Architect Fernando Romero has come a long way since 2000, when he began to envision the Mexico of tomorrow as a young Mexico City entrepreneur. Through such ambitious building projects as the Soumaya Museum in Polanco, he earned one of the biggest infrastructure projects under way in North America. His and Norman Foster’s eponymous firms (Fernando Romero Enterprise [FR-EE] and Foster + Partners, respectively) are designing a new international airport for Mexico City, a 5-million-square-foot single, flowing form evocative of flight. From his office in New York’s West Chelsea, Romero recently discussed his career’s ascent and how an idea takes flight.
You spent three years at Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) with Rem Koolhaas. How has that experience influenced you? Anybody who worked there at that moment recognizes it was fundamental to our growth. Working with Rem was about thinking, rather than designing.
Would you say, then, that you brought the Koolhaas methodology to Mexico in 2000? When I came back to Mexico that year to start the firm, politically it was a very difficult moment. I was not interested in the agenda of developers, but in the real potential of architecture to transform a context. So I invited a number of students, and we basically started the studio analyzing the evolution of Mexico City—as well as the small domestic projects that launch many firms.
This more investigational approach was out of place at the time. Mexican architects, in the past 30 years, have produced a lot of scenographic and theatrical architecture because they had largely studied in the States with postmodernists.
So you had some detractors? A Libra is always polemical. But also consider the context of Mexico, where design that’s based on exploration—many people cannot tolerate that intense, evolutionary process.
Ultimately, though, being different paid off. Currently, we are doing the new Mexico City airport, which is the biggest airport under development in the Americas. Because of its scale alone, it will have a transformational impact on the whole metropolitan area.
Until the airport opens, for what project will you be best known? Probably the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City. It has a lot of extraordinary aspects in terms of its level of complexity, as well as the way it completely changed the “value” of an area. We are interested in transforming context with architecture.
Your two big Miami projects are being developed in neighborhoods that are already transforming. How do you design for that context? Miami is maturing, both as an international crossroads and an everyday city. Architectural intensity plays a role in both those phenomena, so we are trying to generate that intensity. For the Latin American Art Museum (LAAM) project, for example, we are maximizing the simple idea of public space by way of the museum’s stack of terraces.
The LAAM project has been framed—in terms of the immigration debate—that the museum’s collection proves Latin America’s cultural significance. Do you feel there is prejudice against Mexican creativity? I have never felt that resistance. At the same time, we all know there is a real issue. I did a book called “Hyperborder,” which published data on movement along the Mexican-American border. The border will require huge attention in decades to come to improve its commercial connectivity and human dignity.
Your second project in Miami is E.E. Miami. Tell us about this. Its combination of programs will make it unique in the city. You have ground-floor retail and parking, like 1111 Lincoln Road, but then we have housing and offices and two public spaces above. The building will reveal this programmatic section in its identity and facade. I believe that design is a translation process.
What are you translating, in this case? I think Miami is very specific in terms of its climate, its goals. The reason why we were so interested in E.E. Miami is that it will celebrate the diversity of Miami. That’s the real DNA of this project. Miami is a fascinating place by way of many threads, and one of them is immigration.
What do you think your legacy will be? Historically, architecture has been able to surprise you about what humans are capable of doing. They surprise you, they introduce you to different emotions and they make you curious. A great building enriches your experience and makes you realize just how amazing life is.
How does iconography fit into this approach? For me, iconography is invention. Architecture is a service, yet what interests me most is the challenge to invent something through this service. How architecture can incorporate technology, change personal relationships, transform a social context and still accommodate a program for living—that’s where surprise comes from.