Is There a Chicanx Style of Architecture?

Riverside, CA’s new Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture has been a long time coming. But its arrival prompts a question about design and cultural specificity.

"Chicano art is American art," Cheech Marin told me over the phone last winter. It’s something the actor and comedian has said to a lot of people over the past 30-plus years. Chicanx art is close to his heart, but if you haven’t been following his career (and even if you have), you might be surprised to learn that the Up in Smoke star has been one of the preeminent patrons of the field since the 1980s. This June, his decades of collecting culminated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new art space in Riverside, California, The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture, under the umbrella of the Riverside Art Museum—The Cheech for short.

The center will have a permanent collection building on the works Marin has donated, space for traveling shows, fellowships for graduate students, and community galleries where amateur artists will be able to show their work. It will be a hub for Chicanx culture locally and nationally, a place for people to come together and celebrate a heritage rarely given the spotlight.

"Chicano culture is really a phantom culture," Marin said. "So we’re bringing it out of the shadows and into the mainstream of America so everybody will get the message."

Marin’s life has already been groundbreaking. He was born in a United States where there were regularly signs outside of establishments reading, "No dogs, no negros, no Mexicans"—and now he’s opened a museum of Mexican American art in the middle of one of California’s bigger cities.

"This is a really wonderful opportunity to spread this message of art and love to the rest of the world," he told me, his excitement infectious.

The secondhand high only faded when I hung up the phone and glanced at renderings of the building. It looked more like a suburban bank outlet than a major cultural hub, the sort of thing you’d pass on the highway driving by some has-been suburban corporate campus—glad I don’t work there, you think to yourself, before driving on and forgetting it exists.

Said building was formerly home to the landmarked Riverside Main Library. Designed in 1964 by local architecture firm Moise, Harbach, and Hewlett, it’s a mostly windowless brown brick box set on a plinth behind a paved-and-planted plaza and flanked by parking lots. (A local preservation blog referred to it as Riverside’s "most under-appreciated" midcentury building.) The renderings were pretty indistinguishable from old photos of the library; the only thing that announced the new inhabitant was a sign over the front entrance. I tried to reconcile the idea that The Cheech is possibly the most visible home for Chicanx culture to open in decades, a flower of almost 60 years of a cultural movement, with this uninspiring reality. I closed the renderings and wondered: What should a Chicanx building look like?

"The museum is the backdrop to the artwork." This is the explanation that Elisa Hernández Skaggs, the project’s manager at Page & Turnbull, one of the firms behind the design, gives me about the building’s subdued aesthetics. The existing building "is very quiet, and it has certain features that we felt were important to respect," she says. "The punch is delivered by the artwork itself."

Chicanx art often does pack a punch. It’s got a penchant for comic mash-ups of high and low references rendered in riotous colors and textures drawn from a mix of finely crafted and found objects—La Belle Epoch, a sculpture in the De La Torre brothers’ opening show at The Cheech, features a massive Aztec timepiece/ferris wheel adorned with blown glass, cutlery, and bike tires. Rasquache, a rehabilitated form of a Mexican-Spanish slur that means something like tacky or tasteless, is how academics often describe the punchy aesthetic.

"Rasquachismo is an underdog perspective—a view from los de abajo. An attitude rooted in resourcefulness and adaptability yet mindful of stance and style," wrote professor Tomás Ybarra-Frausto in 1989 in the essay Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility. The sensibility celebrates "constant making do, the grit and obstinacy of survival played out against a relish for surface display and flash creates a florid milieu of admixtures and recombinations."

Where was that transgressive spirit in the architecture? Not that the building needs to have any particular aesthetic—Chicanx people are entitled to the same stylistic flexibility as anyone else. But most of the building’s designers aren’t Chicanx. Los Angeles–based firm WHY is the design and landscape architect, and Page & Turnbull is the architect of record. (When I asked Marin about selecting firms not led by Chicanx people, he justified their selection by pointing out their expertise working on similar projects.)

