Architecture on Film: The Proposal

Part thriller, part romance, part artwork itself, artist Jill Magid’s 'post-mortem love triangle' us on the journey of her project to reanimate the privately-held archives of one of the 20th century’s most significant architects – Luis Barragán.


12:00am, Friday, 14 August 2020


11:59pm, Thursday, 27 August 2020


via Barbican Cinema on Demand



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This is a past event

Originally planned as a physical screening for May, and subsequently postponed due to the Covid-19 closure of the Barbican Centre, The Proposal will now be made available online via Barbican Cinema on Demand, from 14-27 August.

The Proposal

For the final chapter of her multi-media, multi-year, project The Barragán Archives, artist Jill Magid transformed her struggle to access the archives of Mexican Pritzker Prize winning architect Luis Barragán (1902-1988) into a film. Barragán’s personal archive and most of his architecture remains in Mexico, but since 1995 Barragán’s professional archive, including the rights to his name and work, has lingered under lock and key in a Swiss bunker, after having been acquired by furniture company Vitra, and allegedly gifted by Vitra’s owner to his fiancé as an engagement present.

Hatching her plan from an intimate stay in the guest bedroom of Casa Barragán itself in Mexico City, Magid finds herself in a game of negotiation, letters, tactics, and relations, entering into an unusual love triangle that leads to her eventually making a radical proposal of her own, seeking to resurrect the deceased architect’s body of work through the means of his actual body.

A bold investigation into the boundaries between personal and professional lives, public and private property, the living and the dead, the legacy of Modernism, Mexico’s most famous architect and the afterlife of architecture. Executively produced by Laura Poitras.

(USA, 2018, Jill Magid, 83 min)

ScreenTalk with Jill Magid, director of The Proposal, in conversation with architectural theorist Ines Weizman:

The “Three Lives” of Luis Barragán
– Programme Notes by Ines Weizman

Death involves a certain loss of agency. The last will—signed at a legal office, passed on as a letter to a friend, or whispered on the deathbed—is the only instrument that can help create a measure of agency beyond death. The disadvantage being that, as far as the deceased is concerned, there is little in the way of a reinforcement mechanism. 

A maker’s life is generally divided into three periods: One is the extent of the biological life, the period when the work is being produced and when the archive is under the control of the author, a living human being. The second begins at the moment of death. According to the Berne Convention, this life is calculated as having a minimum duration of seventy years for legal copyright protection after the death of an author. Many countries have raised this figure to as much as seventy-five years, somehow aligning the life of a copyright with the average lifetime of a person. This time, which we could call the “second life” of an artwork, is the time when the rights belong to the inheritors of the deceased. The “third life” begins immediately after the end of the second (itself measured to simulate a lifetime) and is in principle infinite. In the third life, the work is public property.

Trouble often begins after death. It is in the second life when most controversies having to do with the benefits of artwork occur, when maneuvers, intrigue and power games play out. Trustees who initially aimed to protect and promote the work and reputation of the author sometimes begin to inhibit publications and exhibitions and make the works largely inaccessible to the public, essentially distorting and manipulating the author’s reception.

Interestingly, we are today entering an era of “modernism’s third life.” The second life of an artist such as Hermann Muthesius (1927), Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1928), Lars Backer (1930), Adolf Loos (1933),[1] Hans Poelzig (1936), or Bruno Taut (1938) ended recently. But we are bound to be engaged with controversies concerning the second lives of the postwar modernists.

The following story concerns the second of the three lives of Mexican architect Luis Barragán.[2] He wrote his will shortly before his death in 1988. When he bequeathed his professional archive to his associate, he must have hoped that the archive would be of use for works they were about to pursue, but also that it could eventually be available publicly through an institution. Yet, unfortunately, Barragan’s growing posthumous reputation meant that it could fall prey to those who could pay for it. A private collector in Switzerland acted more swiftly than heritage institutions in Mexico. The result is that the archive is closed to researchers and the public; requests for access and filming rights are being declined or remain unanswered; and drawings, plans, and related correspondence remain obscured. This privatization is denying a portion of globally important discourse about one of the greatest modernist architects.

