Mexico City's nascent 'museum row'

Render Museo Jumex (baja)
A couple of years ago, telecom tycoon and billionaire Carlos Slim inaugurated his $70 million Soumaya Museum, a glittering palace to house his personal collection. Some 16,000 hexagonal aluminum plates cover the 150-foot-tall building, reflecting light from all angles.

The museum, free to the public, was Slim’s gift to the city, and it has created some buzz in the art world. After all, it includes some Toulouse-Lautrecs, Picassos and Dalis, as well as works by Diego Rivera and Renoir. It displays Slim’s vast collection of castings of statues by Auguste Rodin, the renowned French sculptor. Here’s a Wall Street Journal story about that museum.

Now comes news that a new museum will open right next to the Soumaya in the capital’s Polanco district . It is a five-story museum housing the Jumex Collection, the largest private contemporary arts collection in Latin America. Its inauguration is scheduled for Nov. 19. It is full of stark, geometric lines, distinct to the curvy Soumaya Museum.

Like the Soumaya, the Jumex Collection will display the collection of a business tycoon, in this case the food and juice magnate Eugenio Lopez, head of Grupo Jumex.

Lopez has collected 2,600 pieces, mostly contemporary art from the 1990s to the present, and much of it will be on display, including works by Tacita Dean, Olafur Eliasson, Martin Kippenberger and Bruce Nauman.

The museum will display an important group of Mexican contemporary artists, and be the site of six exhibitions per year.

The artist’s rendering above comes from the firm of David Chipperfield, the knighted British architect . Chipperfield’s firm designed the reconstruction of Berlin’s Neues Museum, and it’s also done the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, and designed a cultural center in Arendal, Norway. In the rendering above, you see the Soumaya Museum (shaped almost like a nuclear cooling tower) behind the Jumex.

Might a third museum be in the offing, making a true “museum row”?


Mexico City's stance on the Caspian (?!)

Some big cities seem to set their own foreign policy. Miami comes to mind with the fierce anti-Castro bent of its residents. Boston favors all things Irish. Vancouver has a soft spot for mainland China.

Add Mexico City to the list. It’s high on Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan, you may have read, paid City Hall here around $5 million and in return got a huge statue of its founder, Heydar Aliyev, placed at the entrance to Chapultepec Park. Another momument went up at Plaza Tlaxcoaque. City Hall’s interest has generated some outcry, particularly among Armenian-Mexicans. Click here for the story I wrote earlier this week.

I never thought upon arriving in Mexico in 2010 that I’d have to research the tense relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia, rivals in the South Caucasus region.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise. As a young copyeditor at the newspaper in St. Petersburg, Fla., in the late 1970s, I remember the day the multi-volume complete encyclopedia of Armenia arrived in the newsroom – unsolicited – a sign of the strong Armenian lobby in the U.S.

Even now, one of my McClatchy colleagues, Michael Doyle, who focuses partly on our newspapers in California’s Central Valley, has Armenian issues on his plate constantly. That area is home to many Armenian-Americans.

I just got an email from a spokesman for the Azerbaijan foreign ministry (That’s a sentence I’ll probably never write again!). He was unhappy with my article.

“The so-called public protests you refer to are yet again provocative acts by the Armenian diaspora in Mexico that are sponsored by Mr Sarukhan, due to his Armenian ethnicity. It seems that Republic of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora have launched a campaign against Azerbaijani monuments.”


I wasn’t at first sure of the reference to “Mr. Sarukhan,” but now assume it is a reference to Arturo Sarukhan, the Mexican ambassador to Washington. The Sarukhan family is prominent. Sarukhan’s father, Jose, a biologist, was rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the largest in Latin America.

It is important to bear in mind that the two monuments do not in any way cause discomfort to the wider public of Mexico City. They are located in places where ordinary people come and rest. The so-called protesters do not represent the wider general public of Mexico City but are a handful of Armenian diaspora based in Mexico. These people can't speak on behalf of Mexico City residents as they don't represent general public. I view this as an intentionally organized PR campaign aimed to damage the friendly relations between Azerbaijan and Mexico.


I’m happy to offer the spokesman, Polad Mammadov, space here but I think he is mistaken about why this issue has generated interest. It isn’t because of the Azerbaijan-Armenia rivalry. Rather, in my view, it is that Mexico City exalts a Soviet-era leader who was a former KGB general, repressive of free speech and not much given to democracy. Indeed, in a move fitting of dynastic succession, his son is now Azerbaijan’s leader.



A growing list of historic monuments

Mexico has lots and lots of old buildings listed in its National Catalogue of Historic Monuments – 105,657 to be exact.

NUESTRA SEÑORA DE LA LUZ, GUANAJUATO. FOTO DMC INAH. M. MARAT.The folks over at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (the same people who run the capital’s world-class Museum of Anthropology) have been busy over the past six years.

They’ve included 10,178 new sites on the National Registry of Monuments, Archaeological and Historical Zones. Those are just some facts to go along with these cool photos the institute sent out, which are of some of Mexico's most renowned sites.

Above is the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. At left is the Our Lady of Light cathedral in Guanajuato. And below is a view of the main square in Zacatecas.