To absorb some Chicanismo into The Cheech, the architects conducted workshops with artists and locals that resulted in a handful of guiding values: color, informality, sabor (which Kulapat Yantrasast, founder and creative director of WHY, described to me as "kind of like the art of living, the enjoyment of art and life that comes through Chicano art and culture"), and radical hospitality. These principles were treated not like architectural components that had to be present in the building (there is no sabor-style window treatment, for example), but were values meant to guide decisions as the project took shape. Radical hospitality is the principle that seems to tie the others together, as an overall goal for the space is that visitors should feel like "the museum wants them to be here," Yantrasast said. "It’s not just a welcoming public space but more like a family space."

"For whatever reason, the architecture side to a lot of this Chicano stuff is rarely addressed or thought about."

It’s questionable if a culture can be distilled down to a few key words, but Maria Esther Fernández, The Cheech’s artistic director, echoed the need for a welcoming atmosphere in a Chicanx art space.

"Sometimes, when you have shows that happen in spaces that are predominantly white spaces, it may feel like tokenism," Fernández added. "If the Latinx and Chicanx community is engaged by museums, it’s usually through education outreach, off-site specifically."

Fernández told me that she wants The Cheech to be a place where "people feel like they can go and see themselves but also have agency and tell their stories." Though there is a $15.95 entry fee, there will be regular free nights, and an always-free gallery in the lobby hosts shows by local artists, to be  organized with community groups.

"Museums have served the Chicanx community with maybe one show every 10 years," Fernández said, "but there isn’t really a sustained engagement."

Here, Chicanx art is ever-present, anchored by a 26-foot-tall glowing lenticular lobby installation by the De La Torre brothers that greets visitors with a hallucinatory vision of Coatlicue, Aztec goddess of creation and destruction, rendered in car parts and neon greens, with maps of the Inland Empire’s freeways snaking around her.

This is all good—exciting, even—but the architecture renderings still seemed generic. The interiors, stripped back to the library’s brick walls and concrete floors, recalled any number of 21st-century contemporary art warehouses.

But maybe that’s fine. "You have to avoid self-exoticizing or exoticizing the culture," Edgar Garcia, assistant general manager at the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Department of the city of LA, reminded me.

I wanted to see what Garcia thought of The Cheech because he’s one of the few people who has systematically studied the architecture of the Chicano Movement. During the movement’s heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, Chicanx art spilled onto streets and crawled up buildings, through murals or applied materials like stucco or tile that transformed urban facades into something more reflective of Mexican American culture. Artists and activists were reacting to the decades of community destruction in the mid-20th century, when planners were busy redeveloping predominantly Mexican American neighborhoods like San Diego’s Logan Heights and Los Angeles’s Chavez Ravine, building highways and stadiums that catered to Anglo neighbors. Resistance to these efforts fueled the early Chicano Movement, and activists organized to block bulldozers and fortify surviving neighborhoods with expressions of local culture. Often lacking the means to build completely anew, Chicanx artists and designers built on what they already had.

"One of the fastest ways to change a building is to apply a treatment," Garcia said. "Usually the change ends up being murals, or sometimes it ends up being applied tiles or textures. These are really quick ways to change the notion or identity of a building, or even a whole neighborhood or streetscape."

The era’s flat modernist facades offered ideal canvases for murals, and artists filled them with visions that celebrated Indigenous roots and a long history of resilience in the face of first Spanish and then U.S. colonization. Historically, the murals have gotten the spotlight while the buildings fade into the background, a dynamic Garcia observed in the campaign to save the murals on the First Street Store, an iconic presence in East L.A. since 1974. When the building was redeveloped into a school, preservationists were able to save the murals, but not the building they were on.

"It’s the public art and murals that get the attention," Garcia says. "For whatever reason, the architecture side to a lot of this Chicano stuff is rarely addressed or thought about."

Garcia has posited that one of the earliest examples of the Chicano Style is East L.A.’s Pan American Bank, designed by architect Raymond Stockdale in 1965, with mosaic murals by Mexican artist Jose Reyes Meza. Stockdale designed a modernist building with five double-height arched bays on its main facade with the intention that Meza’s art would fill them with color, story, and texture. Like the designers of the Riverside Main Library, Stockdale chose the New Formalist style for the Latinx-owned bank, which opened just one year after the library.

