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(This story has been corrected to include the name of Telcel, the Mexico unit of America Móvil that will be located in Carlos Slim's new urban development.)
For many years, Mexican 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 $59 billion net worth makes him one of the world's richest people, is building an art museum in Mexico City.
Imagine a gleaming aluminum cube that has been stretched and twisted so that it soars 150 feet into the sky, its thrusting, curving upper contours reminiscent of the bow of a ship. It's a design that is at once whimsical and structurally daring.
The 183,000 square-foot Soumaya Museum, with exhibition space on five levels, is going up in a former Mexico City industrial district where General Motors operated an automobile assembly plant until the 1990s. Named after Slim's late wife, the museum is part of a 12-acre urban development that will include two 22-story conventional office towers, including the corporate headquarters for Slim's business conglomerate, Grupo Carso, and Telcel, the Mexico unit of America Móvil, his Latin American wireless phone company. There will also be a small shopping mall, two upscale apartment towers, and an underground theater.
The entire project was designed by Mexican architect 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 Gómez-Pimienta, one of Mexico's leading architects.
Slim's Soumaya Museum is the latest eye-catching showcase for the art collections of wealthy patrons, a global phenomenon that José Maria Nava, head of the undergraduate architecture department at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, where Romero studied, calls "buildings as spectacles." Nava adds: "It's part of a trend that has become very common worldwide—architecture featuring very complex, undulating geometries made possible by computer-aided design, a kind of digital baroque."
Four years ago, Slim asked Romero to design a new building for the Soumaya collection, which had outgrown its 15-year-old home in a century-old converted paper factory in an older part of the city. "We wanted to translate his vision and his art collection and this historic moment when Mexico has become part of a more global economic network," Romero says of Slim, whose business empire spans all of Latin America. His mobile telecom company—just one of his many businesses—has nearly 200 million clients.
Romero came up with 10 designs. "The client is a civil engineer himself, and has been putting up very rational buildings all of his life," Romero explains. "But over the last 10 years, he started becoming more interested in contemporary architecture and decided he wanted to do something extremely contemporary."
To deal with the structural challenges of the chosen design, Romero turned to the Los Angeles offices of Ove Arup, an engineering firm known for its work on the Sydney Opera House, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Beijing Olympics' Bird's Nest and Water Cube venues. Romero knew Arup from their collaboration on the Rem Koolhaas-designed Casa da Música concert hall in Porto, Portugal, completed in 2005.
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.)
Last June, when construction already had begun, Romero brought in Gehry Technologies, an engineering/design firm founded by legendary 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.
Romero originally wanted to create a façade of Carrara marble, reminiscent of the glimmering surface of the Taj Majal. "Marble is coming back to industrial design. Some of the most influential designers are using marble," he says.
Slim wanted something more modern, so they settled on shiny aluminum. The museum will be covered by more than 16,000 hexagonal aluminum plates arranged in a complex, computer-designed honeycomb pattern.
Estimates of $34 million have floated through the architecture community, a number Romero would not confirm or deny. The museum is expected to open to the public by the end of this year, after only a year of actual construction.
Romero hasn't made a public presentation, and most of the drawings circulating on the Web don't reflect the final design. It's possible that the young architect, charged with an ambitious commission that most designers don't get until they're at least in their 50s, wants to avoid second-guessing from his peers. Slim, a lightning rod of criticism for his immense fortune and domination of Mexico's phone industry, may well be pleased to let the building twist mysteriously out of the ground in the final form that he and Romero have so meticulously planned.