Soumaya Museum: Move over, Mr Getty

Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, today opens the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City, which will house his mind-blowing collection of art. Juan Carretero visits.

It was no small party in Mexico City the other evening. What else would you expect when the host is Carlos Slim Helu, the richest man in the world by a wider margin than ever according to the latest Forbes billionaires list – that would be $74bn in his account – and the occasion is the inauguration of a new museum to display his personal art collection. No wonder guests included the likes of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez and British financier Sir Evelyn de Rothschild.

Set in the heart of the fizzing Polanco district, the Soumaya Museum opens to the public today. You may need a few moments to absorb the drama of the building itself before even considering walking inside. When you do, it will quickly become apparent that there's not much humble about the art either.

In fact, it would take four more museums of the same size to house the entire collection of Mr Slim's conglomerate, Grupo Carso. It includes 70,000 pieces that span almost 10 centuries. Among the work likely to be on display at the outset is Rodin's The Thinker – Slim has the largest Rodin collection outside of France – as well as works by European masters such as Leonardo da Vinci (notably Madonna of the Yarnwinder), Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Rubens, Van Dyck, Dali and Murillo.

It is a collection so broad – add to the pot pieces by Modigliani, Chagall, Ernst and Miro, as well as the great Mexican muralists Siqueiros and Rivera – that making it all into a digestible whole will be the main challenge of the museum's curators. Furniture and archeological treasures, including coins and spoons, are also part of the catalogue. Clearly, there will not be space for everything all at once and some of the collection will be rotated through the Soumaya.

At 71 years old, Slim is looking for the Soumaya, as his gift to Mexico, to shape his final legacy. As President Calderon noted, its opening will see the "old masters of Mexico" displayed for the first time alongside the European masters. Not that it won't have competition in Mexico City, home already to such institutions as the National Museum of Anthropology and the annual Zona Maco Mexican Contemporary Art Fair. Art galleries here are abuzz with collectors searching for the next Gabriel Orozco, the young Mexican artist whose solo exhibition just ended at the MoMA in New York and is now at the Tate in London.

Also coming soon is the private Jumex Collection, which, after years of amassing work from contemporary emerging and established artists, is building its own exhibition space, designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, just across from the new Soumaya. The two museums will be connected by a new park.

Slim's museum is named after his late wife, Soumaya, with whom he had six children and who died from kidney disease in 1999. It was she who first encouraged his appetite for art. An engineer by training, he comes from an immigrant Lebanese family of retailers. He built his empire resuscitating undervalued companies. Today he delegates his day-to-day activities to members of his immediate family, and his conglomerate has tentacles extending into telecommunications, retail, banking, infrastructure, real estate and drilling. In Mexico, they say, everyone pays something into the Grupo Carso every hour of every day. Its core money-maker is America Movil, the Latin American cellphone giant.

Some might see in the Soumaya a gesture of contrition from a man often accused of monopolistic abuses – his cellphone rates are among the highest in the world – and of lagging behind the philanthropic pace of fellow billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet (numbers two and three on the Forbes list) Possibly so. It's true that the museum will be free to the public and open seven days a week. But it is also just one part of a $490m new real-estate development called Plaza Carso, which is already dotted with Slim properties including shops, a five-star hotel, offices and high-end condominium towers, all in well-heeled Polanco on the site of what used to be a tyre factory.

Now in place of post-industrial blight stands an edifice that at first is so bewildering it appears to reflect some sort of virtual reality. With an immensity of scale and absence of discrete facades it might almost be a coiled primeval creature straining to burst from the skin of a reptile. If there is a sculptural quality to the structure that is no mistake: it alluded to the energy and the contours of the works of Rodin inside. Yet it has unmistakable sex appeal as well, thanks to myriad colours and curves as well as 16,000 mirrored steel hexagons, made by hand. Inside, meanwhile, the spiralling sweeping ramps reaching seven stories high recall Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the building's architect, Fernando Romero, is drinking tea in a downtown café with two of his colleagues, while fanning through a thick set of drawings that look more like a CAT-scan of an alien than a building with walls and windows. They are hurriedly working out the last details before the museum's debut. The pressure is on and it later becomes clear, when he walks me through the site, that it is still not quite ready for prime time. Lighting needs to be adjusted and some rough edges need to smoothed. Yet for a project of this calibre to be constructed within 12 months is still remarkable.

Romero explains that the idea was to build something very contemporary but with a strong connection to the collection it would house. To achieve a structure that would support the sweeping double curvatures of its exterior walls, he exploited the hexagon, a geometric shape with all the structural and visual parameters he was looking for. "The façade is very contemporary but also very baroque and ornamental, it's like a medieval dress," he suggests. "The outcome came about by translating the specific needs of the collection into the structure, whose skeleton consists of 28 tubular-steel columns of different curvature and thickness interconnected by rings."

Romero is married to a Slim daughter and he worked closely with his father-in-law to stay within budget – every billionaire's fetish – while using local expertise and materials. While in his mid-20s, Romero worked for Rem Koolhaas in Holland and is proud to be part of a generation of architects that went on to design and build some of the most exciting contemporary buildings around the world. He speaks of his interest in "the potential power of architecture as a catalyst for social change". Born in 1971, he is already Latin America's most celebrated young architect.

There is a narrow entrance, after which the main atrium opens up and impresses merely by dint of its scale, the sensuality of the lines and the purity of its soft snow-white walls which hug The Thinker without taking away from the energy of its pondering posture. It brings Le Corbusier's chapel in Ronchamp to mind, a building that was itself arguably a forerunner to the famous public edifices of the American architect Frank Gehry. Romero has given us eroticism which, through winding, infinite lines, verges on the mystical. If classical architecture gives you a sense of order and balance, here the feel is ethereal and otherworldly.

Some might call it an exercise in self-aggrandisement. But by building the Soumaya, Slim has given to his own home town more than the sum of his collection of art pieces. He has given it a whole new cultural institution – and a thrilling new treasure of modern architecture – that will hold its own around the world.

Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
There are no plans to replace R Kelly at the event

music
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star