Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center: The desire of a building, and a community

The expansion of Austin's Mexican American Cultural Center, by architects Miro Rivera and Tatiana Bilbao, moves forward


In downtown Austin there is an anachronous building. It is a curved shell clad in chiseled concrete punctuated by a stepped white pyramid and a cylindrical tower. Both curving and rectilinear, the complex seemed not to have been built there, near the glass towers and asphalt, but to have been conjured.

But that belies the complex history that led to its creation.

The Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center

In actuality, this pre-historic/ultra-modern pastiche was designed by noted Mexican-architect Teodoro González de León and Central Texas-based firm Casabella Architects for the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC).

The seeds for a cultural center for the Mexican American community were planted by its leaders in the early 1970s. After years of advocacy were met with failed bond passages, economic downturns, and long-delayed promises, the first phase of a building purpose-built for that use opened in 2007.

Designed in 2000, the MACC project was initially conceived to be constructed in three parts, but later phases were shelved due to the Great Recession.

Now, a collaborative design by Austin’s Miró Rivera Architects and Mexico City’s Tatiana Bilbao Estudio promises to fulfill González de Leon’s vision for a crescent-shaped building that envelops a lively zocálo — while also putting the MACC on a stage amongst the city’s most venerable civic and cultural institutions.

It also represents a partial fulfillment of the city’s years-long promises to build a cultural facility dedicated to supporting the arts and culture of Mexican Americans and Latino cultures.

The plans make concrete the “desire of that building to complete itself,” according to lead architect Juan Miró. New construction will extend the arms of the 36,000 square foot building, adding space for the MACC’s multi-faceted cultural programming.

Taking full advantage of the MACC’s lakeside location, the design calls for a new a lower level outdoor that sits below ground level, creating an event space parallel to Lady Bird Lake.

Plans for the expanded MACC building. Image: Miró Rivera-Tatiana Bilbao LLC / Ten Eyck Landscape Architects / City of Austin
Expansion plans for the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center call for a new a lower level outdoor event space parallel to Lady Bird Lake that will sit below ground-level of the building. Image: Miró Rivera-Tatiana Bilbao LLC / Ten Eyck Landscape Architects / City of Austin

Together, the half-moon form of the building and the addition of a lower level will form the bounds of a zócalo, or center square, at the heart of the MACC. Hosting outdoor concerts and gatherings, the zócalo will also be accentuated by a shade structure and native plantings.

Key to this project is an international collaboration between the firms, Miró Rivera and Tatiana Bilbao Estudio. This partnership, called a joint venture, means that each firm is an equal partner throughout the entire process. Typically in similar municipal projects, one firm would lead the design phase and then subcontract construction to another firm.

I spoke with Juan Miró this spring after the city’s design commission approved the next phase for the project. According to Miró, the strength of the design stems from honoring the original vision of the museum, the collaboration between the two firms, integrating community feedback, and making the most of the MACC’s assets.

Indeed, the firms hosted an extensive community engagement process throughout all of 2021. In addition to working closely with MACC staff to learn about their needs for programming, they also convened artists, past and current participants of the center’s youth educational programming, legacy stakeholders of the MACC, community leaders, and the wider public to shape the design.

“We’re really thinking that this is going to be a game changer in terms of how the building really fulfills its potential now,” said Miró. “There is going to be a significant change in terms of what the building can do for the community — new programs, classrooms, activities, art, and exhibitions. But at the same time, I think [this project] is going to multiply the visibility [of the MACC], because the building is going to become more integrated into the in the identity of the city. That’s powerful.”

Read on for Miró’s responses to our Pandemic Place questionnaire about how to design public spaces for an endemic/pandemic world.

Tell us about what kind of public places we should be designing for the post-pandemic [or endemic/pandemic] world?

Juan Miró: Independently of pandemics, the creation of public space is like a conquest, always a hard-fought battle. This is especially the case in Texas, where only 5% of the land is in public hands. So, any new type of public space that opens is a welcome addition: big parcels added to land conservation efforts or a small pocket park, in downtown or in a neighborhood far out. We need all of them.

Also, we need to systematically maintain and improve existing spaces. For example, we should demand that all public streets have safe and accessible sidewalks — something simple that remains elusive.

