In October, El Paso selected Snøhetta to design a new Children’s Museum on Santa Fe Street in the city’s arts district. The firm, which is headquartered in Oslo and New York City, beat out competing proposals from KoningEizenberg and TEN Arquitectos. Snøhetta partner-in-charge of the project, Elaine Molinar, was born and raised in El Paso. Recently, Texas Architect editorial intern Mackie Kellen had the opportunity to speak with Molinar about winning the commission and what it means to the architect to be designing a major cultural institution for her hometown.
Mackie Kellen: Can you speak a little bit about the process of entering and winning the El Paso Children’s Museum design competition?
Elaine Molinar: Well, it was a design competition that was meant to be an ideas competition. So when it was launched, Gyroscope (a California-based museum planning, architecture, and exhibit design firm) had already recently completed their masterplan study that they had worked on together with the client. So that was used as the basis for the ideas competition. So the three firms used that as the program. Now we have been selected as the winner of the competition, and we are moving forward with a new programming and concept design phase. A few things have changed since the competition. The competition site was a bit larger than it is now. It used to span over the railroad tracks, and now it is just on one side — just on the southern portion of the railroad tracks. The competition schemes were never meant to be the ones that would be built; however, there are some qualities to our competition scheme that were very much appreciated by the client, and they are very interested in carrying forward and using in spirit in the actual design.
As a native of El Paso, can you speak a little bit about designing a community facility that fits in with the culture of the city?
Sure, I guess just for background, El Paso has an incredibly rich architectural history. There are a lot of buildings that were done in the Chicago School and Prairie style. Henry Trost was a well-known architect who built a lot of buildings in El Paso, and many downtown, and they created a lot of the character that exists there now. I think our work at Snøhetta is very responsive to its context, whatever that context may be. Rather than it being defined by a particular style or set of architectural moods or principles, we very much look to the immediate context and conditions — both the physical context and the community and the history of the place. So we are very early on in the design process right now; we haven’t quite solidified our thoughts yet, but it’s incredibly exciting to me to be able to build something that’s going to have a lasting impact in my hometown. It kind of sparked my interest in architecture, and the architecture and the landscape of El Paso are incredibly powerful, and quite dramatic, so that’s very exciting. I think there’s a lot of exciting development that has happened and will continue to happen downtown. I’m very happy to see it become an even more vibrant place. It has a rich mix of influences, from its architecture to its border adjacencies and the mix of communities downtown. There’s a lot to draw from; it’s a very rich palette for us to work with.
Were there any challenges that you faced with this site?
First of all, it’s a great site, it couldn’t be any more appealing. Its location is highly visible. When you’re driving into downtown, many people will drive down Santa Fe Street, and it will be right there as a kind of welcoming gateway, right next to the history museum and the convention center. So it’s in a great location. It’s also visible from the freeway, as you’re driving along from the west towards the east. For a children’s museum to have that kind of relationship with the railroad tracks and the passing trains, it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity. Of course, there are technical issues the site poses, with the vibrations from the sound of the trains and the proximity to the retaining wall, but I think we’ll be able to deal with that. I think that visual proximity is really exciting. I think it’s a great site for a children’s museum. It’s also a nice size and a regular shape, and the topography is fairly straightforward — and then it has a very interesting connection from a pedestrian plaza, which is between the plaza theater and the art museum. [This] has a kind of interesting back alleyway feel to it, because it also passes by the loading docks for the theater and the art museum, so there is quite a bit of traffic that happens for the loading for those two institutions. But nevertheless, it is a very activated pedestrian passageway with paving and vegetation. In the winter, part of it is turned into a skating rink, so it’s a continuation of that backstreet feel, which goes right toward the children’s museum, toward the site. And the street cars will be passing on Santa Fe Street, once that comes back to life, so that’s pretty exciting. It has great views, too.
Do you think the museum will inspire other similar cultural and community centers in El Paso in the future?
I hope so. I think it has the potential to do that. I think that the design community has been growing steadily in El Paso, and I think it will continue to do so. As I always like to say, El Paso is no longer just the best way to get to Marfa. It’s a great destination in itself. I think that the Quality of Life Bond has really helped that.
Does the fact that El Paso is a border city, and that it shares some of its resources with Juárez , influence your approach?
I know that one of the goals the museum is very much interested in is having co-curated programs between this new children’s museum and the one that exists in Juárez. I think that’s very important — not only to have those programs, but that the design also embodies that sense of openness and cross-cultural inclusion.