Fernando ROMERO talks about the Soumaya Museum, contemporary tools and technology, iconicity, and more.
images clockwise from top left: Soumaya Museum cladding, sculpture gallery, concept sketch, and structural skeleton.
suckerPUNCH: So maybe we could start with your background. What led you into architecture and, eventually, into your own practice?
fernando ROMERO: I finished architecture school, but I wasn’t really convinced I wanted to do architecture—I was thinking that maybe I would quit and do something else. But I ended up living in Europe, because I thought it was a challenging place to go. Actually, I was in Rotterdam for three years, working for OMA. It was very good timing, because Rem [Koolhaas] was involved in the projects we were working on, and the office was changing from one that was more theoretical to one that was winning international competitions. A lot of very talented people were there at the time, so it was really a very productive period for rethinking my own expectations about architecture’s possibilities.
sP: What were some of the projects in OMA’s office at that time?
fR: We were working on the first commission that the Dutch government gave to Rem, which was the Dutch Embassy in Berlin —I was very involved in that project because I had worked previously with Jean Nouvel on an embassy, and so they [Rem] thought I should get involved in that project. Those three years, and maybe ten competitions, along with winning a couple of them, made me more aware that architecture was what I wanted to do. Rem—who had designed a house in Bordeaux (Maison à Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France, 1998) that was this kind of modernistic evolution of Villa Savoye—invited me to design a house. I thought it was very important to get away from modernity. Modernity is that buzzword where people are immediately aware of a world consciousness and everything is about horizontality and mass reproducibility. So when we were invited to design a house in Holland (Y2K House, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 1998), I proposed to Rem that we do something much more organic. The plan of the house was organized around a central void of shared, double-height living space, with the rest of the house’s spaces layered around the central living, organized as two wings—one for the husband and another for the wife. So you had a private apartment for the husband, a private apartment for the wife, various programmatic necessities, and storage all surrounding a single voided space. Also, the house wanted to be a rotating object so as to find the best lightning conditions. We were very excited with the project because it was finally something that was beyond a box. We were then invited to design a concert hall in Porto (Casa dà Musica, Porto, Portugal, 1999). At the same time, we realized that the house’s client was not very committed to the project—or you could say he was shocked—so we basically blew up that house’s concept for the concert hall in seven weeks, we won the competition, and I directed the design of that project. Then I realized it was a good time to go back to Mexico, having always been convinced that I wanted to go back and that I would have more opportunities there than in Europe. I always have in my mind [Luis] Barragán as a reference—as somebody that went and saw architecture outside, but then came back to Mexico. That too will remain one of my challenges: how you can design something that is local and unique, but at the same time global. That’s something that Barragán has no doubt done extraordinarily well. So he has been, really, always in my mind. Of course, what Barragán produced in the ’50s has nothing to do with us; the contract has changed so much, civilization and the whole spirit of architecture has evolved so much since the ’50s. So, with Barragán in mind, I came back to Mexico and started to do little commissions, and then started to evolve as most architects do: you build a portfolio, create opportunities, and ultimately build real projects.
I decided to open FREE because, contradictorily, I simply felt that it was a good moment to do so. In a way, Mexico is in the midst of a very difficult time. Mexico is a young democracy, and it’s now facing really huge challenges. One of the biggest projects we are working on is a master plan for the future of the Mexican border city, Ciudad Juarez , where we were invited to design a bridge for an immigration museum in 2001. We didn’t build the bridge, but we ended up doing the research, and, with time, we are now involved in trying to mine the future of one of the areas that has suffered the most in Presidente [Felipe] Calderón’s war against the drug cartels. They wanted to create a kind of iconic “Bilbao effect,” but it’s impossible to mine a “Bilbao” thing in this city. I mean, the city is a warehouse landscape, very undeveloped to a certain degree, but at the same time very dynamic in terms of its activity and movement. So we thought that it was interesting to propose a building that has a compression, which serves as an invisible limit and becomes not only a more efficient connection between the two countries, but also becomes a symbol of immigration. It also becomes, to a certain degree, a tool, so that people who plan on going to the United States can actually go to database centers before they leave and try to find the places to which they will actually arrive. So instead of people spending a lot of time in the streets, you try to help them to find better opportunities and work before they cross. This was just before September 11th happened, so of course the project was put on hold. So we decided, okay, let’s focus that attention on doing this book, Hyper-Border. And now, eight years later, we were invited to do a master plan for the future of Jaurez.
sP: How do you see the type of research that you do with publications such as Hyper-Border in relation to your built work?
