Spa.

Ricardo Legorreta was born in Mexico City on May 7, 1931. He studied architecture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). His work is easily recognized for its brightly-colored volumes. Legorreta is a disciple of Luis Barragan who carried Barragan’s ideas of regional Mexican architecture to a wider realm. Barragan, in the 1940s and 1950s amalgamated local tradition and modern movement architecture in Mexico yet his work is mostly limited to domestic architecture. Legorreta uses elements of Mexican regional architecture in his work including bright colors, plays of light and shadow, central patios and porticated corridors as well as solid Platonic volumes.

One of the important contributions of Legorreta has been the use of these elements in other building types such as hotels, factories, and churches as well as in commercial and educational buildings. Among his most famous works are The Westin Resort & Spa Cancun, the Camino Real hotels, the IBM Factory in Guadalajara and the Cathedral of Managua. He now also has a growing presence outside of Mexico, particularly in the southwest of the United States.

The architectural eloquence of Ricardo Legorreta

To see a slideshow of architectural images of The Westin Resort & Spa, click here.


The website for the architect firm of Legoretta & Legoretta

Here you will be able to learn more about Legoretta Arquitectos which was established in 1963 and which has remained “faithful to our objective to achieve the best architecture inspired in human values.”

At this very attractive and user-friendly site, you will also be able to explore other architectural projects the firm has completed around the world.

The Westin Resort & Spa Cancun

For more information on The Westin Resort & Spa, click on the above link.

The Official Cancun tourism website

For more information on Cancun and its attractions, click on the above link.

Speaking of architecture

“Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.” – Le Corbusier,  Swiss Architect

“The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.”– Frank Lloyd Wright,  American architect

“Life is rich, always changing, always challenging, and we architects have the task of transmitting into wood, concrete, glass and steel, of transforming human aspirations into habitable and meaningful space.” – Arthur Erickson, Canadian architect

“Good architecture is like a piece of beautifully composed music crystallized in space that elevates our spirits beyond the limitation of time.” – Tao Ho, Chinese/Hong Kong architect

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