Carlos Slim's Museo Soumaya: Money Can't Buy Taste

There is something tragic about the Museo Soumaya, the spectacular-looking private museum in Mexico City that opened to the public on March 28. It is owned and operated by the Carlos Slim Foundation and contains the collection of the world's richest man, Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim. With so much money at his disposal I was expecting to see something extraordinary. But unfortunately it falls short.

Let's begin with the building, which reportedly cost more than $70 million to design and construct. From the outside the building is really spectacular — an hourglass-shaped structure, 150 feet in height, sitting on an elevated base and encased in a serpentine skin of over 16,000 shimmering hexagonal aluminum tiles. It looks like a cross between a spaceship, a mushroom, and a futuristic Mariko Mori installation.

Mexican architect Fernando Romero, who is the son-in-law of Carlos Slim, designed the building. He didn't get the contract on merit, at least if the final building is a guide. It is baldly derivative structure with the young architect taking open inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York for the interior and Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao for the exterior.

I could catalogue the innumerable interior design features that riff off Wright's Guggenheim museum, but two or three should be enough to make the point. Firstly, there is the low, compressed, narrow entry area followed by a soaring, well-like interior space to convey a sense of grandeur. Then, Romero links six floors of galleries with a spiral ramp down which visitors can descend. Finally, at the top, there is a skylight capping the atrium.

That is not to say that Romero has not put his own mark on the design — it is just that it is too reminiscent of Wright (or, on the outside, Gehry and Koolhaas) to stand as a unique piece of contemporary architecture. It feels derivative, provincial, and almost desperate to be noticed. That is what makes me sad: With so much money at his disposal, Carlos Slim could have bought himself a truly innovative piece of architecture.

On a visit to the museum over the weekend, it was too soon to tell how the collection will inhabit the six floors of galleries because, oddly enough (given that it opened two weeks ago), several of the displays were still being installed. The museum is apparently the beneficiary of an eclectic private collection of some 66,000 pieces which belonged to Slim and his late wife, Soumaya, after whom the institution is fondly and graciously named.

Evidence of the collection's breadth and limitations are, however, apparent to a casual viewer. There are lots of second-rate works by famous Modernist and Impressionist masters, including Picasso, Dali, Renoir, and Monet. If the collection has a particular strength, at least on the basis on what is presently on view, it is in landscapes and portraits from Mexico's colonial era, and in the tremendous array of Rodin statues strewn over the vast open-plan sixth floor. Slim owns 380 pieces by the sculptor, a hoard said to be the world's largest private collection of Rodin.

Publicity materials for the museum suggest that the majority of the collection is devoted to European art from the last 500 years, though there are also excellent holdings of Mexican art, religious artifacts, historical papers, and colonial coins. Examples of all these categories of objects are on view, along with musical instruments, furniture, decorative arts, photography, graphic arts, and even fashion from the 18th through 20th centuries.

Some estimates put the present value of the museum's collection at $700 million. But here once again you have to wonder: surely Slim could have used that towering sum to put together a truly important and historical collection for his museum, rather than a grab-bag of objects across endless categories. More importantly, there is the matter of how the collection material relates to the building, which nods structurally toward a Gehry-like style that has become accepted architectural shorthand for "cutting-edge." This is a quasi-encyclopedic collection shoe-horned into a contemporary art museum.

I came away from my visit to the museum feeling like a glorious opportunity for a great museum had just been squandered. The Museo Soumaya is creating much media buzz, and is something new and exciting for art lovers in Mexico and Latin America, but it is not a great contribution to world architecture or museums. It is, in effect, a vanity museum gone right in some areas, but in too many other aspects gone wrong.