Portrait by Sohrab Golsorki-Ainslie
Fernando Romero is Mexico’s most famous contemporary architect. After beginning his career at OMA and with Jean Nouvel, he returned to Mexico City in 2000. The Soumaya Museum, his most celebrated building, opened in 2011 and has quickly become one of the capital’s best-known landmarks. His latest commission is a massive joint project with Norman Foster to build Mexico City’s new airport. Tank sat down with him inside his skyscraper studio as the city rushed by below us.
Masoud Golsorkhi Did you always know you’d come back and work in Mexico?
Fernando RomeroYes, I was very interested in coming back to Mexico. I returned in 2000, at the moment when, after many years of the same party, Congress was divided between three parties for the first time and the right came to power with Vicente Fox. It was the beginning of a very slow process for the country. Congress was blocking new ideas and important reforms were not successfully approved, so it was a moment where the country was very slow. If architecture is really the translation of the economic moment, it was a bad moment.
FR It was stuck. I was young, I had just come from Holland, which is a very educated society in terms of design and in Mexico there was no real culture for competitions. There were only a few happening, but it was not really mature in that sense. So the first years were very complex. We were doing very small commissions and when you’ve just come from Holland with that intensive work, these small commissions were not enough, so we also did books and research. So we did a book about the transformation of Mexico City called Zona metropolitana del Valle de México. We also did a book on the border between Mexico and the United States.
MG Yes, I wanted to talk about that.
FR Hyper-Border. It is one of the most active borders in the world. It’s very interesting because as we evolve as civilisations, borders are in one way less present. But the border between Mexico and the United States is the highest contrast border in the world. You have the most developed country and one of the most undeveloped areas of Latin America just next to that border. It is one of the most active borders, with people commuting between sister cities every day. It has more than 400 million crossings a year, making it, I think, the second most active in the world. And I think there are several conversations to be had about it. One is in regard of what to do on an infrastructure level to make it more efficient. But there are other discussions, about humanity, for example. Another is the security, the relationship between the consumption and production of drugs. So what we did in Hyper-Border was to try to structure elements that we thought were interesting to analyse, not presenting solutions, but rather presenting the situation.
MG Airports are probably the most prestigious projects architecturally. If you want your name to live on in history, that’s what you do, right? You build an airport because there is nothing bigger. How did you get the project for Mexico City’s new airport?
FR Sometimes governments and society manage to take infrastructure to the highest standards and actually build something that becomes really architectural. Most of the time, infrastructure doesn’t have that possibility. So when you look at most of the airports in the United States, they are structures based simply on data and immediate needs. But it’s completely different when a country like Mexico is thinking of creating infrastructure that will become the gateway to the country. Here it’s about architecture’s power to actually contribute and even consolidate part of our identity.
MG The commercial pressures must be so intense.
FR Yes, but in this project, that was part of the beauty of it. We managed to express the concept in such a way that the government actually saw the real opportunity. Because it’s a new site, it’s not an extension of a current airport.
MG So it’s completely new and the scale is insane.
FR It’s the biggest airport in development on the continent. Phase one will have three runways and serve 50 million passengers a year, but the overall concept is to evolve towards 120 million passengers a year.
MG Do you work on small-scale projects as well?
FR No. I still dream of one day having a client who wants to do something special and smaller scale. I haven’t found one in the past decade. Our practice is defined by all the things we planned and all the things we didn’t plan, the projects that came to us accidentally. So I have always been very interested in airports, but the airport came up simply as an opportunity to collaborate with extraordinary architects and design something that matched the clients’ visions. Usually architects become stronger in what they deliver. So if we do a vertical building, we will do more vertical buildings. If we do airports, we will do more airports.
MG That’s the problem. It’s like being an actor – you get typecast.
FR Exactly, but it should not be a problem. It should actually be a positive for us, an eternal opportunity. Because if the economists are correct, in the coming decade Latin America will have continuous growth and the middle class will have more resources. With sustainable growth, infrastructure will be required, and our practice will be very well positioned. Mexico is still consolidating. The macroeconomy is still very stable. The government has been able to enact its reforms, so we see that Mexico in the coming years is going to consolidate its position – our position – as one of the strongest cultures in the region.
MG How do you foster civil society and the middle class in an economy that is so unequal?
FR Well, it’s been a longstanding public debate, especially now that the government has focused its attention on reforms. The government has a very strong agenda to keep stability in the financial sector, but it is also using infrastructure works to promote spending and create employment and so ease social pressure. So we need to take this moment of macroeconomic stability to invest in infrastructure and focus on creating jobs and bringing resources to the people. What we are seeing is that over the next year, government spending will greatly increase, creating more important opportunities to move the economy, the entire economy, and create more employment.
MG At the same time you have this incredibly, exuberant and productive cultural sphere here in terms of design, street subcultures, music and art. It just seems to need a bit of support to take it global. There is no shortage of talent and energy – it’s just taking that next leap.
FR What we now have is a more stable country on a macro level. A lot of foreign investment in the plane and car industries is coming to the centre of the country, bringing a lot of capital in. It’s creating what we call the “MeMo”, the Mexico moment, which in the last month, because of complex things that have happened, people have been questioning. I am very positive about it because I have seen what has worked over these past two years, and I haven’t seen that sort of progress in 20 years. Nobody came here and said, we need to do this, this, this, and this and achieve it in a year and a half. So we are very positive that it is the beginning of an exhilarating moment.