My Long-Held Grudge Against Mexico City’s Museo Soumaya
By far the museum’s most grievous offense is how brazenly it seeks to be noticed.
On my first visit to the Museo Soumaya—designed by Fernando Romero to harbor the disjointed art collection of his father-in-law Carlos Slim, at that time the richest man in the world—I was filled with the callow arrogance that characterizes first-year architecture students. It was the summer of 2011. The museum had recently opened in Mexico City to the public and to the sneers of a handful of my professors, who considered the amorphous building to be not only an egregious affront to the sacred doctrine of Form Follows Function, but an ode to mediocrity, vulgarity, and nepotism. Dressed in all black and believing myself the most sophisticated of nineteen-year-old intellectuals, I walked up the museum’s steps, making my way through a crowd of delighted tourists as they snapped photos of its garish silver facade.
I don’t remember much from that first visit, but in the years that followed, I would assure anyone who would listen that it was the most appalling piece of architecture I had ever come across. This was an unoriginal sentiment. Mocking the Museo Soumaya as a crude altar at which only philistines worship has long been a favorite joke of the Mexico City art and architecture scene. In 2016, for instance, artists Yoshua Okón and Santiago Sierra presented El Excusado, a sculpture of the museum made into a functional toilet, to the gleeful approval of local critics and gallerists.
If it seems like I am setting this up to be an essay that somehow vindicates the museum, flipping the criticism instead on the snobbery of the art world, I should dispel that notion. Insufferable and hubristic as they may come across at times, the detractors of Romero’s design and Slim’s collection are entirely justified. Let me tell you about my second visit to the Museo Soumaya. It was last week and, perhaps because I approached it armed with less cynicism than on my first tour, or perhaps because more than a decade has transpired and time has been unforgiving to the building’s cheap interior finishings (floors of faux wood and marble; patches of unpainted plaster on corners of the walls), it left me feeling more dismayed than ever before.
I’ll start with the location. What was once a derelict industrial sector of Mexico City has been developed into the sort of district that could now exist in any metropolis around the world: sleek high-rises for corporate headquarters and luxury apartments, an underground network of parking lots, sadistic sidewalks, a shopping mall featuring an Apple store and several Starbuckses. Within this interchangeable urban landscape, the Museo Soumaya stands meek and absurd, almost as if it knows that it appears less grand in real life than in photographs and renderings and wants to offer you a limp apology. Composed of 16,000 hexagonal aluminum scales, its skin wraps around bold curves that mimic tidal waves, each one the whim of an architect determined to break free from conventions and whatever heritage Mexican architecture had to offer. Function and tradition be damned, this is a feat of engineering, a flaunting of a studio’s technological prowess, resulting in a building with low self-esteem and an identity crisis.
Inside, the lobby manages to at once hold some of the most iconic works in art history—a version of Michelangelo’s Pietà; a casting of Rodin’s Gates of Hell—and be completely underwhelming. Two metal detectors at a security checkpoint were surely considered last-minute—their electrical cords reach toward shoddy outlets in the ceiling, one crawling up a column, the other dangling in the air. Past them, the whiteness of the room is punctuated by sculptures and paintings from a perplexingly diverse set of authors and time periods: one of the twenty-five bronze castings that exist of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker stands out, pondering, it seems, how he ended up in front of a 1956 mosaic mural by Diego Rivera. The remaining six exhibition halls are similarly incoherent, crammed with objects that hold little or no apparent relation to each other. Visitors meander through them, feeling awkward, bewildered, and then suddenly relieved once they encounter a name they recognize on a museum label. (I watched a man frantically wave his partner over to a Salvador Dalí painting; at last, a corner worthy of a selfie.)
Several things happen when you design a museum with a daring and capriciously curved shell. For one, you play yourself out of a lot of flat, interior wall space, which comes in handy inside a place dedicated in large measure to exhibiting two-dimensional artworks. The Museo Soumaya’s collection is mounted on hundreds of randomly placed partitions, which make the exhibition halls feel like exasperating labyrinths. A less obvious consequence is that even if you decide to use the interior perimeter as a transition space—Romero forewent stairs in favor of a ramp that spirals up the building— the areas where the blindingly white walls curve inward become hazardous for those strolling along them. And so, there is an eyesore of a stubby railing next to the low, concave parts of the walls, to prevent unwitting visitors from hitting their heads on them.
By far the Museo Soumaya’s most grievous offense is how brazenly it seeks to be noticed, at the expense of even logic and beauty. It shares this specific ambition with many other buildings designed in an attempt to replicate the growth of Bilbao after the construction of Gehry’s shiny, curvy, golden Guggenheim.
Perhaps the most recent effort is Heatherwick Studio’s Vessel at Hudson Yards, which opened to the public in 2019 with the hopes of becoming the city’s next great landmark. “If you think about it, that’s something that the best cities in the world do,” Stuart Wood, group leader at Heatherwick Studio told Architectural Digest at the time. “That is, create three-dimensional objects that bring people together in ways that otherwise wouldn’t be happening.” (The Vessel has been indefinitely closed to the public since 2021, after a fourth person committed suicide by jumping off the structure.)
Of the Museo Soumaya, Fernando Romero told CNN, “It was a great opportunity to create an icon,” later adding that he views architecture “as a public service” that must “respond to the needs of the city and its citizens.” The needs of Mexico City, New York City, and other cities around the world facing similar levels of social inequality are varied and complex. At the risk of once again espousing the cynicism of my earlier youth, I’ll say I remain unconvinced that they will be addressed within the playgrounds of billionaires.
After graduating from architecture school, Ana Karina Zatarain vowed never to open AutoCAD again. She is currently finishing her first book, which will be released by Knopf in 2024.