The Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (ESB-MACC) continually lives up to its namesake — cultural arts leader and community activist Emma S. Barrientos — in its mission “dedicated to the preservation, creation, presentation, and promotion of the cultural arts of Mexican American and Latino cultures.” The site’s highly visible location along Lady Bird Lake and River Street was initially reserved in 2001 by Austin’s first Mexican American mayor, Gus Garcia, who was an advocate for the city’s Mexican American community.
Originally designed by prominent Mexican architect Teodoro González de León (1926–2016) — known for his “monumental modernism” — in partnership with Texas-based firms CasaBella Architects and Del Campo & Maru, the idea for the cultural facility emerged from the Austin community in the early 1970s, and the long-awaited dream was finalized in September 2007 with the completion of ESB-MACC Phase 1. Phase 1A followed in 2010, based on the long-range plan developed in 2000 by CasaBella, Del Campo & Maru, and González de León. In response to the growing and evolving needs of the Austin Latino community, a new facility expansion plan was developed in 2018 and adopted by city council the same year. Like Phase 1, Phase 2 is anticipated to be divided into Phases 2 and 2A. Phase 3 will include a new 14,200-sf theater.
In the same spirit of collaboration and responding to a diverse community, the design commission for the ESB-MACC Phase 2 was awarded to the joint venture of Austin-based Miró Rivera Architects and Mexico-based Tatiana Bilbao Estudio in November 2020. The expansion and improvements address the need for a highly visible cornerstone for the Mexican American community in Austin, growing space and programming requirements, and González de León’s original vision of connection to the Austin metropolitan area of today.
Following more than a year of community engagement surveys and feedback, architect Mariana Martins of Tatiana Bilbao Estudio described how the process brought the team an understanding of the community’s values and the importance of providing a place for the community to be seen and celebrated. The need for virtual meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic added a secondary level of complexity. “It was important to engage in a fruitful dialogue, even digitally, to advance the process — which required persistence and engagement,” says Tatiana Bilbao.
A driving factor that arose from community input was the importance of expanding the ESB-MACC’s presence physically and socially as a representation of a historically marginalized community within Austin now standing firm along the city’s skyline. Juan Miró, FAIA, explains: “The addition and renovation to the MACC will help establish the Hispanic community as an essential part of Austin’s fabric in two ways: first, by increasing the MACC’s visibility with more programs, well-defined public spaces, and a strong civic presence and, second, by integrating the building into the most cherished public space of Austin — the Lady Bird Lake. Water, trees, people, and public space are essential to Austin’s identity as a whole, and the new MACC will be fully contributing to it.”
Visibility and presence were critical to the evolution of the ESB-MACC. The design of ESB-MACC Phase 2 reflects the community’s and architects’ vision of giving additional presence to the facility. With the completion of González de León’s original formal move of the crescent, the Zócalo is fully embraced. The Zócalo, or exterior plaza, provides a location for community expression within defined thresholds, the Mexican etymological roots of the word reinforcing the cultural identity of the project. In addition to augmenting the Zócalo’s location, the architectural team also wanted to emphasize the formal connection to Lady Bird Lake and the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail, providing a secondary welcoming experience for trail visitors while also achieving security for the overlook. “The event plaza provides a physical link to its surroundings and gives a platform to connect with context and engage and participate with something visible, present, and linked to its context,” says Miró.
The architectural team describes the desire to complete the project’s long-range formal vision with a 32,000-sf addition completing the Zócalo. “We are not Teodoro, but we want to respectfully carry on the vision,” says Miguel Rivera, FAIA. “We are in another time with different architects. It is important for the distinction of the building to be understood about a process in time, visibility, and a notion of [the] endeavor with this new phase and new vision.”
While the existing building is known for its monumental modernism and concrete facade, the Phase 2 expansion is respectful in its traditional Mesoamerican form and takes a different approach to materials. Rivera elaborates: “The building has a heavy language. We wanted to bring more lightness, transparency, grounded natural materials, and a visual connection with the lake and nature by using materials that age over time, like weathering steel.” The expansion allows for the building to create a new relationship with the lake and the trail and acts as a gesture to bridge the divide of opening the building toward its natural environment, embracing the responsibility of creating architecture for social engagement and in alignment with its built and natural surroundings. Martins describes the spaces, which were informed by community feedback, as flexible and adjustable to future needs of the ESB-MACC, easily transforming from a gallery to a classroom and meeting the needs of generations to come.
Martins says: “[We designed with] the sense that the building is alive and [to] showcase the materials that age to tell the history of the building and show it doesn’t look perfect forever. The textures in the stucco contrast with Teodoro’s language; there is movement and a humanness to the finishes.” By connecting to the local community, the use of naturally aging materials allows for a building that matures with the visitors and children who were a part of the original engagement meetings for Phase 2, giving a physical representation of the expansion’s impact on the larger community. Greenery and stucco showcase the evolution of design language with lightness and transparency reflected in the character of the materials. In addition, ESB-MACC Phase 2 includes areas for renovation and replacements and has a sustainability goal of LEED Silver and AEGB certification to be met through passive and active strategies.
The ESB-MACC acts as a nexus for the Mexican American community of Austin, as well as a gateway to the Waterloo Greenway, offering greater visibility of the building and supporting new connections to the natural environment while empowering the existing Mexican American community. Aspirations for the center’s future lie in the hands of generations who are rooted in what it means to experience Mexican American and Latino culture within Austin. With the support of the Austin community, the expansions to the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center will continue to be a creative catalyst for generations to come.
Gabriella Bermea, AIA, is a design architect with VLK Architects and co-chair of the TxA Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee.