May 2011

Starship Enterprise

Carlos Slim’s Soumaya Museum unites avant-garde architecture, civic virtue and good old-fashioned commerce

  • The windowless museum is sheathed in thousands of 
hexagonal aluminum panels.
  • Romero (center) surveys construction plans.
  • The point of entry is a wedge cut into the torqued monolith.
  • A view from above captures 
the architectural contrapposto.
  • A bronze reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pietà, and the skylit upper gallery.
  • Rodin’s Three Shades

Mexico City, over the last decade and a half, has been the anti-Bilbao. The Mexican capital sidestepped most of the major trends that transformed the art and architecture worlds following the 1997 opening of Frank Gehry’s branch of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, including the rise of the iconic art museum and the spread of photogenic buildings by globetrotting celebrity architects.

Even Dutch maestro Rem Koolhaas, who was able to help convince a bunch of Chinese bureaucrats to build a hugely ambitious state-television headquarters in central Beijing, watched helplessly as his proposal for a blade-like 70-story Mexico City skyscraper was serially delayed and then canceled outright. Meanwhile, the city held fast to its reputation among art lovers as a place where stunning pieces from archeological sites around the country are displayed in dark and dusty government-run buildings, such as the Museum of Anthropology in wooded Chapultepec Park.

So, what to make of the new Museo Soumaya, a shimmering, windowless, otherworldly tower that rises 150 feet into the air from a site on the edge of Mexico City’s tony Polanco neighborhood?

Wrapped in a skin of panels and designed to hold the collection of Carlos Slim Helú—world’s richest man—Soumaya, which opened to the public in late March, is a new kind of cultural attraction for Mexico City: fine-art museum, architectural landmark and grand, if self-conscious, philanthropic gesture. For all the attention the bold architecture has been getting, the philanthropic part—putting a vast private collection on public display in a museum with free admission—may qualify as its most newsworthy feature.

Slim, after all, has been criticized for holding on a bit too tightly to his money. When fellow billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett pressed him recently to join them in pledging to give away half of their fortunes, Slim, 71, quite publicly declined. It is more important to the health of the world economy, he said, for billionaires to focus on expanding the companies that made them rich in the first place.

The new museum, which cost roughly $70 million, is not easy to describe. It looks a bit like a contorted hourglass—or a twisting torso isolated for close scrutiny, as in a drawing by Michelangelo, the rest of the body nowhere to be seen. Or perhaps a mushroom, sleek but top-heavy, after a trip through a digital-design program. One could go on. At once reticent and wildly expressive, it is clearly resistant to being pinned down.

Most Southern Californians, however, would probably recognize its architectural type immediately. The six-story, 183,000-square-foot Soumaya is a personal museum, also known as a vanity museum: a container for the collection of a single, very wealthy individual. Slim’s fortune, estimated earlier this year by Forbes at $74 billion, was amassed through a vast array of ventures, including telecommunications, mining and real estate. (He also owns a stake in the New York Times Company.)

Showcasing Slim’s eclectic collection—which is thick with Rodin sculptures but also features works by Rivera, Rubens, Van Gogh, Cézanne and other blue-chip names—Soumaya rings with echoes of earlier museological monuments to the careers and passions of J. Paul Getty and Armand Hammer. Until now, the collection has been housed in a small building in the south of Mexico City.

The new space has more than a little in common with the museum Los Angeles’ latest art-collecting billionaire, Eli Broad, is building in downtown L.A. With one exception—while Broad held a design competition to find an architect, ultimately choosing New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Slim picked largely unknown 39-year-old Fernando Romero, who also happens to be his son-in-law.

“The new museum looks a bit like a contorted hourglass—or a twisting torso isolated for close scrutiny, as in a drawing by Michelangelo, the rest of the body nowhere to be seen.”

The choice has made Romero, a thin, boyish-looking Mexico City native who apprenticed for three years in Rem Koolhaas’ Rotterdam office in the 1990s, an architect to be envied and pitied in equal measure. Imagine the chance to construct, in the city where you grew up, a museum that could become an icon of 21st-century Mexico—before you turn 40. Imagine at the same time that the client for said museum is the richest man in the world and that you are married to his daughter.

