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The Showy but Restrained Museum of the International Baroque

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04.03.2019

Every once in a while, a city gets exactly the museum it needs. Bilbao used its Guggenheim to complete a post-industrial transformation. The Museum of Modern Art boosted New York’s 20th-century aspirations to be the ultimate modern metropolis. Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology unites flabbergasting evidence of all the ancient cultures on which the nation rests. And as of 2016, the city of Puebla, two hours south of the capital, has its Museum of the International Baroque, an ode to a long-lived movement that swept across oceans and bubbled up on Mexico’s high plateau.

Mexican goldsmiths, ironworkers, ceramicists, masons, builders, painters, plasterers, musicians, writers, priests, aristocrats, and congregations all had a hand in shaping the baroque in the Americas. Yet rather than have a Mexican architect reinterpret that legacy, the museum turned to Toyo Ito, a Pritzker Prize–winner who comes from a part of the world that never absorbed the European assault of religious fervor and decorative raptures: Japan. Ito was a surprising choice for other reasons, too: He had hardly worked anywhere in the Americas (a plan for a new Berkeley Art Museum foundered in the 2008 recession). He was also best known for two virtually opposite projects: the White U House of 1976, a single concrete curve, sepulchral and opaque, that was built for his sister and demolished in 1997; and the Sendai Mediatheque, from 2000, so weightless and clear as to be practically vaporous. Neither suggested that he would be the ideal architect to honor an art of violent movement and cinematic shafts of light. Somehow, though, the commission yielded an effortlessly expressive vessel for an alluring institution.

Ito’s challenge was to evoke baroque architecture without mimicry or glitz, to design a contemporary local shrine to a long-ago global phenomenon. And he had to capture Puebla’s glory on a site far from the colonial downtown, in a park enlaced in highways and bordered by office blocks. If he succeeded in doing all that, it’s because he depends on a baroque sense of theater. After dark, the exterior’s curved and........

© Daily Intelligencer