News
06.06.2011
Crit> Museo Soumaya, Mexico City
Is Fernando Romero's museum more than an iconic sculpture?
The Museo Soumaya dominates the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City.
Adam Wiseman

There is a hidden romanticism behind the design of the new Soumaya Museum in Mexico City, a story of a highly anticipated proposal and the hope for a resurrection of the grandeur of Mexican architecture. Mexicans have been waiting for something like this to happen for a while. They demand opportunities for architecture and design, and for pleasure at the street level. The city needs icons to survive and to maintain its status. With buildings, however, expectations sometimes come with disenchantment. The Soumaya, while a gorgeous object, rises pretentiously, with troubled construction techniques and flawed exhibition design.

Designed by Fernando Romero EnterprisE, or FREE, one of Mexico’s most acclaimed young firms, the museum opened in March in Plaza Carso, a new real state development in Polanco, a vibrant and cosmopolitan area of Mexico City. It hosts the private art collection of the man sometimes called the wealthiest man on earth, Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican telecommunications tycoon, who is also Fernando Romero’s father-in-law. The Soumaya holds more than 6,200 artworks in 60,000 square feet of exhibition space, as well as a 350-seat auditorium, a library, offices, a restaurant, a gift shop, and a multi-purpose lounge.

Museo Soumaya

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Inside the Museo Soumaya. The underside of the roof presents exposed steel in a sculpture gallery and curving ramps lead through the interior.
[+ Click to enlarge.]
 

There is no doubt that the Soumaya is an interesting object within its context. It rises as a vortex with a skin made of 16,000 hexagonal tiles of mirrored steel; a photogenic image. It is a complex composition of twisted steel rings and columns, infusing character into the area. It breaks away from its surroundings and becomes an abrupt icon within the city.

But while it possesses a strong formality on the exterior, the same cannot be said about the interior. While the outside is a complex, and somewhat convoluted shape, the inside is an awkward compromise between promenade and envelope. The relation between outside and inside is neither intrinsic nor well established, and the building negates the seemingly self-supporting structure.

Museo Soumaya

A Rodin sits by itself inside the Museo Soumaya.
 

Romero’s little experience—his firm opened in 1999— and understanding of the museum typology is noticeable. The design contains a blatant reference to the iconic and often-criticized ramp of the Guggenheim Museum in New York by Frank Lloyd Wright. However, at the Soumaya the ramp is less formal and less powerful: there is no rotunda or views to give meaning to the spiral, and it does not allow users to orient themselves within the space. Its interiors first deliver a generous vestibule, a white vastness that shows off its fluidity and invites users to explore the building. But its subsequent promenade is less effective. Its spiral ends at the top floor, directing views to the structure above, where one immediately notices the unresolved geometry between trusses and walls, showing the poor level of detailing and construction supervision.

Museo Soumaya

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The swooping facade is made up of thousands of mirrored steel tiles.
[+ Click to enlarge.]
 

Furthermore at the Soumaya, daylight—an important opportunity for poetry, and especially enjoyable for scrutinizing the works of Rodin and other European masters inside this museum—is not given its due. Likewise daylight does little to accentuate the museum’s sculptural details, so the experience relies mostly on artificial lighting.  Romero worked for OMA a few years ago. Its leader Rem Koolhaas has always been an advocate for social change, and perhaps Romero absorbed that while thinking about the museum as an object for urban identification and a sense of place. With the Soumaya, Slim has given the gift of free enjoyment of his art collection to everyone in Mexico, perhaps a small gesture of social responsibility.

But the expectation for one of the best museums in the world hosting one of the most precious collections in Latin America is disappointed. It could be something much better. It started with a spectacular design on paper and ended in poor execution. We were expecting much more from the wealthiest man on earth.

Luis Othón Villegas

 

Luis Othón Villegas is a Mexico-based architect and chairman of the School of Architecture at Centro de Estudios Superiores de Diseño de Monterrey.