Mexico City is renowned as one of the largest and most
populated cities in the world. The inhabitants of Distrito Federal
love museums, and every week tens of thousands of people flock
to the city's nearly 200 such cultural institutions. In April this
eager public could revel in the addition of an extraordinary new
piece of architecture—the Soumaya Museum, built to house the
art collection of the Mexican businessman Carlos Slim Helú,
who is listed by Forbes magazine as the world's richest man.
The Soumaya Museum is named after Slim's late wife, with
whom he started to accumulate works of art. The collection now
counts 66,000 pieces, including one of the most representative
collections of sculpture by Auguste Rodin and various artists
from the medieval and Renaissance eras, as well as works by
Impressionist painters, covering everything from ancient art
right through to the mid-20th century.
The vision for the museum project came from the architect Fernando Romero (born in 1971), who is the son-in-law of the engineer Slim. Romero gained much of his professional experience in Europe with architects such as Enric Miralles and Jean Nouvel, but particularly in the office of Rem Koolhaas, where from 1997 to 2000 he worked on the Casa da Música in Porto, widely considered as one of OMA's best works. In 2001 he set up his own practice in Mexico City.
Despite the family ties, Romero had a hard time Despite the family ties, Romero had a hard time persuading his client to embark on such an ambitious project. Carlos Slim is well known for keeping a low profile and avoiding any sign of conspicuous expenditure, and his original intention for the museum was very different from the concept of a "vanity museum". If Carlos Slim has any characteristic eccentricity, it is his austerity. Ever since he started to become known as one of the richest men in the world, journalists who have interviewed him have been continuously surprised by the modesty of the home he has lived in for 38 years, and where his three children shared a simple bedroom. This austerity has been one of the secrets of his success, as he has based his work ethic on a strict principle of eliminating unnecessary expenditure in all his companies, not to mention constant reinvestment in his own businesses.
In this context, it was truly fortunate that his son-in-law was one of the best young architects in Mexico. If the project had stuck to his strict spending discipline, the museum would have been a shoebox. However, Romero's tenacious enthusiasm for expanding the tastes of his client has succeeded in bringing about the greatest paradigm shift in Mexican architecture. From the outside, the building marks an extraordinary addition to the city's skyline.
The opinion of many passers-by, who refer to it as a spacecraft, is no exaggeration. The outer shell of the building offers few, small openings to the outside world, which makes its scale disconcerting. The volume is both sculpture and architecture, but above all a landscape, as if it were a mountain or a massif. The facade is made from a series of hyperbolic paraboloids covered in hexagonal aluminium modules. The entire structure is made up of several thousand independent panels with hundreds of variations of shape and size, adjusted to the curvature of the building. Romero chose the hexagonal figure to symbolise the structural efficiency and work culture of bees. The engineering for the roof was carried out in collaboration with Gehry Technologies.
Fernando Romero is an architect who in his short but fruitful career has worked in a great variety of styles. He does not have any specific hallmark. On the contrary, he is interested in architecture as an exercise in translating available energies and possibilities into a form that maximises their potential. His latest book Simplexity is a kind of periodic table that arranges projects according to their morphology, from the simple to the complex. In this spectrum of forms, the Soumaya sits at the far end of the scale of complexity. The museum is exceptional, both for its engineering challenges and for the audacity of its spaces, the routes that can be taken through it, and its materials. Its six exhibition floors, which cover approximately 6,000 square metres, mark a transition from intimate to monumental spaces, in which walls, floors and ceilings merge in a surprising fashion. The building's structure is made up of 28 curved steel columns of varying diameters, each with their own form and geometry, allowing visitors to follow a subtle, non-linear route throughout the building. Seven beams act as perimeter rings on each level, embracing the structure.
The most generous space in the museum is on the upper level, not only because it is flooded with natural light, but also because of the diaphanous interior panorama offered by this column-free storey. The roof elements are organised in radius formation, in a layout reminiscent of a bicycle wheel. This covering is extremely efficient, since all the beams act under tension, containing the centripetal forces rising up from the perimeter walls.
The perception of the museum cannot be dissociated from the
figure of Slim himself, and it is bound to cause controversy.
Mexico is a country of enormous social inequalities, and
every Mexican uses something related to Slim every day, be
it through his stores or his telecommunications companies.
Despite this, the museum is a welcome example of the desire to give something back to society. The museum opened its doors
in April, with permanent free entry, which is in itself a social
benefit that will kindle new audiences. Romero maintains that
architects must place social justice in particular at the heart of
their work, and from now on he wants to focus on the issue of
social housing. Given the examples of versatility that his office
has produced to date, it will be interesting to see what shape
these new projects will assume.
Pedro Reyes, artist and architect
Design architect: FREE, Fernando Romero
Client: Museo Soumaya, Fundación Carlos Slim
Design team: Fernando Romero and Mauricio Ceballos with Matthew Fineout, Ignacio Méndez, Sergio Rebelo, Laura Domínguez, Herminio González, Omar Gerala Félix, Ana Medina, Ana Paula Herrera, Mario Mora, Juan Pedro López, Guillermo Mena, Libia Castilla, Raúl García, Manuel Díaz, Alan Aurioles, Ana Gabriela Alcocer, Luis Ricardo García, Iván Ortiz, Tiago Pinto, Juan Andres López, Olga Gómez, Hugo Fernández, Kosuke Osawa, Francisco Javier de la Vega, David Hernández, Jorge Hernández, Joaquín Collado, Mariana Tafoya, Eduardo Benítez, Pedro Lechuga, Thorsten Englert, Luis Fuentes, Luis Flores, Rodolfo Rueda, Víctor Chávez, Max Betancourt, Wonne Ickxs, Dolores Robles-Martínez, Sappho Van Laer, Ophelie Chassin, Elena Haller, Abril Tobar, Diego Eumir Jasso, Albert Beele, Homero Yánez, Cynthia Meléndez, Hugo Vela, Susana Hernández, Gerardo Galicia, Alberto Duran, Camilo Mendoza, Dafne Zvi Zaldívar, Cecilia Jiménez, Ángel Ortiz, Raúl Antonio Hernández, Alma Delfina Rosas, Wendy Guillen, Raúl Flores, Daniel Alejandro Farías, Jesús Monroy, Saúl Miguel Kelly, Iván Javier Avilés, Cesar Pérez
Structural engineering: Colinas de Buen
Facade: Gehry Technologies (technical project); Geometrica (secondary facade structure); IASA (hexagonal panels); YPASA (interior facade)
Structural concept: Ove Arup Los Angeles
Main structure contractor: Swecomex
Interior Design: FREE + MYT / CEO-Andrés Mier y Teran
Construction Manager: Inpros
General Contractor: CARSO Infraestructura y Contrucción
Lighting Designer: Inpros
Civil Construction: PC Constructores