El Paso-Juárez is the second largest binational region on the United States-Mexico border. Also known as the Borderplex, or as El Paso del Norte, it will soon become the site of one of the country’s most significant institutions for learning about and celebrating Mexican American cultural values. The Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) in El Paso is poised to be a valuable venue for sharing Mexican American culture, history, and practices while also representing a valuable addition to downtown. El Paso voters overwhelmingly approved the center as one of three signature projects in the 2012 Quality of Life Bond program. Almost a decade later, construction of the project finally commenced in September of 2021 with the goal of reaching completion in spring 2023.
Designed by Exigo Architecture, a practice located in downtown El Paso, the MACC represents an opportunity to showcase the richness of Mexican American culture and will provide a place for a wide range of exhibitions, including sculpture, painting, music, dance, film, the culinary arts, sociopolitical movements, and education. According to Eugenio Mesta, AIA, president of Exigo, the project will showcase and celebrate not only Mexican American culture in general, but also specifically the Mexican American culture of the El Paso-Juárez region.
For the design of the MACC to reflect the Mexican American culture of El Paso, the architects analyzed key historical buildings in the city’s downtown. They identified unique material palettes and features of the local architecture, including repetition, fenestration, and ornamentation, and incorporated these into the building design. Special attention was paid to recognizable cultural elements of the region. For example, the horizontal terra cotta panels that define much of the exterior of the MACC are inspired by the patterns and colors characteristic of the traditional serape, a long blanket-like shawl worn by men in Mexico. In addition to recalling the serape, their colors also reflect the earth tones of the surrounding historical buildings and landscape. The main, southern facade of the project reinterprets a different cultural reference. Papel picado, the decorative folk art made by cutting elaborate designs into sheets of tissue paper, is here rendered in a cast iron screen and superimposed on a map depicting the Mexican population in the United States. The screen is neutral in color, but an LED lighting system allows the entire perforated plane to be illuminated in different shades and patterns.
The main entrance to the MACC is positioned at the southwest part of the project, where a pergola-like box ties together the various volumes of the center while also referencing a mid-century arcade that defines the east facade of the adjacent main library, which is also undergoing renovation. To support the MACC’s programming, a large video screen will be placed above the entrance and will feature movies visible from the adjacent Franklin Plaza. The screen will also present depictions of murals and other forms of public art.
The MACC will be situated in the northeast part of downtown, in the El Paso Downtown Arts District, a region officially designated by the Texas Commission of the Arts in 2011. The intent is for the MACC to be joined by museums, green spaces, performing art facilities, cultural venues, and tourist amenities as part of a larger redevelopment of the area. Current projects include the main public library renovation and a new urban plaza, to be built in Cleveland Square Park to tie together the MACC, the El Paso Museum of History, and the El Paso Children’s Museum and Science Center. Designed by Snøhetta in collaboration with Exigo Architecture, the Children’s Museum and Science Center is currently under construction. These projects will help connect this part of downtown to West Missouri Avenue, a once-forgotten street that now forms part of the heart of El Paso with new lofts, two hotels, and the West Star Tower, a recently completed high-rise that became the tallest building in the city when it was completed last year.
Mahyar Hadighi is the director of historic preservation and design at Texas Tech University.