Carlos Slim Helú, the world’s richest man, has long cut an understated profile in his native Mexico City. He has lived in the same modest house for 38 years; favored inexpensive ties purchased from Sanborns, the retail chain of Woolworth-like department stores he owns; and built conservative though striking glass boxes to house his ever growing telecommunications empire. But last fall the 1,600 guests invited to the wedding of his eldest son, also named Carlos, saw a new side of Slim, whose fortune is estimated at $74 billion. As Mexican President Felipe Calderón, novelist Gabriel García Márquez, and others made their way to the reception—held in a shopping mall that’s part of a 10-acre complex Slim owns in the city’s affluent Polanco neighborhood—they first had to file past a strange curving form soaring 150 feet into the sky.
The Soumaya Museum, named for Slim’s late wife, was impossible to miss, and not just because it’s uncommonly colossal in a city prone to earthquakes. Lit up in blue as if for a film premiere, it swooped upward into a “rockabilly coif,” as Carnegie Museum of Art architecture curator Raymund Ryan described the building. Created to hold Slim’s eclectic collection—66,000 pieces that include works by van Gogh, Matisse, and El Greco, along with the largest collection of Rodin sculptures outside of France—the museum was still under construction, but tours were arranged for guests who wanted to venture inside. “The elite of Mexico was all there,” recalled one attendee, “but the real star of the wedding was not the bride or the guests but the museum. Everybody wanted to see it.”
As it turns out, the bravura building was designed by another member of the wedding party: Fernando Romero, who is married to Slim’s daughter, also named Soumaya. A protégé of Rem Koolhaas, Romero has given the city an iconic, cutting-edge building that does double duty as the flagship for Slim’s empire. “There’s nothing like it in Mexico City,” said architect Javier Sánchez, one of the creative talents behind the Condesa DF hotel, a hub for the city’s pulsing contemporary art scene. “It looks like it came from another planet. Slim isn’t known for daring architecture. It’s the first building he’s commissioned to make a statement.”
That Slim made a statement at all is due in no small measure to the ambitions of Romero. Born in Mexico City in 1971, he is part of a new generation of Mexican architects who think globally but focus locally, intent on making their mark on a culture in flux. Of course, Mexico City has long been a place of experimentation. From the studio and house that Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo shared and the monumental campus of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the country’s main university, to the apartment buildings that fill the blocks of the central district, the clean lines and grand gestures of modernist architecture are everywhere. “Imagine 22 million people in this city every day—the energy, the chaos,” said architect Michel Rojkind, who is known here for his inventive Chocolate Museum for Nestlé. “It’s the perfect work environment if you want to keep your head spinning in a creative way, because nothing works as it should. You’re constantly challenged to think of different possibilities of how things could be.”