fR: I feel that, in terms of design and architecture today, we should be able to use the contemporary design tools we have at our disposal to translate contemporary problems into structures that should, as a result, represent our contemporary moment. In the best of cases, I think architecture can express that moment. When you visit a building, you should connect with the specific, historical time in which it was built. The Soumaya museum in Mexico City was a very important experience for us, because it was finally an opportunity to design and build a public building. The museum is actually free for the public and has been visited by more than 150,000 people—in Mexico that is a lot; it will become the third-most-visited museum in the country if we go beyond one million visitors in the first year. And I think the museum’s construction is also partly about the contemporary world—it’s about how an international firm that uses parametrics can, through collaboration with local engineers, actually match their design with a built project that is both local and global. There is a whole vision behind the project that most people in the country cannot or did not follow, so the museum’s construction is a way to present to them, for free, an international production. So I think the museum acts as an educational tool as well.
sP: Do you think this is because the museum’s collection includes fashion, industrial design, and so on? How did such a diverse collection influence your design?
fR: It is a very eclectic private collection of art that spans from the 10th century to the beginning of the 20th century and is very diverse in its content—it includes everything from furniture to fashion, to painting, to sculpture, to coins and bills, to cars, and so on. The collection is so diverse that we thought it’s variety would benefit from the creation of different typologies or floor plans. But within that very diverse collection we also wanted to place, at the top, in order to lend a sense of importance, what we think is one of the most important parts of the collection—namely, the world’s second-most important collection of pieces by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917). We thought placing the Rodin collection at the top of the museum was a kind of metaphorical gesture, and it made sense because the sculptures are one of the few parts of the collection that can actually be exposed to natural light.
To a certain degree, the museum resembles a container of water. I say a container of water because, with gravity, water will spread throughout the volume containing it. But in this case it is a container of art. When you approach the museum, there’s almost a moment where art is not something there, apart, but that art is instead something very important. In this specific time for Mexico it was interesting to make that kind of gesture, because art has been relegated to project number 100. Art is no longer important because we have other projects. The reality is that what represents Mexico globally, and what is best connected with our country, is its culture. You know Mexico because of its culture, not because of politics or because of royal corporations. So that was a small gesture about our culture’s importance.
sP: We talk a lot about “high design” or the reality that really great contemporary works are few and far between, and when they are built it is often times in a private situation—a private home or private institution. So it’s great when contemporary “high design” is very much open and anyone can experience that kind of condition.
fR: Si, si. Also, I think museums are usually, or at least more often than not, done in the later stages of architects’ careers. It was a very unique opportunity to build a museum so young, because museums are one of the few, and perhaps best, places or programs where you can try to connect art and architecture. I feel most of the museums built worldwide in the last 10 years were designed with the ambition of creating an iconic building without necessarily having the collection to fill the building and justify such an ambition. We were also very lucky, because the museum already had a collection, built over the last 20 years. I think that was incredibly important, because without a collection it is probably even harder to build an argument for an iconic architecture.
sP: The circulation is a kind of spiral sequence down the building, correct?
fR: Yeah. Many people say, “It’s simply a bad copy of the Guggenheim,” but the reality is that ramps have been proven to serve as good connections between exhibition spaces and a way to create highly flexible, generous exhibition spaces. And that was the challenge: to accommodate a large collection—or relatively large for a private collector—but also give certain freedom in the connections between exhibition spaces.
sP: Was there a similar freedom or flexibility in designing the museum’s facade? Because you had to control the natural light in the galleries, you had fewer restrictions in terms of aperture. Instead, it was more a question of how you wanted to clad the overall form. I saw at one point—I believe it was in another interview—that you talked about arranging a bunch of possibilities, from marble to aluminum, in thinking about how you wanted to clad that form.
fR: We were convinced that the facade should be something ornamentally connected with the content—so not a flat, generic detail, but something that almost became a textile envelope that connects with the ornamental value of the content. The hexagon was very attractive because, when arranged or patterned as a surface, it not only takes double curvatures very well, but also represents the force of a group. When we decided to clad the museum with hexagons, there were two solutions: one, you used a generic sized hexagon without differentiation, or two, you attempted to express the formation of the envelope through the arrangement of the hexagons themselves. We convinced ourselves that it was more interesting to try to expose the deformations in the exterior envelope, and the way to achieve that was to build families of hexagons, so we built 1,000 different families. What we needed to do in order to allow for that system was have the interior mesh translate familial surface deformations. So first we needed to control the geometry of the hexagons through families, and then we needed to translate deformations between families to the mesh system. And that’s the reason why the mesh has such variation, because the epicenter of each of the hexagons needs to coincide with the epicenter of these membranes. Each membrane had to carry both the interior and exterior walls, and because we’re in a seismic area we needed to have negative joints between the hexagons so that they could move among themselves.
