In the room Rosen uses as his office, bookshelves sag with books in Hebrew about Jewish mysticism, books in Japanese on Japanese architecture, books in Thai about Thai architecture. One very large bookcase holds the most significant works of 19th- and 20th-century Mexican literature. The sliding glass door on the east side of his office looks out over the fifth hole of the La Jolla Country Club golf course.
A maid brought me a little seltzer in a tumbler. Rosen looked lost in thought. Seventy-five years old, a grandfather to eight grandchildren, he’s still an exceptionally handsome man. (His wife, an Argentine actress, was a famous Mexico City beauty.) Rosen looked sad.
“I miss Mexico City. We had a wonderful life there. We were surrounded by artists, writers, journalists, poets. Creative people. Constant intellectual stimulation. Here, it’s been kind of…lonely.
“It’s a cultural thing. I am Mexican. I’m used to a more convivial society. I’ve always felt very Mexican, even though my parents were American. I attended the American School in Mexico City, which was somewhat unusual. Most of the other Jewish kids attended one or another of the Jewish schools. Still, I’ve always thought of myself as Mexican, and I never thought of being Mexican as a liability until I moved to San Diego and had some difficulty establishing myself professionally. People here, I found out, didn’t like Mexicans and they didn’t like Jews.
“In Mexico I was involved in many projects. I designed the Japanese Embassy in Mexico City, the Olympic swimming pool, a general hospital, the Mexico City convention center. It was through my familiarity with people in the López Portillo administration that I became involved with designing the Tijuana Cultural Center, which was really the result of a confluence of a lot of culturally interested people.
“First of all, of course, there was Mrs. López Portillo, the president’s wife. Carmen Romano de López Portillo. Everybody who knew her called her ‘Munsi.’ That was her nickname. Why ‘Munsi’? I don’t know why. She was a pianist. She was very interested in culture, the fine arts, classical culture. She started the famous Cervantino festival in Guanajuato that now attracts thousands from around the world. She was close friends with Mrs. de la Madrid, whose husband, of course, was the governor of Baja California. So Munsi had this idea of building a cultural center in Tijuana that would act as a kind of window. A window for Americans to see Mexican culture, and a window for the people of Baja California to learn about their heritage.
“You see, the peninsula — Baja California — has historically always been very isolated from Mexico. It was always much closer to the culture of the United States than to the traditions and culture of central Mexico, of Mexico City.
“Munsi had this idea for a cultural center that would present Mexican culture to Americans and to the Mexicans in the north. She was also very passionate about Hellenistic culture, and she had this vision of a kind of agora, the marketplace in classical Athens where all the great philosophers met and taught and exchanged ideas. I heard that ‘Munsi wants to build an agora in Tijuana.’ So when you look at CECUT today, you see that it has this big plaza in front. That was Munsi’s idea of the meeting place where people could exchange ideas.
“When I came on board the project, I definitely had the idea, ‘Let’s make a museum with a meeting hall, a coffee shop, a little bar.’ Places where people could meet and talk. You have to remember, in its initial two years, the center was under the direction of the Ministry of Tourism. It was only later that it came under the auspices of the National Council for Culture and the Arts.
“Munsi visited Disneyland and fell in love with the 360-degree surround cinema they had there. I went to see it too, but it was too large, too out of scale, for what we could do in Tijuana. So I went to see the Omnimax in Balboa Park, and I went to Toronto to see the Omnimax people there. It was perfect for our needs, and it worked out very well. The cultural center now earns 40 percent of its operating budget from the Omnimax ticket sales. Also, with the way the screen was, we had a difficult time figuring out how to house the theater. I decided, ‘Why don’t we just build a spherical exterior that matches the interior?’ It was that simple. Now that big sphere, la Bola, has sort of become a symbol of Tijuana.
“I think, in all, the center took two years to plan and build. The total cost was around $35 million, which would be more than $60 million today. We spent $1 million alone on the equipment for the Omnimax. For the building, we’d wanted to use a special cement used in the construction of the Dallas airport. It turned out to be too expensive, so we had to look for a cement additive that would give us that same warm color. It turned out that there was such an additive right here in San Diego. It was called San Diego Bluff. So the Tijuana Cultural Center has a San Diego color.
“As for my interior, well, I can’t say it’s been entirely ruined. But I’d designed an interior filled with light. I wanted it to be a very bright, very congenial space, open to the garden outside. They’ve covered up many of my windows with plastic, and now the center’s become very gray and morbid inside. It’s not the hopeful interior I designed.
“As for this new director, Teresa, I wish her well. She’s certainly a very pretty and attractive woman, a very intelligent and well-educated woman. Very qualified for the job. And I don’t think she’s going to use her directorship as a springboard to a bigger and better political position, as some in the past tried to do. But I don’t think there’s now any room for me to participate in the center. And, you know, with a woman director, it’s difficult for Mexican men to build a certain kind of relationship. With a man, you can go out, have a drink, relax, build a friendship. But with a woman, it has to be more formal. Mexico isn’t America. Mexican men and Mexican women interact with each other differently than do American men and American women.