Museo Jumex: Chipperfield's sleek vision bears fruit

The Museo Jumex in Mexico City is a building of real elegance, says David Usborne – and it's all the work of a British architect

Connoisseurs of contemporary art have known for years that no visit to Mexico City is complete without a pilgrimage to the Jumex fruit-juice plant in the far-flung manufacturing neighbourhood of Ecatepec – and a warehouse crammed with the growing trove of the heir to the company's riches, Eugenio Lopez. Composed of more than 2,000 works purchased since 1990, it is a collection to rival any anywhere.

Six years ago, Lopez, 46, concluded that it was time to showcase what he had assembled in a proper museum and in a more accessible location. For that, he needed land and a world-class architect. In short order, he found both. A sliver – actually a triangle – of territory on land that had just been acquired by one of the world's richest men, telecom king Carlos Slim, in a downtown area that hitherto had been home only to factories, became his to exploit. As for the latter, a global competition resulted in his shaking hands with a man from Britain, David Chipperfield.

Thus was born a project fraught with expectation and with challenges. Chipperfield, fresh from the success of the Neues Museum in Berlin, had no acquaintance with the city, its complexities or indeed Lopez – a man not famous for time-keeping or normal Anglo-Saxon niceties. Moreover, this was to be the architect's first project anywhere in Latin America.

The inauguration of the Museo Jumex took place – on time – last month and, in a conversation staged as part of the expansive opening festivities with Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, Chipperfield made several confessions. The triangular plot was tough – "not my favourite; if you are not careful the geometry takes over" – and it was crowded all around by shiny new apartment buildings, most notably the improbably twisting Soumaya Museum, clad in steel hexagons and built in 2011 to house Slim's own art collection.

A man of carefully calibrated and sometimes dry wit, Chipperfield seems an awkward fit with Lopez, who couldn't allow the weekend to pass without not one but two extravagant parties to celebrate the museum's inauguration, with no fewer than 2,000 guests, of whom 700 had flown in for the occasion from all corners of the globe.

The Museo Jumex is not the noisy reveler that the Soumaya is – but what Chipperfield has conceived is a study in constrained elegance. It is clad in warm travertine stone, mined locally, that also dresses the floors inside and rises through four stories that grow in foot-print from bottom to top. The visual from the outside is above all about the roof, a line of raised triangles which, thanks to sloping glass down one side of each, bathe the topmost gallery with natural light. It also serves as a subtle reference to the manufacturing patrimony of the area.

What also informed the architecture is the nearly constantly benign Mexico City climate. Enormous timber doors, each bigger than a portcullis, pivot open to the warm breezes and awaiting patrons from a plaza outside and the cafeteria is entirely in the open air. Within, it is the top floor that is likely to remain with any visitor the longest. For the opening, it was dotted with works by such international – and Latin American – stars of contemporary art as Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Roni Horn, Francis Alÿs and Gabriel Orozco. Supplementing the Jumex-owned works are pieces by the late Fred Sandback, famed for framing open air with string to suggest mirrors or secret dimensions. Such was the proliferation of contemporary hits that an early 1994 cow's head in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst placed on the floor was nearly eclipsed by a nearby origami sink by Robert Gober.

"I was concerned that the building should have a certain singularity and presence," Chipperfield explained. "It should feel like a big house. When you get to the roof you should really feel like you are in a loft and you are not thinking, 'Are there any more floors?'" In a walk-through with reporters, he clicked on a smart-phone app that showed the light level on what was a particularly sunny day to be just where he wanted it – at about 620 lux. "Perfect," he declared. "You have to fix everything for the maximum possible daylight outside – and you won't get a much brighter day than this." That said, some of the most intriguing works are in the "Vault of Confusion" in a parking basement of the museum. All bought on Lopez's behalf by an early advisor, Patricia Marshall, here in the belly of the building are works by Paul McCarthy, Rosemarie Trockel and Dan Flavin among others.

It is Lopez's decision to wrest his treasures – the Coleccion Jumex – out of their Ecatepec mothballs and bring them to a museum for public perusal for a minimal door charge that is most important to consider at a time of shrinking state-funding in many cities. "It's an incredible thing as both a financial and a spiritual gesture," Chipperfield argues. "We are moving from the patronage of the state to the patronage of the market. This is the private citizen acting in a community setting – a kind of bond from one who had special advantages and who is paying back."

Christy MaClear, executive director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in New York, agrees. "The rise of private collection 'museums' has now grown into private collections moving into what we might call private-public museums," she said. "When we are faced with the possible sell-off of artwork, for example in Detroit – a public-public museum – a private-public museum in Mexico City seems perfect."

And to this eye at any rate, the Museo Jumex is. Given time and careful curation, Jumex is a name that one day might sit beside Getty, Barnes and even Tate.

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