sP: Speaking to the collaboration you mentioned earlier, wasn’t it Arup and Gehry Technologies that you collaborated with in order to figure out the museum’s structure, particularly it’s torquing columns?
fR: They are not torquing. It’s interesting, they look torquing, but they are actually radial, lifted 90 degrees from each floorplate. Each column has a different curvature and a different thickness, but they’re actually straight.
sP: So is each column a uniform thickness within that system?
fR: Inside. Depending on the effort of the structure, the thickness of the steel plate changes, because each of the columns was built by having a steel plate and then putting pressure to that. Actually, each column has been made with a varied thickness as well as a different section.
sP: But each column only curves in one direction, not two.
fR: Yes, in only one direction. So it became a simple scheme in terms of how to build the exterior skeleton; although the columns look like they are tilted, if you rotate the elevation you realize everything is perfectly straight. That lack of multi-dimensional curvature was actually part of the rationale of how to control the geometry. At the same time, you have rings that connect the floor plates and diagonals that combat seismic movement. The challenge was that these 28 columns, each one with a unique geometry, had to carry 70 percent of the weight of the building, with the remaining 30 percent carried by the core. Of course, the core stops at the top floor, where the sculpture collection is covered by a floating roof spanning 70 meters.
sP: As a result of the sculpture gallery, does that top floor end up being the heaviest load?
fR: Exactly, exactly. Since the roof is floating and you don’t have any columns in the sculpture gallery—it’s a 70-meter span with no columns—the weight of the floating roof serves to bring the columns in again. So the columns act in compression as an arch.
sP: Do you prefer to work in physical model at the beginning, as you’re working things through? Is there a sense of iteration, of building up?
fR: We actually don’t want to assume that process—it’s too demanding. We’re now more into the digital. But the reality is that our work in process has been fundamental. At the beginning the client didn’t have the program defined, so it was simply a scheme and a concept, and the client liked it. And then it was a two-year process, with the additional vision of the program—how big the auditorium was, etc. Initially, it was simply a scheme, where we knew the names of the parts of the program but not the real operational details. So the museum itself is the evolution of a two-year design process at all scales: designing for the diversity of the collection; translating the types of plans we considered; excavation; final floor plans; the floating roof; column free gallery; and so on.
sP: A lot of your projects create very controlled views. So, like you said before, with Rem it evolved from the box to something that was a little more organic and broke the modernist horizontal window. Perhaps that bridging, that lack of contact with the ground, offered more control, in that you could decide where in the landscape you wanted to see.
fR: Yeah, maybe. Also, if architecture is really a translation process, then how will our buildings look modern? If our lives have changed so much with technology then our buildings should be representative of that change. This is a little home that I wanted to show you. It’s a little home in Tulum beach. We thought it was interesting to have a circular plan because the contemporary interfaces of connection in a lot of devices, but also in contemporary industrial design, oppress that kind of circularity, circularity that is, at the same time, how the universe itself is organized. So we thought it was good to have a circular plan, but basically translate in a number of openings, each part of the program. So basically you have living space, the children’s room, dining room, master bedroom, and a roof terrace. It’s on the Pacific, so it’s a little bit uphill from the beach; it’s a kind of floating pavilion, lets say. And I think the challenge here is—it developed as an arch, so it’s very logical in terms of its structure—but the challenge is how you can build it. Not in the Modernist understanding of architecture—in other words, not with concrete, clay, and wood you will have to throw away—but, on the contrary, with an interesting material that doesn’t create more pollution, but is already pollutant considerate and able to be reused in the end.
sP: Is there anything you’re reading, listening to, or watching right now that you’re interested in?
fR: I have been reading a book that presents the hypothesis that Latin America is actually in a state of opportunity. And there’s an author from Chile—I will be there next week—that has recently published a book saying that because of the natural resources Latin America has and because of the continuous growth of certain countries such as Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Columbia, Latin America will be one of the most promising areas of development in the future. So that is one of the books that I look forward to actually getting to read. And I have been constantly interested in technology, much more than in architecture—I don’t usually read architectural books, but I am very interested in current technology. Whatever is changing our contemporary living fascinates me, at all levels, from Groupon, to Twitter, to simply every platform that shapes our world. I think technology will have much more of an influence than any single building, so I am very interested in how technology can help us to translate the world in which we live in.