Fernando Romero, who once worked for Rem Koolhaas, is married to the daughter of the richest man in the world, for whom he built the Soumaya museum in Mexico City. With several big projects in the works, he is now planning a charter city to be built from scratch in Latin America
At the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, Fernando Romero is engulfed by a ring of photographers and camera crews. The opening of an exhibition of his architectural models is attended by the Mexican haute-bourgeoisie: politicians, oligarchs, telenovela and movie stars. Salma Hayek is somewhere in the throng, and the many bodyguards in attendance are conspicuous by their burly builds and lack of champagne glasses. The Prada-clad Romero – his bronzed, boyish face beaded with perspiration from the bulbs and harsh lights – beckons me into the media circle for a speedy tour of his life's work.
Why such interest? Romero, 42, is married to Soumaya Slim, daughter of Carlos Slim Helú, aka the richest man in the world. Slim made the bulk of his fortune – $73 billion at last count – in the early 1980s when Mexico's utilities were privatised and he assumed control of its telecommunications networks and monopolies of much else. He owns restaurant, retail and supermarket chains, banks, mines, newspapers, construction and insurance companies. Mexicans sometimes refer to the country as Slimlandia because it's almost impossible to get through the day without lining his pocket.
When Slim sought an architect to build a museum to house his huge collection of Latin American and European art, it was natural that he should keep it in the family by calling on his son-in-law. Romero, who trained in Mexico at the Universidad Iberoamericana, moved to Barcelona to apprentice to Enric Miralles before working for Jean Nouvel in Paris. It was there that he read Rem Koolhaas's S,M,L,XL, which inspired a move to Rotterdam. A contemporary of Bjarke Ingels and Ole Scheeren at OMA, and only 26, he served as project leader on the exuberant $100 million Casa da Música in Porto, Portugal. "Rem taught me that there is not one single way to solve anything," he says. "He arrived like a critic, he didn't impose his vision, he taught you how to think through the power of his questions."
In 2000, he returned to Mexico and founded Fernando Romero Enterprise (FR-EE). "I came home at the beginning of the 'new democracy' in Mexico," he says, "when, after 70 years, there was a new party in Congress". The firm worked on several domestic projects for wealthy Mexican clients, as well as a book on the US-Mexico border (he hoped to build an immigration museum and crossing in Juárez), before Slim asked him to masterplan Nuevo Polanco. This former industrial district is now the biggest mixed-use development in Latin America. With its inert glass office blocks and conspicuous flagship stores for global brands, as well as a US Embassy under construction, it is also a symbol of the new, corporate Mexico.
At Nuevo Polanco's heart is Plaza Carso, where a bland residential tower by Romero looms over David Chipperfield's new Jumex museum. The plaza centres on Romero's gaudy, fish-skinned $70m Soumaya Museum. (He is also building an aquarium at its base.) Engineered with Frank Gehry, the museum is studded in hexagonal, aluminium disks and resembles a 150ft-high cooling tower thrown off-kilter on the wheel; one critic described it as a nuclear power station studded with sequins, which is about right. Opening in 2011, it effectively introduced blobby, "avant-garde" architecture to Mexico.
In interviews, Slim, who originally trained as an engineer, likes to say that there were two architects on the project. The owner of an aluminium mine, it was he who insisted on the ornamental facade, which is reminiscent of Future Systems' Selfridges in Birmingham, instead of the translucent one Romero originally proposed. But when asked if the client was as tricky as he sounded, Romero puts a stop to the conversation: "No discussion about that." Weary of accusations of nepotism, he waxes lyrical about his collaborator, while never mentioning him by name: "You meet extraordinary people like that once in a lifetime. Extraordinary vision, intellect, humility, brightness ..."
