As Romero spoke, he diagrammed his thoughts, something he does often. When I asked how he, Slim, and Soumaya, known as Sumy, the museum’s vice president and its former director, evolved the design, he sketched three circles: Slim was in the top circle, he explained, while he and Sumy were on the plane beneath him. Like the Taj Mahal, he said, the Soumaya was built to honor the memory of a beloved woman—Romero’s mother-in-law—who died in 1999 at age 50. “We were all trying to make something that translated her beauty,” said Sumy. “He feels close to my mother, even though they never met, and his father-in-law and wife are involved. All these conditions make it a huge challenge because the relationships are very strong.” Not least those between client and architect. “It’s complicated,” she adds carefully, “because they are both so strong in their notion of how things should be.”
Romero came up with 16 designs before Slim gave the go-ahead in 2007. By then his Laboratory of Architecture (since renamed FREE Fernando Romero) had made two major bank buildings for Slim: one a floating glass box on the city’s main boulevard; the other a gleaming two-story rectangle housing his personal office and sheathed in sapphire blue glass. Romero assumed he wanted more of the same, but Slim kept rejecting his ideas. “The Client is a civil engineer himself, and has been putting up very rational buildings all of his life,” said Romero, so he designed what he calls “a rational building for a rational man.”
Over the previous five years, however, Slim had grown more interested in contemporary architecture, an evolution Romero encouraged. He showed Slim works by the architects he most admired—among them, Koolhaas and Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron—and in 2001 he designed a beach house for Slim in the resort town of Ixtapa. Riffing on that curving, cavelike dwelling, where the Slim clan converges each New Year, Romero made a tiny maquette out of foam, setting the museum on a new course. “He told me it reminded him of a ship, and he loves ships,” he said of Slim’s reaction.
To deal with the structural challenges of his computer-aided design, Romero enlisted the Los Angeles offices of Arup, an engineering firm known for its work on the Sydney Opera House and Beijing’s Olympics Bird’s Nest stadium. Romero also brought in Gehry Technologies, which drew on 3-D aerospace design technology to fabricate the external skin for the unusual structure. In addition to the 180,000-square-foot museum—“the largest example of built ‘blobitecture’ in the Americas,” according to the Cincinnati Art Museum’s director, Aaron Betsky—Romero was charged with the master plan for the entire 10-acre campus, including two office towers that will serve as corporate headquarters for Slim’s business conglomerate, Grupo Carso, and Telcel, the Mexican unit of his Latin American mobile phone company. There are also a shopping mall, an underground theater, two apartment towers, and the biggest parking garage in all of Mexico—enough for 8,000 cars. Such is the enormity of the project that cabdrivers have taken to calling it Ciudad Slim (Slim City).