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A 'City' by Celebrity Architects

A Mexican magnate has given his international design teams free rein in shaping a $400-million community of business, art and entertainment near Guadalajara.

July 10, 2001|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

GUADALAJARA — Half an hour north of this industrial city of 1.7 million people in central Mexico, the landscape dissolves into barren desert. A single dirt road winds its way through fields of dry brush, with mountains visible in the distance. The sole noticeable sign of human contact is an enormous Mexican flag, hanging limply from a pole in the middle of an empty patch of earth.

This is the site of Omnilife magnate Jorge Vergara's grand architectural fantasy: a sprawling 750-acre arts and business complex that could one day rival Guadalajara's centuries-old historic district as a civic core. Dubbed JVC Center, the $400-million development will include an art museum, sports arena, hotel, convention center, entertainment complex, corporate offices and, eventually, upscale housing.

But what sets the project apart from the conventional corporate development is its cultural pretensions. Since the recent runaway success of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, corporate and civic leaders around the world are tripping over one another in an effort to create the kind of landmark that will instantly put their cities on the cultural radar. Vergara hopes to take that trend a step further by hiring a squad of architectural celebrities, such as Paris-based Jean Nouvel and the celebrated Austrian firm Coop Himmelblau, to create an entire model city of the future--an eco-friendly community of art, entertainment and business.

To that end, the Mexican magnate has taken risks few corporate executives would dare. Vergara is covering virtually the entire cost of the development, yet he has given his architects unrestrained freedom to shape their vision, allowing each to decide which commission to work on and its location within the site. And he has provided virtually no design guidelines.

"We will give them the freedom to do the kind of things they could never do in the United States or Europe," Vergara says. "Wild, crazy things."

To some, Vergara's plans are a sign of architecture's growing public appeal. But to others, they are a symptom of a more insidious trend. As developers become increasingly aware of architecture's value as a marketing tool, design is increasingly reduced to its most superficial function--the creation of slick, shallow images for public consumption.

In Guadalajara, the task these architects face is a tricky one: to imbue their work with lasting value even as they engage in what may simply turn out to be a crass publicity stunt.

"I think it's risky for the architects," says Frank Gehry, who rejected Vergara's plea to design a concert hall for the site. "I don't think they realize how participating in this kind of project can diminish what it is they do."

A Fortune Made in Health Beverages

Vergara may seem an unlikely patron of high culture. As the founder of Guadalajara-based Grupo Omnilife--one of Latin America's largest sellers of nutritional supplements--Vergara made a fortune in the 1980s pitching health beverages to rural Mexicans for their medicinal value. Known for his evangelical fervor, he once touted a product for its ability to boost feeble sperm counts.

In 1996, Vergara met with Mexican architect Enrique Norten to discuss plans for a hotel complex he hoped to build in Mexico City. The hotel plan fell apart when the team encountered zoning problems, but Vergara began looking for ways to expand his empire. Soon the two began to discuss more ambitious plans centered on a convention hall for Vergara's sales meetings.

Norten saw a delicious opportunity. "I told Vergara what I could offer him was a fabulous list of 30 architects from all over the world," Norten says. "I [could] introduce him to the right people."

By 1998, after a yearlong search, Vergara found a site--a neglected patch of unprotected private land alongside La Primavera nature preserve, a short drive from downtown Guadalajara.

He had also started to assemble an impressive list of architects. Thom Mayne, a rising star in American architecture, was hired to design the palenque, an arena where cockfighting will be held. Coop Himmelblau would design the massive entertainment center, and Nouvel would design new corporate offices for Omnilife. Eventually, the project would also include a university of interdisciplinary studies by Berlin-based Daniel Libeskind, a hotel by London-based Zaha Hadid, an art museum by Toyo Ito of Japan, fairgrounds by Spain's Carmen Pinos, an amphitheater by New York-based Todd Williams and Billie Tsien, a clubhouse by Mexico's Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon and a children's museum by the 95-year-old dean of American architecture, Philip Johnson. Norten reserved a plum commission for himself: the convention center.

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