The Soumaya commission is not simply an act of nepotism. Before setting up his own practice in Mexico City in 2000, Romero worked for Jean Nouvel in Paris, and then for three years at Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam. “Before I met Rem, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be an architect,” said Romero, who was project leader for Koolhaas’s acclaimed Casa da Música concert hall in Porto, Portugal. “But working for him was my school. I’ve been very lucky in my life to see two unique minds working. One is Mr. Slim, and the other is Rem.”
Romero, now 39, was working for Nouvel in Paris when he read Koolhaas’s seminal manifesto S, M, L, XL, and knew at once he had to meet him. But when Romero arrived in Rotterdam, Koolhaas was out of town. “So I stayed in a terrible youth hostel—with lots of junkies,” Romero said. “I didn’t have any money, because Nouvel didn’t pay me properly.” Koolhaas, who hired him after returning to Rotterdam (Romero was waiting at Koolhaas’s office to plead his case), was “so intense and demanding, but he taught me that there was not one way to solve problems.” Romero was in the midst of moving back home from Rotterdam when he ran into Soumaya, an acquaintance, on a flight from Paris to Mexico City. Soon after, the two married, with Koolhaas serving as a witness at their wedding.
Koolhaas remembers a “very driven, incredibly creative person with an unbelievable ability to articulate ideas in sketches and models—an exceptionally wonderful collaborator if you’re in the beginning of a project and have to explore different directions. His work is experimental and restless, looking in many directions. He’s able to do very straightforward buildings and very noticeable buildings—non-icons and icons—and that’s important these days.”
Though admired for the bold imagery of his projects, Romero is best known for the buildings commissioned by his father-in-law, whom the architect calls “Uncle” personally and refers to professionally as “The Client.” Five years ago Slim asked Romero to design a new home for the Soumaya collection. Opened to the public in 1994, it had outgrown its quarters in a converted paper factory in a quaint part of the city called San Angel. “He said, ‘We will design a building together,’ and I said, ‘Great!’” Romero recalled with a laugh. “Now when people ask me, ‘Are you the architect?’ I say, ‘I’m the co-architect.’”
It was an unseasonably cool day in November, and we were having lunch outdoors at the San Angel Inn, a popular hacienda-turned-restaurant where he and his wife had their first date. He had grown up in the neighborhood, explained Romero, whose father was a developer and whose mother was a psychologist. Slender and animated, he was dressed in a shiny Prada jacket, narrow trousers, and black ankle boots. Being Slim’s son-in-law, “people think, Okay, it must be easy,” Romero said in heavily accented English. “The reality is that he has questioned every single solution and every single decision. When he’s in Mexico he visits the site every day.”