For all his focus on forging a new design vocabulary for Mexico, Romero is a keen guardian of its modernist legacy. Visitors to his studio are first directed next door, to the Casa Barragán, the home and lab of Luis Barragán, considered the country’s greatest architect. A few years ago Romero bought the Boca Chica hotel, a Fifties-era Hollywood playground in Acapulco that he restored with his friends Carlos Couturier and Rafael, Jaime, and Moisés Micha, the ultrahip hoteliers behind Grupo Habita, whose properties have brought cutting-edge chic to Mexico. And his own home, where he lives with Sumy and their four young children, is a modernist gem tucked away behind a discreetly manned wall in the exclusive Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood.
The Romeros are key players in the city’s lively contemporary arts scene, and entertain regularly; the night they invited me to dinner, we were joined by 15 others from their circle, a fashionable mix of the city’s artists, architects, and critics. The talk swirled around Vanesa Fernández, an art critic and the editor of a popular fashion magazine who— along with her husband, artist Aldo Chaparro—was about to launch a one-stop tearoom, champagne bar, clothing-design store, and homeopathic beauty clinic on three floors of a town house. Sumy, wearing furry Chanel boots with icicle heels that Romero had recently given her, chatted amiably about the museum but deftly dodged my questions about the Slims. “She’s very discreet, and she’ll say she had nothing to do with the museum,” Romero told me when I asked about her role in its daring design. “But she was crucial in making it happen.” While his house is studded with midcentury furniture and works by Andreas Gursky, Olafur Eliasson, Thomas Demand, and Cy Twombly, among Romero’s prized possessions is a framed fax Koolhaas sent telling him of the commission for the Casa da Música. It hangs in his bathroom.
In true Koolhaas style, Romero’s first project on returning to his hometown was not a building but a study of the city’s urban fabric, to which he invited artists to contribute, including Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, who lunches with Romero weekly. Romero went on, with artist Gabriel Orozco, to design a house that looked like an egg, and a bridge-cum-museum over the Rio Grande that would have spanned the U.S.-Mexico border and hosted exhibitions on migration flows between the two countries. Neither project was built, but like many others by Romero and his firm, they won him attention.
In 2004 the Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei selected Romero to design a pavilion for the Jinhua Architecture Park in China. Romero’s only building outside of Mexico, it’s a bow tie–shaped bridge that doubles as a teahouse, upending the idea that bridges are only for crossings. “He has an entrepreneurial spirit and makes a lot of experiments,” said Reyes. “With most architects you talk about projects and cities; with Fernando you talk about WikiLeaks and the most innovative kind of business model.”