Jill Magid’s film The Proposal stands as a product of a whole series of exhibitions she began to stage in venues since 2013, in which she—well aware of the copyright limitation on exhibiting Barragán—carefully tested the boundaries of what is possible to present while also trying to engage with Federica Zanco—who apparently had received the archive as a gift from her spouse and who is now the owner of Barragán’s professional archiveand holder of the full copyright on Barragán’s work—on a personal and more intimate level. Although the Barragan Foundation (the foundation spells the name of Barragán without an accent) is registered as a nonprofit institution that promises in its statute to be a publicly accessible institution devoted to preserving, studying, and promoting knowledge about the work of the architect, the archive has not been accessible to the public since the foundation was established in 1996.

When Magid contacts the family of Barragán to produce a diamond from the architect’s ashes, she is well aware of the macabre nature of this engagement with human remains, but does so in order to bring about public awareness of an uneasy situation regarding an architectural collection that has, for over two decades, lapsed into obscurity. Magid describes the film as the last chapter of her endeavor to intervene in a seemingly irrevocabledeal that has left the archive of Mexican architect Luis Barragán out of public view. Diamonds are known for their ability to cut through materials that other substances cannot. It is the fetishized nature of the diamond that shall break another fetishized art convention—the tyranny of collectors and copyright law. And it is the medium of film, circulated and discussed in public or private screenings, that will create an archive entry to mark a missing archive.

In a sense, one can understand Magid’s work as trying to affect the conniving intrigue of the second life, perhaps to shorten or accelerate it and to precipitate the arrival of the third life.

She does so by using organic carbon material from first life that, conceptually, acts like a time machine, leading us to the year 2063. The diamond is a monad, a fetish object that holds the entire promise of Barragán’s work within it. It stands at the center of a network and a set of relations that brings together actors, human and nonhuman, as well as works, drawings, people, and finance from across an entire geography, from Mexico to the United States to Switzerland. The diamond represents a kind of condensation of time and space in nature: millennia of climate cycles and millions of tons of geological pressure. In reality, in an artificial sense, it has compressed the biological essence of the architect into an element—a fetish—that is meant to open his work to the public.

And perhaps Magid’s work is even more radical than that and points to a fundamental revision of copyright laws—something that I have elsewhere called the “rights of the object.” If copyright is to objects what human rights are to people, then the right of copying/reproduction will have to be rethought. Copyright is nowadays understood as the consequence of determining the identity of a maker of an object, a thing, an idea, a structured assemblage, or a building, and eventually the privilege of a maker. But what if copyright is not to be thought of as the right of designers, but as that of the objects/buildings themselves? For this to happen, we need to imagine turning objects/buildings into something like subjects—the bearers of rights. What would be fascinating to pursue, also in the light of Magid’s film, might be to rethink the designer’s role as no longer being the sole creator and prudish regulator of architecture, and instead to understand architecture as an “interpretative act,” as media, and thus to understand media in matter. Only in this way will it matter.

[1] See Ines Weizman, “Architectural Re-enactment of House for Josephine Baker (1928) by Adolf Loos for Ordos 100,” in the database of the Centre for Documentary Architecture. Further reference: Ines Weizman, “The Three Lives of Modern Architecture: Wills, Copyrights and their Violations,” in Exhibiting Architecture: Place and Displacement, ed. Thordis Arrhenius, Mari Lending, Wallis Miller, and Jérémie Michael McGowan (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2014), 183–96. 

[2] See Ines Weizman, “Fahrenheit 2400°: The Second Life of Luis Barragán,” in Jill Magid: The Proposal, ed. Nikolaus Hirsch et al. (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016), 136–48.

Ines Weizman is an architectural theorist. She is Head of PhD at the School of Architecture, Royal College of Art, London, Director of the Bauhaus-Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture and Planning at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, and founding director of the Centre for Documentary Architecture.

Ines is also one of multiple contributors to the book The Proposal (Sternberg Press)which details and reflects upon Jill Magid’s multi-year project, The Barragán Archives.