When I visited in October, the marble-floored foyer was given over to Day of the Dead shrines, the largest of which was devoted to Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, the architect of the Museo de Arte Moderno and National Anthropological Museum, who died that April and of whom Romero is a fan. Slim described the free-entry museum as his "gift to Mexico". The oligarch's treasures that it contains are eclectic (and displayed like a Bond villain's hoard): one floor is devoted to Slim's coin collection, another to ivories. A ramp spirals up through further rooms of religious paintings, impressionism and post-war Mexican art, to climax on the sixth floor in a sculpture gallery that contains more than 100 Rodins, the largest number in private hands. It is an awkward, claustrophobic, draining ascent, without the sense of easy progress you experience at the New York Guggenheim, a building Romero acknowledges as an influence, with its stairwell that spirals around an airy atrium.
In 2010 Romero opened a Manhattan office, and he recently moved his Mexico City studio from Nuevo Polanco to a building in a quiet working-class suburb that he originally constructed for his own burgeoning design collection. One of the models on display at the Museo de Arte Moderno was for an egg-shaped design museum in which he hopes to rehouse them – "awareness of the value of design doesn't yet exist in Mexico", he says. The office, with a narrow entrance tunnel that leads into a lush, tropical garden, is next door to the brightly coloured former studio and home of Luis Barragán, Mexico's most famous modernist architect.
"It's a masterpiece, no?" Romero says of Casa Barragán, which brings a tropical sensuousness to the international style. He cites the architect, who travelled to Europe before bringing that knowledge back to Mexico, as an inspiration. "Not formally," he explains. "What he achieved was to combine the best of the global with the best of the local, and to do something unique. He achieved something of transcendence, bringing something new to the international scene with a series of small discreet works. And that's the biggest challenge we have."
How does Romero hope to meet this challenge? "Rem famously said, 'Fuck the context!'" he elaborates. "For me, the context defines the architecture." Romero thinks that local specificities must be connected to the global, "which is the omnipresent technology that we all have". And he distances himself from Mexican modernism: "I'm interested in architecture that connects with the historical moment."
Many of Romero's proposed structures refer to pre-Hispanic architecture with symbolism that seems perhaps a little too obvious. A contemporary art museum on the Mayan Riviera, for example, resembles a Mayan ruin with bunker-like incisions. "If you build in Tulum next to the jungle," he explains, "then an interesting challenge is the connection with local conditions. How to translate those forces into materials that are understandable?" A mixed-use development planned for Mérida, The Pyramid, also has a stepped profile camouflaged with tropical vegetation.
Romero's technological fetishism often translates itself into a series of muscular, macho shapes. Out of context, the models in the Museo de Arte Moderno seem deliberately to strain geometry in the self-conscious way familiar in the work of "the children of Rem". Many of his schemes are listed as "ongoing", so it is hard to work out if they are live or abandoned, but they include spheres, doughnuts, moebius strips, hexagons and erratically stacked towers. Built projects include a Bridging Tea House in Jinhua, China – a trapezoid, honeycomb structure painted Barragán pink – and a convention centre for the G20 Convention in Los Cabos, Mexico, that incorporates a huge green wall.
Romero is an architect with lofty ambitions, well situated to exploit Mexico's economic boom, its privileged position in Latin America and close relationship with the US. He is building a museum of Mexican art in Austin, Texas – a circular structure with LED facade that refers to Aztec calendars and Mesoamerican pelota game hoops – but has aspirations beyond such showcase projects. When we meet again in London for drinks, I accompany him in a taxi to Nobu, where he is dining with Zaha Hadid, and he tells me how he hopes "to redefine the notion of a 21st-century city".
He has created a series of fantastical masterplans for radial FR-EE Cities that resemble intricate mandalas. These proposed charter cities – an idea first mooted by US economist Paul Romer – would be tax-free zones. "In places where there is a lack of opportunities and a lot of immigration," Romero explains, "you can create an attractive destination for foreign capital, for big corporations to invest." Critics worry that such places would be heavily policed labour camps, but Romero talks about the idea of car-free, sustainable new cities – "where residents are guaranteed security, healthcare and education" – with utopian zeal. And he might know just the client able to fund such dreams.
The facade is studded with aluminium hexagons (image: Rafael Gamo)