• Working Capitol/Taconeta is the realization of an idea first explored by Christopher Esper, AIA, in his master’s thesis. - photo by Art Moreno Jr.

Working Capitol/Taconeta brings a new model for work and play to the core of El Paso.

Location El Paso
Client Urbana Ventures
Architect Root Architects
Contractor STEM Construction
MEP Engineer Raxis Engineering
Structural Engineer Ruben Ponce

Located adjacent to downtown El Paso, Working Capitol/Taconeta is a 7,000-sf adaptive reuse project that critiques the sedimented habits of outdated work culture while serving up handcrafted tacos and punchy cocktails. Delivered under a develop-design-build model by Root Architects, the project layers multiple programmatic functions of several businesses: Working Capitol, a co-working space that also serves as offices for the firm, the Mexican food restaurant Taconeta, and Salt + Honey Bakery & Cafe Express. This project delivery method allowed Root Architects to work closely with each anchor tenant on the design of its respective space and to support the expression of each business’s unique identity while maintaining a cohesive design framework. 

Principal Christopher Esper, AIA, began to posit in graduate school how the physical design of a workspace should look and function in an increasingly digital world. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, boundaries between work and home rapidly dissolved, with new technologies allowing people to rethink the way they live and work. Working Capitol bridges the old and the new, combining the best of traditional private office environments with informal workspaces that require little more than a laptop and good WiFi. Office space can be leased yearly, monthly, daily, or hourly, which offers flexible options for workers on the go.

The success of the project is due in large part to its centralized location in the heart of a complex urban network. Through rigorous urban analysis, the architects chose a low- to mid-rise commercial and residential district for the project’s location, taking advantage of the intersection of major arterial thoroughfares that service the city’s grid. Downtown El Paso lies to the south of the project across Interstate 10 and is comprised primarily of mid- to high-rise offices and civic institutions. Residential neighborhoods accommodating mixed-income families, individuals, and college students are located to the north. The intersection of these zones and user types feeds the project’s diverse collection of programs. Residents, students, civic agents, corporate employees, and visitors all have shared access to study spaces, informal meeting rooms, offices, good food, and coffee.

Working Capitol is made up of elements amassed over time, and it preserves cultural memories even as it offers a more progressive approach to shared workspace. The building was originally a car dealership; most recently, it housed a furniture import company. Long-span trusses that once sheltered the booming automotive complex now provide a canopy for a dynamic, mixed-use space. A towering storefront that formerly displayed the wares of El Paso Imports today showcases an assemblage of co-working nodes. 

Investigative demolition revealed a facade running a full story below grade, which, after further excavation of the ground plane, allowed rich sectional experiences to unforld: Double-height volumes and below-grade expanses became the shell for nestled office and conference spaces. One of the most ambitious design choices was the treatment of the southeast facade: The existing fenestration openings were preserved and the storefront recessed to create a covered patio — all within the original building’s footprint. This decision made it possible to integrate a walk-up window for the restaurant, contributing to a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere in the neighborhood. 

Notably, distinct boundaries among the businesses occupying the building are absent. Taconeta’s covered patio doubles as a sheltered entryway into Salt + Honey, whose counter, in turn, abuts the reception area of Working Capitol and shares the same open-plan space. Organized in a gradation from public to private, the cafe and reception are located along the building’s front; individual offices define the rear perimeter edge; and communal workstations and lounge areas are placed in between, with a mezzanine overlooking the large, open double-height workspace. Along the rear, what once was an exterior brick facade now serves as an interior wall with a freshly punched steel portal that frames the entry to a corridor flanked by private offices. 

Many of the project’s details draw from other notable El Paso buildings from the 1920s and ’30s. The Art Deco style predominated during the era, and experimentation within the movement gave rise to an eccentric style influenced by the desert landscape that became known as Southwest Deco. Esper describes how El Paso became the “Wild West of building experimentation.” Cues from Southwest Deco — articulated by means of pure lines and simple geometries — guided many details of the project and are evident in the design of the glass, window detailing, steel framing, cornices, millwork, and lighting, as well as in the furniture selection.

Distinct and noteworthy in its own right, the design of Taconeta took its cues from Mexican and Southwestern geometries and from such handicrafts as weaving. An already limited budget coupled with supply chain disruptions brought about by the pandemic led to a dynamic design and construction process. Many of the materials initially selected were to have been imported from Mexican cities including Ciudad Juárez and Guadalajara, but when international borders closed suddenly due to the pandemic, the architects had to pivot quickly.

As construction began, finishes and materials were selected in real time, with a focus on locally sourced materials. Decorative breezeblocks — terracotta in some instances and painted CMU in others — indicate transitions between interior and exterior areas, and delineate service and served areas. Mechanical systems were left exposed, and conduits that are typically camouflaged are celebrated through detail-oriented patterning and a color palette inspired by Mexican serapes. An outdoor vegetable-and-herb garden tempers the harsh arid environment while showcasing many of the ingredients used within the restaurant’s dishes. Made-to-order handmade cement tiles in an array of vibrant colors did make it in from Guadalajara and lend a rich texture to the exterior patio area.

Defined by Root Architects as a living and breathing experiment, Working Capitol is a project that is constantly shaping and being shaped by the people who inhabit it. As the firm’s website notes, “it’s the perfect model for ‘collaboration over competition,’” where businesses and people of all types come together to create a dynamic ecosystem that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Alexandra Cortez, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at EXIGO Architecture and co-chair of the AIA El Paso Women in Architecture Committee.

Root Architects’ Christopher Esper, Assoc. AIA, and Rida Asfahani, AIA, were interviewed in the January/February 2022 issue of Texas Architect. Read the Q&A.

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