Wed, Jan 27, 2010 - Page 15 News List

Carlos Slim speeds ahead with dazzling art palace by son-in-law

The Mexico City-based museum, a stretched, twisted aluminum ‘cube,’ will house the telecom billionaire’s vast collection of art

By Geri Smith  /  BLOOMBERG

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For many years, Mexican telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim lived a deliberately understated lifestyle. He toiled in a windowless, bunker-like office surrounded by leather-bound history books, colonial-era paintings, and baseball paraphernalia. His most personal luxuries in the concrete structure appeared to be Cohiba cigars and monogrammed shirts.

As his telecom empire expanded and his wealth ballooned, Slim spruced up his surroundings and accumulated an art collection that today includes 66,000 pieces, from 15th-century European masters to the second-largest private collection of sculptures by Auguste Rodin outside of France.

Now Slim, whose estimated US$59 billion net worth makes him one of the world’s richest people, is making waves with a boldly designed art museum he is building in Mexico City.

Imagine a gleaming aluminum cube that has been stretched and twisted so that it soars 46m into the sky, its curving upper contours reminiscent of the bow of a ship. The design is at once whimsical and structurally daring.

The 17,000m2 Soumaya Museum, with exhibition space on five levels, is rising quickly in a former industrial district where General Motors Corp operated an automobile assembly plant until the 1990s.

Named after Slim’s late wife, the museum is part of a 4.9 hectare urban development that will include the corporate headquarters for Slim’s business conglomerate, Grupo Carso, and Telcel, the Mexican mobile phone company he controls. There will also be a small shopping mall, two upscale apartment towers and an underground theater.

The entire project was designed by someone very close to Slim: his son-in-law Fernando Romero, 38, who before setting up his own practice in Mexico City worked for four years with the Office for Metropolitan Architecture under Pritzker Prize-winning architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam.

Romero, who is married to Slim’s daughter, also named Soumaya, has won praise in international design competitions. He is well regarded in Mexico’s architectural community.

“I don’t know if having a famous father-in-law is such a good thing at this early stage of his career, but some of his work is very provocative and fresh,” says Bernardo Gomez Pimienta, one of Mexico’s leading architects.

Romero’s Soumaya Museum is the latest eye-catching showcase for the art collections of wealthy patrons, a global phenomenon that Jose Maria Nava, head of the undergraduate architecture department at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, where Romero studied, calls “buildings as spectacles.”

Each of the museum’s 28 columns is different.

“We curl steel plates into tubes and then we give the right curvature to each of them — each column has different properties, depending on the weight of the building that it will be supporting,” Romero says.

(In keeping with Slim’s penchant for vertical integration, a company he owns that builds offshore oil rigs is manufacturing the steel columns.)

In June last year, when construction already had begun, Romero brought in Gehry Technologies, an engineering/design firm founded by architect Frank Gehry. A half-dozen engineers, software whizzes, and architects using 3D aerospace design technology have been working with Romero to design a workable external skin for the unusual structure.

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