Mexico City–based architect Fernando Romero’s most recent project isn’t a building, but a scintillating orb made from thousands of custom-cut crystals. Illuminated from within, El Sol, as it’s named, features a tessellated surface composed of triangular prisms—a nod to the pyramids that were so meaningful to Aztec and Mayan culture. There’s an aural element to the piece, too: a soundtrack of acoustic waves produced by the sun, which astronomers at the University of Birmingham have recorded since the 1970s. The piece throws light around a room and gives off a disco ball vibe that’s fitting, since Swarovski commissioned it for the tradeshow-cum-social-event Design Miami.
El Sol is a microcosm of Romero’s body of work; it’s modern, technologically rigorous, in dialog with history, and infused with flash. The young architect—he is 44 years old—founded FR-EE, Fernando Romero Enterprise, in 2000 and opened a New York City office in 2010. A protege of Rem Koolhaas—Romero worked at OMA for three years—the architect bears some similarity to his mentor in that his structures are radical, iconoclastic, dictated by function and use, aggressively modern, and never short of rhetoric.
Many of Romero’s designs are conceptual or yet-to-be-built, but he was catapulted into the spotlight by the Museo Soumaya, a private art museum completed in 2011 and his crowning achievement to date. Named after Romero’s wife, Soumaya Slim, and bankrolled by his father in law, telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim (who was the richest man in the world from 2010 to 2013), the museum is an engineering marvel with an asymmetric, torqued structure clad in metallic tiles.
Over the past few years, Romero has been steadily remaking—or reimagining—the Mexico City’s architectural fabric, adding another chapter to the city’s rich design legacy. 20 million people a year visit Plaza Mariana, the public space surrounding the Basilica of Guadalupe that the firm designed in 2009, and he’s at work on Plaza Carso, a massive mixed-use master plan due to be finished in 2017. In 2014 his design for the Mexico City Aquarium opened, and he’s created a number of sculptural tower proposals and concepts as well, like the Archivo design museum.
Recently, Romero was awarded with three high-profile projects: the Mazatlan Museum, a flying-saucer-like structure scheduled to break ground this year; the controversial mile-long elevated park along Mexico City’s Avenida Chapultepec; and, along with Foster + Partners, the Mexico City International Airport—a cavernous structure with a glass-and-steel structure that will span over 325 feet in certain areas. We spoke to the architect about his creative vision, how technology and history fuel his practice, using design to tackle challenges on an urban scale, and why it makes sense for a homegrown architect to design the new gateway to Mexico.
What’s your greatest concern as an architect?
The context. We understand architecture as a two way translation. On the one hand, it translates the social, urban, and historical context into a single building. In this case, architecture is the result of understanding the context. On the other hand, architecture can also erupt into a established context and transform it. This is the case of Plaza Carso and Museo Soumaya: the area has acquired a completely new vocation, it evolved from being a no-man’s land into an iconic reference for culture and commerce by creating a multidisciplinary hub in the city. It also raised the land value, detonating the real estate development.
What defines your firm’s work?
We create singular buildings that are connected to the specific time in which we are living. The technology we use to “solve” our buildings is an opportunity to connect the solution to our specific moment. Every time there is a big technological moment in history, it is accompanied by a deep sociological and cultural transformation. Design has to be sensitive to these transformations and integrate the available resources and technology to develop objects and solutions of its own time. Design is on the one hand a response of a translation process, but also an opportunity to contribute to human development. Technology helps materialize our ideas, so it is the means by which we translate the context into architecture. Moreover, technology provides with new possibilities for building great architectural challenges.
What technological advancements are you most excited about?
For my practice, 3-D printing has become very handy, since we can model complex forms and almost immediately have them in a physical format. It allows us to touch them and see them in various angles in a very spontaneous way. We can experience the model and bring that knowledge back to the 3-D model. It also allows us to make a very accurate analysis of a certain building at many different scales, we can print the overall massing in a small scale, or an expanded detail. This “zoom in and out” allows us to understand the object as a whole and then back to how the building is built and experienced. Today, this technology is commonly used as a design tool, but we’ll see in the near future 3-D printing commonly applied to actual construction, which will allow buildings with complex geometries to be executed with budgets that are very close to today’s conventional form of construction.
Do you base your designs on what is feasible from a construction standpoint, or do you start with the form and try to push what’s buildable?
In the case of El Sol, the capabilities of Swarovski’s design team in Wattens, Austria, allowed us to create a design that is incredibly precise in its use of geometry and scale. El Sol presented an interesting challenge to us: How do we create a replica of the sun, 1 billionth of its actual size, using both modern technology and ancient geometry? We have to credit rapidly advancing technologies for allowing us to create El Sol in its magnitude and under a constrained period of time.
How did the collaboration with Norman Foster on the Mexico City Airport come about?
We were invited by the Mexican government. The whole concept is to do a single structure, a big expanse that is flexible. Most airports have a generic structure and a very predictable grid. For us it was an opportunity to do a building that materialized the identity of the country. For years the country has been trying to design an airport and many of our competitors didn’t see the opportunity. They developed buildings that replicated international solutions, For example, the other candidate most likely to win was developing the Hong Kong airport. For us it was about doing something singular, that connects with the history of our country, and that becomes the first image of our new country. It’s a gateway to Mexico.
Why is it important for you to tie your work to Mexican history and have that layer of symbolism?
At FR-EE, our practice is very much influenced by Mexican history and culture. We find it’s particularly important to unearth forgotten historical Mexican references and explore our roots when it comes to the ethos of our practice. It’s especially exciting to bring Mexican references, customs, ancestry and themes to a wider global audience. It is an exploration of my heritage and how it is relevant today.
What are the most pressing concerns for Mexico City on an urban scale and how can design help address them?
Mexico City is unique in terms of its cultural diversity. We have one of the strongest histories in the planet in terms of the cultures who have lived in the area and our contemporary city has been a result of the progression. It also has many challenges, especially since we grew five times in size between 1950 and 1990. Connectivity is a challenge; public transportation is crucial in terms of how to make the city work more effectively. Obviously a city of this scale has environmental challenges, simply because the amount of people and the amount of cars. There are 21 million civilians in the metropolitan area.
Architecture and design can be extraordinary tools to have better solutions of connectivity, of transport. But also at this specific historical moment, how do you also enrich the lives of people by investing in public space? What better example than New York in seeing how the vision of a mayor has changed the city for good in terms of investing in public space and finding intelligent and contemporary ways in connecting investors with the city? I think in that sense, Mexico City can still learn a lot from international practices.
It seems like the Avenida Chapultepec linear park is addressing a lot of those connectivity issues and providing green space. Do you feel like the park is symbolic of a new direction in urbanism in Mexico City?
Yes, the project has the DNA of what would be in your dream city: to have a perfect bike lane, to have great public transportation that’s well organized, to have a lot of public space and green areas. The park shows the future of the city both in the urban point of view and the potential in how collaboration between private and public sectors can make this city evolve.
In the architecture and landscape discussion, the reality is that this extraordinary, attractive, abandoned area with a lot of history can be transformed into a public space. We’ll reverse the current situation where 20% of the land is used for the public and 80% for cars—into 20% for the cars and 80% public space.
What do you think is an architect’s greatest responsibility in this day and age?
There is no doubt about it: our planet. There is an intrinsic relationship between architecture and sustainability. We have to take care of the natural resources and of our planet. Architecture has a big deal of responsibility in this topic and our generation will be considered in the future as the very first one which attended this issue and found solutions. In this sense, technology is a great help for finding new alternatives.