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Fernando Romero: Frontier Runner

Fernando Romero is helping to design Mexico’s future. In this profile, curator Moritz Küng explains how the Mexican architect is confronting the contrasting realities in his country, and presents Romero’s work in science and culture as well as the socially beneficial projects he is pioneering.

Born in Mexico City in 1971, the architect Fernando Romero cross borders in more ways than one, traversing geopolitical and social worlds, a range of cities, and abstract spheres of thought. Romero moved to Europe after graduation and worked for the architect Enric Miralles in Barcelona and for Jean Nouvel in Paris. From 1997 to 2000, he joined Rem Koolhaas’s office in Rotterdam and managed plans for the Casa da Música in Porto. After returning to Mexico City, he married Soumaya Slim, daughter of Mexican businessman Carlos Slim Helú. He founded the urban research center Laboratorio de la Ciudad de Mexico (LCM/Laboratory for the City) with Mark Seligson and Tatiana Bilbao. Later, he set up the Laboratorio de Arquitectura (LAR/Laboratory of Architecture) for his architectural projects. Another of his companies, ModuLAR, teaches people the do-it-yourself skills they need to build a home themselves. These days, all of Romero’s work is organized under the company name FR-EE, which is both a manifesto and an acronym for Fernando Romero EnterprisE.

© Ana Hop

His earliest building projects show a dizzyingly broad spectrum of forms and authentic solutions. Romero constantly seeks to balance formal experimentalism, an awareness of history, and a pragmatic approach to construction. These values are reflected in Cuarto para Niños (children’s room), which added a home for the owner’s children to an existing 1950s modernist villa. They are also visible in Banco Inbursa’s glass headquarters in Mexico City and in the competition-entry design for Puente entre dos Países, on the border between Mexico and the United States.

© Ana Hop

In just a few years, Romero’s local “laboratory” has transformed itself into a major global practice with more than 150 employees and an office in New York. The number of Romero’s projects grew just as quickly: In Mexico, he built the 16,000 square-meter Museo Soumaya museum, and the G20 convention center, with 58,000 square meters. With Norman Foster, he is currently planning a 55-hectare airport for Mexico City. It is the country’s largest infrastructure project and is slated to be the world’s most sustainable airport. However, his most massive undertaking is his 290 million square-meter vision for a city, Border City, presented at the London Design Biennale in late 2016. Indeed, his progress from small to huge is more than remarkable. The Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist once described Romero's development as a “Mexican milagro” — a Mexican miracle. Particularly in hindsight, it’s clear how innovative his early work was.

© Ana Hop

The spatial continuum of the much-acclaimed Museo Soumaya (2010) grows directly out of his early experimental project Cuarto para Niños (2001). The abstract shell-like space has neither supports nor right angles and is attached to the back of an existing villa. Accessible from a second-floor entrance, the cocoon-like white space connects to the garden via a curved ramp. The laser-cut steel structure is insulated with a homogeneous outer skin made from polyurethane foam and coated with a dyed dark-pink layer of polymer. The result unites a construction produced using sophisticated imported technology with handmade surfaces made with local, low-tech solutions. Even today, it is considered an outstanding example of contemporary architecture in Mexico. 

© Ana Hop

Some of Romero’s early works appear particularly prescient vis-à-vis the new American president’s comments about building a wall along the border. The DNA for Romero’s binational vision for Border City is contained in his 2001 competition entry Puente entre dos Países (Bridging Museum), which used culture to connect the border cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. The museum building was designed as a monumental covered bridge over the Rio Grande with an exhibition space, research center, and official border crossing. For this reason, the architect planned for visitors to move through the museum in a straight line rather than in a typical circular route.

Transcending the border-crossing bottleneck, both culturally and geopolitically

This design can be understood as a prototype for Border City. It recast the linear border between the US and Mexico as a model city where culture and daily life intertwine instead of remaining separate, and transcended the bottleneck of a border crossing, both culturally and geopolitically.

© Ana Hop

Although a young and privileged member of the Mexican upper class, Romero doesn’t turn a blind eye to the contrasting realities in his country. Beyond his work as an architect, he is involved in research, culture, and social projects. His publications include Hyperborder: The Contemporary U.S.-Mexico Border and its Future, which provides the first nuanced portrait of this dynamic and conflicted border region. In 2012, Romero and his wife, Soumaya Slim de Romero, founded the Archivo diseño y arquitectura, a collection of contemporary industrial design with an exhibition program and a public architecture library. At the same time, he initiated microbuilding projects such as Sube (moving up) or, one year later, the Casa para Libia (house for Libia, for a single mother), which sought to improve living conditions for the poor and destitute.

Romero uses his influence, wealth, and power to move between parallel worlds, aesthetic realms, social classes, and standards, always with a degree of risk-taking.

Fernando Romero was born in Mexico City in 1971. In 2014, along with Norman Foster, the architect designed the new airport for Mexico City, which will be completed in 2020. In 2002, he was honored by the World Economic Forum as a Leader of Tomorrow. His company, FR-EE, is active in the fields of urban design, architecture, and industrial design. He is currently working on cultural projects through his offices in Mexico City and New York. Romero has focused on the border between the United States and Mexico for many years.
The Swiss curator and author Moritz Küng is currently based in Barcelona. His work focuses on the intersection between art, architecture and book. He has curated numerous exhibitions, among them for the biennials in Sao Paulo (2002), Venice (2008), Brno (2014) and Kortrijk (2016). Küng organized in 2005 Fernando Romero’s first comprehensive solo exhibition at deSingel in Antwerp.