It’s not too surprising that the two buildings share an underlying approach. New Formalism was common in Southern California in the late ’60s. It blended modernism’s techno-optimism with classical Greek ideas about symmetry and proportion in a way that aligned with the region’s postwar corporate industrialism, fueled by military contractors like Boeing and Aerojet. But the Chicano Movement was intentionally disruptive and vocally antiwar, and Chicanx theorists like Gloria Anzaldúa articulated identity as a fractured, messy thing, filled with colonial contradictions—not an obvious match for New Formalism’s stolid compositions.

But the Chicano Movement was as much about seeing what already existed in different ways as it was about creating something new.

"Chicano is a voluntary category," Marin told me. "You have to declare yourself a Chicano in order to be a Chicano." It’s an act of self-identification that creates community and embraces a shared history.

"A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself," journalist Ruben Salazar wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1970. In Salazar’s day, neighborhoods and buildings didn’t need to be rebuilt from the ground up to become Chicanx. The modernism of the time liked to project ideas of progress on supposed tabula rasa, but the Chicano Movement embraced the table’s crowded, messy settings, even those relics that tried to erase other parts of the past. Everything could be acknowledged, recast, and put to new use.

The Cheech is only in the library building by happenstance. The library had outgrown it, and Marin had just toured a successful show through the Riverside Art Museum when the city was deciding what to do with it. The city and museum proposed that Marin bring his collection here. No one thought, Hey, during the Chicano Movement, designers reworked modernist buildings. Maybe we should do the same thing. It just worked out that way. But the parallels between The Cheech and earlier buildings aren’t quite coincidences—more like a history of Chicanx resilience repeating, just a little differently.

In this sense, Chicanx architecture has less to do with colorful murals or the spectacular visual connotations of rasquachismo and more to do with the ethos of taking whatever is available and turning it into a creative tool for los de abajo.

"To be rasquache," Ybarra-Frausto wrote, "is to posit a bawdy, spunky consciousness seeking to subvert and turn ruling paradigms upside down—a witty, irreverent and impertinent posture that recodes and moves outside established boundaries."

The Cheech’s paradigm shift came into focus when I zoomed out a bit. Across the street from the center sits the Mission Inn, Riverside’s main attraction since the early 20th century. It’s a fantastical Game of Thrones–esque conglomeration of Spanish and colonial styles that for decades has architecturally mythologized and exoticized Mexican history for a wealthy, primarily Anglo audience. But The Cheech doesn’t deploy Mexican American culture as a backdrop for tourists to enjoy margs and guac. It’s not a roadside attraction packaging cliches for general consumption. It’s quiet, a building where Chicanx culture steps onto the podium and takes pride of place, outside the country’s Anglo centers of art, in a majority Latinx city.

The Cheech may not be perfect—the entry fee could discourage many visitors, and it could easily run into the same issues of exclusion that have roiled other museums—and it will not solve the myriad challenges Chicanx people face. But its presence says a lot about whom American cities can be for.

"We now find ourselves in a political climate that is very similar to the late 1960s, where we have a lot of youth movements around police brutality, around inequality within our institutions," Fernández said. "And to me what’s really helpful is that the conversation now is not only about diversity and representation—it’s about equity. And when you bring someone to the table who historically has not had a place at the table, what does equity look like?"

It may look something like The Cheech.

"This is all part of a picture of inclusion of who is and who isn’t American or who is more American, who is less American, and all that," Marin told me. "That conversation has been raised for as long as I can remember."

When I finally visited the nearly finished building in early June, it had grown on me. The zocalo in front of it is humanly scaled and decently shaded. On the inside, quirky original details like the wood paneling in the conference room and circular ceiling lights have a groovy charm. Screens of concrete doves, a bit of Cold War optimism, add texture to the exterior brick walls. When I was there, the jacaranda trees lining the perimeter were still in full bloom, likely looking much the same as when the building was full of books. Had I been driving by for the first time in years, I might not have known anything had changed.

"It’s slow progress," Marin said. "But if you keep repeating a message, people start saying, ‘Oh yeah, I guess so—Chicano art is American art."

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