When MoMA unveiled its new building in 2004, Yoshio Taniguchi’s quiet, reserved architecture stood out among its flashier counterparts, like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao or Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi Museum. Contemporary museums tend to commission big, expressive (and expensive) architecture. And who could blame them? An iconic building can function as a fundraising tool, a tourist hotspot, and a branding identity in one. Like a real estate agent who writes off teeth whitening and hair plugs on his taxes, museums depend on aesthetic charm to bring in business. So, even as public and private funding for such cultural institutions shrink, the dream of Bilbao lives on, inspiring massively expensive cultural complexes all over the world.
Fernando Romero, the young architect behind the glittering $70 million dollar Soumaya Museum in Mexico City, recently unveiled a design for the Austin-based Museum of Mexican and Mexican-American Art. His proposal for Mexic-Arte is, like that of the Soumaya, based on a simple sculptural form clad in an unusual material (dimpled glass and mirrored tiles, respectively).
Romero’s design for Mexic-Arte is oversized in comparison to the size of the Museum’s collection. To give you some context as to the size of each institution, the Soumaya Museum was built to house the 66,000-piece collection of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Mexic-Arte, by contrast, has a strong but small collection of 1,500 pieces. The two buildings, though, are more similar in terms of size. Soumaya clocks in at a massive 170,000 square feet. The proposed Mexic-Arte design is around 54,000.
The idea behind the disproportionately large design, explains Austin’s Statesman, is to lease half of the proposed Museum as commercial office space. That will help to fund the $30 million venture, which joins a laundry list of other Austin-area cultural organizations who’ve attempted to build a freestanding headquarters over the past few years (none have succeeded, yet).
Romero’s office explains the iconic shape by saying it’s inspired by (wait for it!) disc-like objects found in Mexican culture, "such as the Aztec calendar and the pelota game." Romero is the sibling to other OMA graduates like Bjarke Ingles, who specializes in the same diagrammatic bricolage of vernacular references and big-impact formalism. Whether or not you go in for this kind of architectural one-liner (though the Aztec calendar is a cool idea, I’d love to meet the person who looks at these renderings and thinks "oh! Like pelota!"), the cost of the building, and the plan to lease half of it commercially, likely has its provenance in its appearance.
Mexic-Arte, for their part, deserve credit for floating the relatively unconventional idea of a joint commercial/cultural project. And Romero has been praised by many critics as refreshingly optimistic. But is the architecture a mismatch for the organization, and perhaps for the city? It’s well-trod dilemma right now, for cities and architects alike: What’s the worth of bombastic architecture, when cultural institutions are struggling to keep what’s inside afloat?