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Larger than the Dallas Museum of Art and conceived not as a static display of a permanent collection, the new museum is, at its core, experiential. It is about engaging viewers of different types — with extensive and learned labels in multiple languages for older visitors, loads of computer-driven devices for millennials and glorious objects arranged in an utterly theatrical manner appropriate for a baroque museum. The museum’s walls are all undulating white concrete curves, and works of art hang from the ceiling, sit on the floor, scale newly built walls and fill vitrines of every possible type and character.
Opening to huge acclaim in Mexico and nary any in ours, the Museum of the International Baroque in Puebla is unique — there is simply nothing like it in any other city or country.
Why baroque, and what kind of baroque? The simplest answer is that Puebla is the largest and best-preserved baroque city in the Americas. (Note: There are none in the U.S.) This was recognized by UNESCO, and the central part of the old city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose buildings and facades are carefully protected. The City of the Angels, Puebla de los Angeles, is as different from our Los Angeles as two places can be. Founded in 1531, Puebla de los Angeles was the first planned city of the New World, preceding New Haven and Philadelphia, the United States’ first planned cities, by more than a century. Its greatest period of international importance was 1600-1800, the age of the baroque in Europe, and it had America’s first public library, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, founded in 1646 and opened to this day.
Yet, if Puebla was a baroque city, it became, after World War II, one of the most modern and industrial cities of Mexico, the manufacturing center for Volkswagen Mexico and, soon, Audi, all the while carefully preserving the architecture and institutions of its urban core. That fact is recognized in the creation of the Museum of the International Baroque. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Toyo Ito,
What is more amazing is that it had no collection to act as its core, but borrowed key works from public and private lenders in Europe and Latin America, which were added to a small group of works that it acquired outright. Toyo Ito, its distinguished architect, was so stunned by the pace and quality of the work that he told his patrons that nothing of this scale and importance could have been erected so quickly in his own nation, Japan, since the 17th century, in which autocratic rulers could simply decree completion.
Who knows what is next? Gauthier, Frank Stella, art nouveau, surrealism, neo-baroque, the Maya, Hindu India — all spring to mind. Fortunately, Puebla is a two-and-a-half-hour nonstop flight from Dallas, and the museum’s restaurant is one of the best in the culinary capital of Mexico. All in all, three stars out of three.