All Eyes on Fernando - Design Bureau

Museo Soumaya / Mexico City, Mexico / 2009-2011
photo by Javier-Hinojosa

photos by Adam Wiseman

Museum Bridge / Border between El Paso, USA and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico / 2001-Present

photo by Iwan Baan Jinhua

Villa S / Mexico City, Mexico / 2005-Present

Clay says:

does he always look like he’s taking a shit?

All Eyes on Fernando

Monday, October 24th, 2011

by Andrew Schroedter
photos by Carlos Alvarez Montero

Fernando Romero isn’t an easy guy to pin down.

An assistant for the hip, Prada-wearing Mexican architect reschedules our phone interview four times before Romero and I finally connect. To his credit, Romero apologizes for the many cancellations—he’s been busy with work and travel. Though it’s hard to fault him for a crowded calendar. 

This year, Romero has gone from a little known architect outside of Latin America to a rising star on the global design scene. Powering this meteoric ascent is the biggest project of his young career: Museo de Soumaya, an ambitious aluminum-clad building that opened in late March in Romero’s hometown of Mexico City.  

The 180,000-square-foot structure was built for Romero’s father-in-law, Carlos Slim Helu, currently the wealthiest person in the world, with a fortune that Forbes says exceeds $53 billion. Named for Slim’s deceased wife, the six-story Museo de Soumaya houses the billionaire’s massive art collection: 66,000 pieces that include works by titans like Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse, and Renoir.

Slim’s holdings are impressive (he owns more than 300 Rodin sculptures), but it’s Romero’s anvil-shaped design that has the international community buzzing. The museum’s opening was heavily covered across the world’s major publications, heaping praise on the contemporary, 150-foot-tall museum and its creator, who just happens to be a former protégé of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

But if the spotlight has Romero feeling stressed, he doesn’t sound the least bit anxious when we finally speak, coming across as humble yet cool and confident. Although he downplays the attention, Romero isn’t shrinking away from the limelight. He recently opened a studio in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood to try to boost his profile and win international assignments. 

He founded his own firm, Free Fernando Romero, more than a decade ago, though his father-in-law has funded most of his designs. So does Romero feel pressure to finally step out from behind Slim’s shadow? Not at all, he says in heavily accented English. “We’ve proven that exciting, contemporary, really avant-garde architecture exists in Latin America,” he says. “All the pressure has been taken away. 

Outside of his skyrocketing professional life, Romero describes himself as a simple person, albeit one who collects modern art and shuns jeans in favor of haute couture attire. When he’s not working, he prefers down-to-earth pursuits, mainly spending time with his wife, also named Soumaya, and their four children. He loves living in Mexico, relishing the country’s stunning landscapes and culture that values old world traditions like family and religion. And while he’s proud to have designed a prominent museum in his hometown, Romero sounds more like a populist than a pampered member of Slim’s wealthy family when he talks about creating cutting-edge housing for the masses. Among the projects Free has in the works is a master plan for the crime-ridden Mexican city of Juarez.  

If his future projects are as well-received as Museo de Soumaya, Romero will cement his reputation as one of Latin America’s top designers. While he’s thankful for the accolades he’s received so far, Romero says he’d prefer to stay out of the spotlight. “I like to think I’m very low-profile,” he says. “That’s my ideal. I’m a simple person…I’m honored to be able to continue working.”

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