Private Museums of the World: Museo Soumaya

A glistening rotated rhomboid in the heart of Mexico City
Wrapped in a skin of mirrored hexagons and featuring a fluid form and interiors, Museo Soumaya is an architectural icon designed by Mexican architect Fernando Romero.

by Nadezna SiganporiaPublished on : Apr 08, 2022

A glistening rhomboid frozen in time mid-twirl; undulating motion in the midst of stillness, brought to life by light dancing off the mirrored-steel façade – Museo Soumaya is like a beacon in the heart of Plaza Carso, Mexico City. Dreamt of by one of the world’s wealthiest men, Mexican businessman Carlos Slim Helú, the non-profit museum has brought about conflicting reviews.

Museo Soumaya designed by architect Fernando Romero, the founder and director of fr.ee, a global architecture and industrial design firm | Museo Soumaya | fr.ee | STIRworld
Museo Soumaya designed by architect Fernando Romero, the founder and director of fr.ee, a global architecture and industrial design firm Image: Yannick Wegner; Courtesy of fr.ee

Having been celebrated as much as it has been criticised, for both the art and architecture, the one thing that most agree on is the grandiosity. For the design, Slim turned to his son-in-law, architect Fernando Romero, the founder and director of fr.ee, a global architecture and industrial design firm. Known for his fluid forms, Romero envisioned this unconventional sculptural shape rising to 150 feet in height.

Architect Fernando Romero | Museo Soumaya | fr.ee | STIRworld
Architect Fernando Romero Image: David Franco; Courtesy of fr.ee

Named after Slim’s late wife Soumaya Domit Gemayel, the museum houses an art collection of over 60,000 works on display for public appreciation. The building – a rotated rhomboid – is supported by 28 curved steel columns of different diameters and shapes and clad in a honeycomb of hexagonal mirrored-steel tiles. Completed in 2011, the structure spans 16,000 square metres and consists of six gallery floors.

The building – a rotated rhomboid – is clad in a honeycomb of hexagonal mirrored-steel tiles | Museo Soumaya | fr.ee | STIRworld
The building – a rotated rhomboid – is clad in a honeycomb of hexagonal mirrored-steel tiles Image: Rafael Gamo; Courtesy of fr.ee

The honeycomb façade

The building’s skeleton consists of 28 curved steel columns, of varying widths around the perimeter and attached to a concrete podium. Adding support is a seven-ring structural system which creates cantilevers on multiple sides. The seven horizontal beams, one on each floor level, work to bind the columns together and adds stability to the flowing six-level promenade of exhibition, presentation and communal gathering spaces.

The building’s skeleton consists of 28 steel curved columns, of varying widths around the perimeter and attached to a concrete podium | Museo Soumaya | fr.ee | STIRworld
The building’s skeleton consists of 28 steel curved columns, of varying widths around the perimeter and attached to a concrete podium Image: Ana Paula Herrera; Courtesy of fr.ee

Wrapped around this structure is the mesmerising façade. What’s utterly fascinating is the sheer number of mirror-finish hexagons – over 16,000 – that appear to float, millimetres apart from each other, on the surface of the asymmetrical building. In reality, the hexagonal elements of the honeycomb façade are attached, each at the centre, to a secondary structure and work to conceal the supporting skeleton.

  • The hexagonal tiles appear to float, millimetres apart from each other, on the surface of the asymmetrical building | Museo Soumaya | fr.ee | STIRworld
    The hexagonal tiles appear to float, millimetres apart from each other, on the surface of the asymmetrical building Image: Adam Weisman; Courtesy of fr.ee
  • The fluid shape is perceived differently from different positions around the exterior | Museo Soumaya | fr.ee | STIRworld
    The fluid shape is perceived differently from different positions around the exterior Image: Adam Weisman; Courtesy fr.ee

Referencing the traditional colonial, ceramic-tiled facades of Mexico City, the hexagonal elements change the appearance of the building depending on the weather and time of day. The fluid shape is perceived differently from different positions around the exterior; it’s an element of the design meant to reflect the collection the museum houses.

The entrance to the museum | Museo Soumaya | fr.ee | STIRworld
The entrance to the museum Image: Adam Weisman; Courtesy of fr.ee

The interiors

With scarce openings in the façade, one enters the museum through what feels like a tunnel carved into a solid rock. The entrance opens up to a space bathed in white marbled floors and soft light. The museum's varied collection is displayed in a flowing, continuous space spread over six levels. The public spaces on each level are connected by a series of spiral ramps – reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York – which starts at the entrance lobby and travels up to a large open-plan sculpture gallery at the top level. Owing to the fluid shape of the building, each level has its own distinct floor plan.

The public spaces on each level are connected by a series of spiral ramps – reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York | Museo Soumaya | fr.ee | STIRworld
The public spaces on each level are connected by a series of spiral ramps – reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York Image: Rafael Gamo; Courtesy of fr.ee

The largest, most generous space in the museum is on the top level where an open-plan, column-free space is bathed in natural light filtering in from the dominating skylight. This is in contrast to the rest of the building which has little to no openings to the outside world. The roof is suspended from an impressive cantilever structure that allows natural daylight to flow in freely and illuminate the incredible sculptures on display. Along with the exhibition space, the museum building also holds a 350-seat auditorium, a library, a restaurant, a multi-purpose public lounge, offices and a gift shop.

One of the highlights is Rodin's
One of the highlights is Rodin's "The Thinker," on display in the lobby Image: Rafael Gamo; Courtesy of fr.ee

The collection

Free to the public, the collection is both eclectic and impressive, with over 60,000 works from varying eras and artists. Housing mainly 19th and 20th century Mexican art and European art from 15th to 20th century, it also includes the world’s largest collection of pre-Hispanic and colonial coins as well as a vast collection of letters, historical documents and religious relics. The museum also holds the largest collection of sculptures by Auguste Rodin outside France, the world's largest private collection of his art. One of the highlights is Rodin's "The Thinker," on display in the lobby.

  • Architectural sketch of the exterior | Museo Soumaya | fr.ee | STIRworld
    Architectural sketch of the exterior Image: Courtesy of fr.ee
  • Architectural sketch of the interiors | Museo Soumaya | fr.ee | STIRworld
    Architectural sketch of the interiors Image: Courtesy of fr.ee

Private Museums of the World
Curated by Pramiti Madhavji, STIR presents Private Museums of the World: an original series that takes you behind the scenes of privately-owned museums, sharing their origin with chats with art collectors, museum directors, curators and architects, who seamlessly come together to create the most unusual and amazing structures to host art collections.

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