A proliferation of 'Magical Towns'

Could there be such a thing as too many “Magical Towns” in Mexico?

The Magical Towns (Pueblos Magicos) program was started in 2001 by the Tourism Secretariat as a way to recognize the numerous colonial towns in the country with beauty and cultural relevance.

Many of the places awarded as Magical Towns have colonial houses, cobbled streets, ancient churches and beautiful settings.

Late in August, the state gave Valladolid, a colonial Yucatan city close to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, the designation. The map above from the Tourism Secretariat lists some of the others.

Problem in my mind is, Valladolid now becomes the 56th Magical Town in Mexico. How many more will there be? Can they all be so magical? Wouldn’t it be better to limit the number to those that are knock-your-socks-off wonderful?

Item: Click here for a website that discusses various angles of the Magical Towns. It also notes that Loreto in Baja California Sur has also become a Magical Town, bringing the list to 57. 


Mexico's curious 'meeting points'

Anyone who wonders around in urban areas of Mexico is likely to see signs like the one above in the most unlikely places.

It is a symbol for a “meeting point,” and it appears everywhere. I saw the one in the photo early this morning on a sidewalk in the Roma district of Mexico City.

A few weeks ago, I saw a “meeting point” sign in the middle of a barren field near the Queretaro airport. I’ve seen them in traffic lanes in parking garages, along roads, and other places where one would only send one’s worst enemy for a “meeting.”

This has been in the back of my mind for a while. At first, I thought it was some sort of practical joke or a bizarre region-wide performance art exhibition. On looking around the internet, I see that in fact there might be a logic to it. Rather than a “meeting point” in a U.S. sense, where you go if lost or separated from your party, these points are gathering spots in case of natural disaster. At least that’s what this Spanish-language answer website says. Another explanation says that in case of fire or earthquake, citizens are to gather at the sites to let relief officials know they are okay.

Aw, I kinda preferred believing this was a work of art, or some unknown symbol that had appeared with shades of Roswell, N.M. 


A new iconic landmark in Panama

Think Panama, and certainly the canal comes to mind. But soaring modern architecture should, too. There’s the new Trump Tower that seems vaguely similar to the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, a building that takes inspiration from a sail. 

Then there is the “screw,” the Revolution Tower that some have dubbed the “twist-scraper” because it is a 52-story structure coiling upward like a corkscrew. 

Panama now has 11 buildings that are 70 stories or taller, and dozens just slightly smaller. Comparisons to Dubai and Singapore are not out of line. 

But in my mind, after five days in the city, the most transformative piece of work is far more diminutive in scale. And its construction marks the arrival of Frank Gehry to Latin America. Gehry, of course, is the Pritzker Prize-winning architect of such iconic buildings as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, and the Rasin building in Prague. He’s been called the most influential architect of our times.

His buildings lean, twist, contort and crumple. They are full of extraordinary color.

And what he has built in Panama is unforgettable. It is called the Biodiversity Museum and it is on the Amador Causeway that greets every ship and cruise line that passes through the canal. The building is an explosion of crimson, tangerine, deep yellow, avocado, navy blue and aluminum. The roof trusses hold up a creased aluminum panels that look like folded sheets.

Like it or hate it, and Panamanians fall on both sides, I believe it will come to represent the city. The museum will house seven major exhibits that will tell visitors how the Panama isthmus was formed and why it has made Panama such a biodiversity hotspot as a bridge between two continents.

The museum is not huge. It should open later this year although the inauguration already has been postponed more than a year. But already the talk is that it will become a major tourist destination in itself. The KPMG consulting firm says the museum may draw 500,000 a year, nearly as many as come to see the Miraflores Locks along the canal. 

The museum won’t be just a class act on the outside. Helping design the exhibits is the Smithsonian Institute, the largest scientific museum network in the world and one that has a long presence in Panama.

So who convinced Gehry to design such a project for Panama? Panama-born Berta Aguilera had something to do with it. She’s Gehry’s second wife.





Where Angelina got her inspiration

This is a scene from La Gran Tenochtitlan, one of the fabulous Diego Rivera murals on display at the National Palace

Perhaps it is where Angelina Jolie took her inspiration for showing off her right leg at the Oscars. Like Angelina, this Aztec princess with a crown of Calla lilies feels no need to cover up her tattoos.

Jolie's "leg" began a Twitter account after the Oscars. Wonder if this princess, too, might go viral.

Hat tip to James Creechan, a Mexicanist, for spotting the similarity.  


Mexico makes the record books

Mexico cut the ribbon on a pair of new monumental structures in recent days. One of them is a luminescent tower in the heart of Mexico City. Called the Stele of Light, it is a 341-foot tall illuminated structure set on the Paseo de la Reforma, the city’s main boulevard.

The fireworks around the monument were both literal (on Saturday night) and figurative. Critics decried the overruns that forced a fivefold increase in cost, ending up at nearly $100 million,  or as one union pointed out – enough to build 150 schools.

Still, the inauguration Saturday was a time for celebration

“Let the Stele of Light monument be an emblem of a new era for Mexico, an era in which the seed of a more secure, fair and prosperous nation flourishes,” President Felipe Calderon said.

