- Bow regard: Fernando Romero's Bridging Teahouse, in Jinhua, China. Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy of the architect.
The bow tie used to be emblematic of architects. Well-suited to a particular variety of fastidious academic white guy, the neckwear also had the advantage of not dangling in the way of in-progress drawings, back when architects used to draw.
Now architect Fernando Romero, of the firm LAR (Laboratory of Architecture), has reinvigorated the bow tie, not as a collar ornament, but as a recurring design motif. Among his formally diverse oeuvre, which is the subject of an exhibition at the Heinz Architectural Center organized by co-curator Raymund Ryan, a couple of significant works are long and horizontal with a narrowing toward the middle.
A project for a museum at the U.S.-Mexican border optimistically straddles the Rio Grande at El Paso and Juarez, with an extended, box-like shape evocatively pinched at the center as if to emphasize the conjoining nature of bridging. It also acts as an enclosure for exhibits which examine the history of the border and the perils of its crossing.
The project, which was quietly abandoned after 9/11, is otherwise exemplary of Romero. While the Mexico City native focuses on his home city and Mexico's border with the U.S. in a fair number of projects, his practice invariably translates form and structure into issues of global implication. His other most notable bow-tie project is a vibrant red teahouse and gateway in Jinhua, China.
Romero -- who speaks here Feb. 27, at the Carnegie exhibit's opening event -- has had a remarkably meteoric rise. Educated at the Universidad Iberoamericana, in Mexico City, he worked for three years for OMA, the office of international architectural superstar Rem Koolhaas, where he was project architect for the monumentally shard-like Casa da Musica in Porto, Portugal.
Some might say that the Koolhaas influence in visible in LAR's work, perhaps through some of the geometrically angular projects, as well as published urban and regional studies such as ZMVM (2000), which examines Mexico City, and Hyperborder (2008), which analyzes the contentious conditions of the U.S.-Mexican border. In these published works, the onslaught of graphically vivid statistical information echoes Koolhaas' methods.
Arguably, though, Romero is on his own trajectory. At 38, barely adolescent in architectural terms, he is already celebrating 10 years of independent practice and a remarkably thick portfolio of designs, shown in Translations, a monograph of his work, as well as this exhibition.
The variety and energy of the works is remarkable. Ryan divides the works into four categories: Orthogonal, Non-Orthogonal, Organic and Communal. The first three reflect formal qualities, and the final indicates a range of projects in which social conditions are paramount.
One of the more prominent works in the exhibit is the Soumaya Museum, in Irrigaciòn, Mexico City, an organic project. Part of a larger master plan, this design is intended as a museum for a collection including works by European masters and Mexican muralists, and a large selection of sculpture by Auguste Rodin. The structure is a gently twisting, upward-expanding shape that rises like a hip cooling tower from a park-like mound. A profusion of study models using manual and digital techniques underscore the lengthy studies that led to this form, from the subtleties of its profile to the integration of structure (developed by engineers Ove Arup) and use.
While the organic forms are particularly contemporary, I especially enjoy the non-orthogonal approach, in works such as Villa S. The design artfully reconciles abundant family living spaces with terraces and views on a secluded wooded site. The designers took inspiration from the structure of a tree, but really, the large, metal-frame model of this building looks like a combination of a faceted gem and a spaceship. For all of the insistence on function, process and study, plenty of these works achieve the status of transcendent visual art as well.
From bow tie to building, from OMA to LAR, and from Mexico City to the world, Romero's work (and his monograph) ask, "How can a translation be shown as the creation of something new rather than the distortion of an original?" Each project in the exhibition is an evocative exploration of this question.
Laboratory of Architecture: Fernando Romero runs Feb. 28-May 31. Romero speaks at a free opening reception 6 p.m. Fri., Feb. 27 (galleries open until 8:30 p.m.). Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131