Slim has taken a rather active role in the design process of the museum whose very name is close to his heart. (His late wife, who died of kidney failure in 1999, was named Soumaya, as is his daughter.) In some interviews, he has stated matter-of- factly that he and Romero designed the building together.

It was Slim, both agree, who decided to sheathe the building in thousands of hexagon-shaped aluminum panels. Romero’s early sketches called for a more transparent structure, and the architect toyed with the idea of cladding the museum in stone. But among Slim’s holdings is Mexico’s major aluminum manufacturer. If you were cynical, you might say he wanted to keep the cost of the materials—as well as his architect’s fee—in the family. You don’t pile up a $74 billion fortune by sloughing off such details.

Romero can’t fully hide the strain of this most high profile (and high pressure) of commissions. When we meet in his office, located, coincidentally or not, next to the house and studio of Luis Barragán, the most acclaimed of Mexico’s 20th-century architects, he fidgets, pulling on the sleeves of his tailored black suit jacket, under which he wears a Nike windbreaker, also black, zipped up to his chin. He queries me on what I plan to write and who else I’ve talked to or am thinking of talking to. Five times in five minutes, he asks if I want coffee or tea.

He has clearly done his homework, however. Early in our conversation, Romero quotes a magazine interview I did with Koolhaas seven years ago. And as I turn to the subject reporters are so curious about—how it was to have Carlos Slim as a client and a father-in-law—he is prepared. “I say A, and they put B,” Romero complains. “That causes big problems, so I have learned to say, ‘Next question.’” I press him, but it is clear he is done talking specifically about the role Slim did—or didn’t—play in designing the museum.

Fair enough. As an architecture critic, I agree with Romero that every building deserves a chance to speak for itself. So what does the finished museum say about this talented and well-connected architect? Perhaps more intriguing, what does it say about the cultural ambition and self-image of contemporary Mexico City?

There are two levels on which Museo Soumaya is operating: first, as an ambitious, even self-consciously iconic, piece of architecture; and second, as part of a larger urban slice of Mexico City. As an example of architectural sculpture, the museum has unmistakable charisma. If you approach it on foot as you walk north from the leafy streets of Polanco, it suddenly bobs into view, a striking, if alien, presence in a part of the city dominated by low-rise office buildings and shopping centers.

Inside, some of that power fades. The decision to make the museum windowless means it offers no views of or connection to the surrounding city. A ramp that runs along the walls is an obvious ode to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, but while Wright’s ramp offers art on one side and a fantastic interior view down the museum’s central void on the other, Romero’s is pushed up against the inside of the facade, wrapping around straightforward galleries on each level. And the top floor, which is dedicated to Slim’s collection of Rodins, offers natural light that is unfortunately filtered through a thick lattice of structural beams.

Once you make your way outside, you realize the museum is not the isolated presence it seems. All around its anvil-like form are buildings either just finished or under construction. It turns out Slim, far from building a stand-alone museum to show his collection to the public, is actually using the place as an anchor for a mixed-use complex under his ownership that will hold more than 5,381,000 square feet of offices and shops. The idea is to bring some of the same exclusive ambience to this block that marks the Polanco neighborhood to the south.

Soumaya will hardly be a lonely arts outpost here. On an adjacent site, construction is under way on the Jumex Museum, to house Mexico’s most prominent collection of contemporary art. The passion project of Jumex juice family scion Eugenio Lopez Alonso, the space—at 43,000 square feet, a good deal smaller than Soumaya—is designed by British architect David Chipperfield, who works in a coolly restrained neomodern style.

Romero doesn’t talk much about the larger complex in which Soumaya rises, although his office has been deeply involved in its master planning and although Slim sees both museums as key pieces in the effort to attract tenants and shoppers. In part that’s because the architect seems less than thrilled about how the already completed glass towers, sleek and generic, are threatening to overshadow his museum. But perhaps it is also because he is both too loyal and too discreet to admit the obvious: For his father-in-law, operating as a businessman first and a cultural ambassador second, Soumaya is not just a philanthropic gesture. It is also a real-estate play.

CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE is the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times.