What do you wish we had in place in Austin before COVID?

JM: I wish we had built in the heart of downtown a large plaza north of City Hall. We proposed such a plaza years ago, and the city agreed to create it but never did. Every time I go to the Moody Theater, I miss it.

Also, as I mentioned before, I wish we had good sidewalks everywhere. During the pandemic, many people discovered the simple pleasures of walking or running in their neighborhoods.

How are you seeing conversations in the architecture profession change based on conversations about public health and equity?

JM: There is much more awareness around equity issues in general. Even those that may not agree with these issues are now carefully considering them. For example, in hiring practices in architectural offices that lacked women or minorities. This is obviously good, especially considering the past history of inequality in our society. Moving forward, I think it is important to focus on equity at all levels, with especial emphasis on the economically disadvantaged.

In theory, there is also more awareness of public health issues. However, I learned recently that we are putting thousands of people in windowless bedrooms in brand new buildings, right here in Austin. I am disappointed that the architecture profession is not having a conversation about this. The city must pass an ordinance that bans windowless bedrooms, like other cities have done. If the profession cannot protect the wellbeing of people, it should happen with regulations at the local or state level.

Miro Rivera
For the University of Texas, Miró Rivera designed the Texas Cowboys Pavilion provides 2,400 square feet of open covered area for  events, well as an area for students to enjoy during school days. A simple, light steel structure eliminates any sense of enclosure. Photo: Miró Rivera

How do you prioritize users’ voices when designing public space?

JM: The designers of public spaces must carefully listen to the needs and desires of the potential users and respond to concerns of the immediate neighbors. Like for any design problem, the goal is to develop a design that strikes a balance considering all the factors at play. It is not easy because many times there are competing interests or lack of resources.

Public spaces are by definition places of coexistence. Therefore, independently of their location, they should feel welcoming to everyone. There is a history of exclusion and segregation in our cities that has left people suspicious of public entities. That is unfortunate, and only with time and concrete actions can that trust be restored. Despite its historic shortcomings, I believe in the role of the government to protect public interests in a democracy.

What does Austin/Central Texas need more of or less of in terms of built public space? And how do we plan our cultural spaces to be responsive to future social changes?

JM: Austin is a successful landscape city, a low-density city that has worked hard to integrate human habitation with its natural environment of hilly topography, waterways and wonderful tree canopy. We have very good trails, green belts and parks. It is part of our “green identity.” Lady Bird Lake — and the trails, parks and amenities that surround it — is one of the most successful public spaces I know; it is the heart of the city, tying together north and south, east and west.

Miro Rivera
Conceived as a sculpture in a park, the Lady Bird Lake Trail Restroom was the first public restroom built in the park in over 30 years. Winner of multiple national and international design awards, the restroom is made of 49 3/4-inch thick vertical Corten steel plates whose width and height vary significantly in size. Photo: Miró Rivera.
Míro Rivera
The restroom is accessible and includes a drinking fountain and shower outside in addition to a commode, urinal, sink and bench inside. The simple building requires minimal maintenance: the plumbing fixtures are made from heavy-duty stainless steel, there is no need for artificial light or mechanical ventilation inside. Photo: Miró Rivera.

The problem is that the city is growing rapidly and we need to keep adding to the park system. I think we could create the next “crown jewel” downstream along the Colorado river, anchoring the growth of the city for the next 50 years on the east side. We need the same visionary leaders that understood the potential of Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake) 60 years ago.

Our cultural spaces need to reflect the rich civic identity of our city. The public spaces associated with them must reflect a welcoming spirit. For example, our goal in the design for the expansion of the Mexican American Cultural Center is to accommodate the functional needs of their programs, but it is also an opportunity to increase the visibility of the Latino community, which must be embraced at the city scale as an integral part of the Austin’s civic identity. There is no better way to achieve that goal than with a strong civic presence, a welcoming and active public space connected to the water, trees and trails that are so essential to Austin’s identity.

Penny Snyder
Penny Snyderhttp://pennysnyder.com
Penny is a writer and communicator who is invested in ideas of the public and access to art, architecture, and livable cities. She graduated from Wesleyan University in 2016, with high honors for her thesis examining how neoliberal urban development around new museum buildings weakened public space.

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