Builders of the monument ran into huge delays.  It was to be completed for the bicentennial in 2010, then for the end of 2011 but wasn’t finished till last week.

Protesters held up signs. One said: “This gigantic waste of money is a monument to corruption!” 

The other huge project completed in recent days has a practical use. It is the Baluarte Bridge, a cable-stayed suspension span that Guinness lists as the world’s tallest bridge. The bridge, which crosses a deep ravine in the Western Sierra Madre Mountains, is so high that the Eiffel Tower could fit underneath.

The bridge is 3,687 feet long and at its central span is 1,321 feet over the river bed. Guinness officials were on hand at a ribbon cutting, chalking up the latest Mexican achievement in making a world record

The Baluarte Bridge is one of several tunnels and bridges that will shorten the road trip between Mazatlan and Durango by as much as six hours. The current road is known as the "Devil's backbone" and winds dangerously through jagged peaks.

(Both photos are from the website of Calderon’s office at www.presidencia.gob.mx)



Mexico loses a stunning architect

Mexico lost a national treasure today. Ricardo Legorreta, who passed today at age 80, was perhaps the nation’s most recognized architect, a designer of such vibrancy that his buildings are scattered around the world, from Maui to Cairo, and on to Greece and all across the southern United States and Latin America.

His iconic use of brilliant colors, sharp angles and textures, to my mind, define Mexican aesthetics. Just think of the Camino Real Hotels, designed by Legorreta with hot pink and rich yellow colors, and you have an idea of his impact on Mexican sensibilities.

I hadn’t heard of Ricardo Legorreta when I arrived in Managua, Nicaragua, in late 2001, but his work was the talk of the town. The founder of the Domino’s pizza chain, Tom Monaghan, a devout Catholic and architecture buff, had financed much of the building of Managua’s new cathedral and he chose Legorreta to design it.

To say the design triggered controversy is not an understatement. The cathedral looks like a nuclear reactor-cum-mosque. Yet it stands as the most notable building in Managua now.

Legorreta is best known as the architect of the Camino Real hotels in Mexico City, Cancun and Ixtapa; the Renault factory in Torreon; Televisa’s headquarters, and the Contemporary Art Museum MARCO in Monterrey. Abroad, his firm designed the Discovery Museum of California; the Main Library of San Antonio, Texas; the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History; the Visual Arts Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the addition to the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi; the Sheraton Hotel in Bilbao, Spain; the community center of the American University of Cairo, and buildings for Texas A&M, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon universities at their joint campus in Qatar.

Check out Legorreta speaking in Texas in the video above.  The website for the design firm he set up with his son, Legorreta + Legorreta, has many photos of his projects. I particularly like a high-rise in Guatemala City, known as the Casa Margarita, full of bright colors, naves, interplay of shadows, and an interesting mix of curves, arcs and sharp lines.


On Trotsky, and new uses for pyramids

A surprising bit of world history unfolded in a tranquil corner of the Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacan in 1940, and over the weekend I went to the museum dedicated to the event. I can highly recommend it, as well as a day trip we made to a rather extraordinary place outside the capital.

IMG_0302 Tucked in a tranquil corner of Coyoacan is the Leon Trotsky Museum, which documents how the iconic socialist leader fled the Soviet Union, hounded out by Josef Stalin, passing through Turkey, France, Norway and onward until he ended up in Mexico City.

It was here where as he sat in his study, a Spanish agent of Stalin who had gained the confidence of one of his secretaries buried an ice pick in his head on Aug. 20, 1940.

The Trotsky Museum has survived better than the Soviet Union, but like socialism in general it has seen better days.

Still, it is a remarkable repository of photos, and the brick home where Trotsky lived with his Russian wife Natalia, and briefly his grandson, is kept just as it was for the years he dwelled there. The books in multiple languages are lined up in bookshelves, and more than 70 bullet holes pock the walls (see photo above) where Trotsky survived an earlier assassination attempt partly organized partly by none other than the famed Mexican muralist David Siqueiros, a diehard Stalinist.

On Sunday, we went to Cholula, a town near Puebla famed for an iconic church built more than four centuries ago on top of a great pre-Columbian pyramid. You may have seen photos of the church, which features regularly on tourism posters for Mexico.

IMG_0402 The pyramid, now largely covered with vegetation, stands 180 feet above the surrounding plain, and the Our Lady of Remedies church is at its peak. The church was started in 1594, and I kept thinking that it was older than even Jamestown in Virginia. 

A steady wind blew and Mexican children flew kites from the flanks.

At the bottom were vendors and we tried pozol, the ancient drink made from cacao (the base for chocolate) and ground corn. It was served to us from a large clay vat, and as she stirred the vendor described to us how important it was to maintain the froth on top.

Can’t say I’d go back for a refill. But it certainly tasted nutritious. And the trip overall was fascinating. To get there, one takes the highway to Puebla that goes along the northern flank of Ixtaccihuatl, one of Mexico’s tallest volcanoes. At its highest point, the road is flanked by evergreen trees and any sense of being in a subtropical area vanishes.




This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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