A 'City' by Celebrity Architects

TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

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.

The result is, by any measure, a striking range of visions. The undulating, distorted forms of Coop Himmelblau's entertainment center design, for example, look as if they were spun out of cotton candy. Norten's 25,000-seat convention center, by comparison, is high-tech modern: Its elliptical form, clad in a translucent skin, would sit at the edge of the site like an enormous space pod.

But it may be the planning process, rather than the architecture, that is the development's most radical feature. There is little of the drawn-out negotiating with government bureaucrats that is typical of most large-scale developments. Instead, decisions are largely made with a remarkable degree of informality, often by shooting off a brief fax, or over dinner and a beer.

"Rather than lining up everyone on a street, we are creating individual places, and then tying them all together," Libeskind says. "It is like making a huge exhibition but also an ideal piece of the city."

Adds Markus Dochantschi, Hadid's project architect: "If you imagine a project this size in America or Europe, every requirement would be dictated by a hard-core developer--the exact site, height restrictions, materials. Here there are no restrictions. It is a very different strategy. We'll have to wait until the end to see how it succeeds."

Informal Approach Made Some Uneasy

Indeed, not everyone who was invited to take part in the project felt comfortable with such a high degree of informality. In 1997, Vergara offered Gehry a seemingly plum commission: a 1,600-seat concert hall and two theaters. But after a meeting with Vergara at Gehry's office in Los Angeles, the architect turned him down.

"It added up to at least 300,000 square feet," Gehry says. "Built in America, that would cost him around $150 million. He said they could build it in Mexico for $15 million. So I got suspicious. I was worried about the quality. And the fee was low."

By comparison, the Gehry-designed Disney Hall, which is under construction in Los Angeles, is about 200,000 square feet and expected to cost $274 million.

Gehry was not alone. Vergara also hired Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in 1997 to work on the development's master plan. But Koolhaas quit within a year. "I had no confidence in the entire enterprise," he says. "And the idea of working in a circus with Libeskind and the rest put me in an incredible gloom. In the end, I thought the site was very beautiful, and I didn't feel that we as architects would improve it."

Norten, however, blames Koolhaas' defection on the architect's inability to deal with the collaborative process. "Rem wanted a lot of control," he says. "We wanted to have a more communal atmosphere."

Vergara's response is more dismissive: Koolhaas "had this European idea of a master plan, with buildings all on top of each other. . . . He went bananas." As for Gehry, Vergara says: "His business people only cared about money. And I don't want people who only care about money."

Such bravura aside, there may be reasons for skepticism. The center was originally scheduled to break ground in 1999, in time for a big millennium celebration. The new opening date was pushed back to 2005 so Vergara could acquire the rest of the land. And despite a February groundbreaking ceremony that was attended by the regional governor and included a military parade, construction is not set to begin until the end of the year.

Meanwhile, with Koolhaas gone, the master plan has become a more collaborative effort, overseen by Norten. In the latest of several versions, two roads will intersect at the center of the site, roughly dividing it into quadrants. Another road will encircle the development, which is dominated by a large man-made lake. Other roads will be created to accommodate the arrangement of the buildings, which the architects have been allowed to move around the site as their plans develop.

Ito, Nouvel and Coop Himmelblau, for example, have teamed up to create the arts, office and entertainment buildings at the core of the development. Williams and Tsien, meanwhile, have placed their amphitheater at the site's southern edge, far from the main action. Similarly, Johnson's children's museum is set adrift on an island in the middle of the lake.

Property to Include Green Spaces, Housing

Ultimately, the project's success or failure may lie outside the control of the architects. When it is complete, the development will cover only one-third of the 750-acre property that Vergara owns. The rest will be turned into green space or leased to outside investors. Eventually, Vergara hopes to attract a mix of luxury housing and high-tech office space that can accommodate Mexico's growing business class--people who he believes are eager to escape the city's dilapidated core. To ensure high architectural standards, Vergara proposes to consult with all members of his star team of architects over future design plans.

There is little doubt that Vergara stands to make a hefty profit for his efforts. To spur development, the Mexican government will grant substantial tax write-offs to help absorb infrastructure costs, including roads, sewers and power lines. Once the main structures are in place, the value of Vergara's land will increase substantially. "It will go up 10 times," he says.

But to dismiss Vergara as a conventional cutthroat developer is too facile. Since he is the principal investor, the risks he is taking are real, if only because he has opted to reject the regular formulas used by most developers. What he is marketing, in effect, is creative talent--a commodity that has become increasingly fashionable among the world's cultural and business elites.

The results of that flexibility can already be gleaned in a few of the early, schematic designs. The light, ephemeral forms of Nouvel's project for Omnilife's headquarters, for example, evoke earlier desert experiments, such as the great 20th century tradition of California Modernism. Offices--long, container-like buildings that range from one to three stories in height--are scattered across a lush green landscape. An enormous, grid-like canopy covers the entire complex, with light spilling through from above.

As a planning strategy, meanwhile, JVC merits comparison to other major urban schemes of the past decades. Like the Grand Travaux of Francois Mitterrand's Paris in the 1980s, which created I.M. Pei's glass pyramid at the Louvre and the opera house at the Bastille, the Guadalajara project attempts to spawn urban growth by linking it to a series of new cultural monuments. But Mitterrand's plan also had grand social ambitions: It used culture to stoke the growth of existing working-class neighborhoods.

JVC, an edge city far from Guadalajara's urban core, is an attempt to replicate the genuine social and aesthetic complexity of a real city from scratch. If the plan succeeds, it will offer a compelling alternative to Guadalajara's existing arts and sports facilities, as well as to the deadening homogeneity of other large-scale developments.

"It is not like composing a symphony," Libeskind notes. "Architecture exists in that gray area [between abstraction and reality]. You must get your hands dirty. And that is what makes it so beautiful."

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New Center's Layout

The 750-acre JVC Center brings together a variety of projects, each by a world-renowned architect, that are designed to create an instant cultural landmark.

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