FULL HOUSE! was a sophomore architecture studio taught at Rice Architecture during the Fall 2020 semester. Sophomore students proposed renovations for Talento Bilingüe de Houston (TBH), a community theater in Houston’s Second Ward run by local non-profit Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA). Instead of demolishing and designing a new theater building, the studio chose to engage with MECA’s existing infrastructure and programs. The work investigates how incremental interventions can offer spatial flexibility for a growing local organization and its arts education programs.
MECA Houston is a non-profit organization providing arts education, community support services, and cultural programming for underserved communities in Houston. Established in 1977, it provides out-of-school arts and cultural programs for local youth and supports artists of color as an affordable alternative performance venue to those in Houston’s Theater District. MECA is not new to repurposing existing buildings: It is headquartered in the historic Dow School in the Old Sixth Ward, a former elementary school turned arts and community center. TBH (English-Spanish Theater), MECA’s second venue, is a former supermarket building located in the Second Ward, a historically Mexican-American neighborhood east of Downtown that is now home to a diverse Latinx community. An initial conversation with MECA’s arts program director Armando Silva led to the studio’s semester-long engagement with the TBH site. Reflecting on the process, Silva shared that “MECA has been working with architecture students for over thirty years. We regularly find students to be as gifted and disciplined as the artists MECA cultivates, and these Rice students were no exception! It is evident that, like the students we have worked with in the past, they too have been well trained to be supportive of the community.”
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While Houston’s population is 44.8% Latinx, there have not been significant investments in Latinx arts and culture by the city’s Museum and Theater Districts. A recent article in the Houston Chronicle put plainly this dearth of representation: "Why is there no major Latino cultural center in Houston?”  This makes local institutions such as MECA, and sites such as TBH, particularly important cultural infrastructures deserving of support and future investment.
TBH is located between Guadalupe Plaza Park and the Buffalo Bayou Hike and Bike trail. The building hosts performances, dance rehearsals, music lessons, visual arts classes, and numerous after-school programs. It has been stretched to its capacity particularly since the onset of the pandemic. Despite its provisional beginnings, the theater and community center is positioned as a key site of public significance as the Buffalo Bayou’s recreational and cultural spine expands eastward through upcoming improvements.
Rather than beginning on an empty site, as is typical with most studio projects, FULL HOUSE! proposed architectural interventions to the TBH building that would enhance and expand its existing capacities. While this is an unconventional studio brief at the sophomore level, there is growing value in the critical renovation project, particularly as architects rethink the discipline’s intersections with social equity, environmental care, and economy of means in a post-COVID world. 
Through alterations and additions, students imagined new performative futures for the public-facing site—from the scale of a skylight, to a cut in the theater’s back wall, to an entire building extension toward Buffalo Bayou. This incremental approach is sympathetic to non-profit fundraising processes. It finds parallels with Andrés Jaque’s renovation of CA2M, a museum in central Spain, where strategic interventions took place to transform existing building’s capacities, while allowing the institution to continue operating. Such an approach works with the temporally changing needs of an arts institution and acknowledges the cultural and social capital accrued on a site over the years, long before an architect would step onto the scene.
Students' projects explored themes of porosity, polychromy, and performance, and addressed multiple contexts, from the site’s urban and ecological edges to its relationship to the Second Ward community. In an early socially distanced visit to TBH, we measured the existing building, and heard from MECA founder Alice Valdez, who explained the organization’s history and ambitions. The studio continued to involve Silva, who provided feedback as student work developed over the semester. After the semester was complete, Silva said that “it was refreshing to see how eager the students were to keep the best interest of MECA’s community at the forefront of their work.” For Silva, a performing artist and community advocate, it was “inspiring to see how carefully the students listened to my recommendations as to how best to design a state-of-the-art performing arts facility while maintaining the needs of a community center.”
While researching and mapping the site, students discussed issues surrounding cultural representation and gentrification in the East End. Students also studied a range of architectural case studies from across the Americas, with a focus on Latin American architects and projects in Texas. This research sought to decenter the architectural canon of European precedents and formed a background repository of initial concepts for design propositions.
Exhibition and Pedagogy
At the end of the Fall 2020 semester, student proposals were pinned up for public exhibition at TBH. Architectural drawings and models from an academic environment took on an extended life as community actors, in efforts to prompt discussions about the building’s future and capital improvements with MECA’s potential funders. The opening-up of studio content reflects a genuine effort to expand design agendas beyond institutional walls, and to engage local non-Western cultures within one’s own city.
The manifold crises of 2020 has brought out social disparities, racial injustices, and uneven cultural representation, but it has also gathered new solidarities and renewed interests in architecture’s participation in broader society. In “Rearticulating the Social,” Jaque remarks that “a changing understanding of the role of the architect and the nature of its intervention can and is allowing for a transformation in practice. This doesn’t need to be seen as a form of direct activism [...] but rather as participating in wider processes of social change and rearticulation."  It is in this transformed understanding of architecture’s place that the studio operated, hinting at a design pedagogy that seeks to build equity and exchange with local constituencies over time.
Selected Student Work
This project expands TBH’s arts infrastructure beyond its walls into the local community. The existing building, already a site for mural competitions, is wrapped in an armature for mural canvases that could host and archive many more artworks over time. The partially enclosed “wrapper” introduces additional intermediate spaces around the periphery of the building, creating a shaded outdoor forecourt, new points of entry, and moments of public rest. The building footprint is incised to form an outdoor courtyard and extruded to create a new front-of-house library in place of the existing box office. By activating unused spaces throughout the site while also respecting its history, these interventions celebrate the building as an armature for Latino arts and culture and engage the civic potentials of the bayou-facing site.
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This project reimagines how performance can be multiplied at TBH. As a nod to Lina Bo Bardi’s Teatro Oficina in São Paulo, the proposal uses the concept of stacking to create multi-purpose spaces for performance with minimal disruptions to the existing building footprint. A decisive cut to the theater’s back wall allows spectators to expand outdoors into a currently underutilized greenspace, creating a double-sided theater on the bayou side. A thin, latticed multi-level bar is inserted across the building’s front elevation, turning the building’s front facade into a porous scaffold for acting or spectating. Through the stack, the theater is turned inside-out, activating and doubling TBH’s front and back-of-house spaces.
Slides, Folds, and Rotations
Through a series of sliding, folding, and rotating panels, the spaces of TBH are transformed to accommodate various types of events, from public performance to community cooking. Full-height door panels introduced to the building interior mask and reveal various activities throughout the day. The existing kitchen is expanded to accommodate community use. A translucent pavilion, sheathed in a lightweight moveable frame, is added to the south side of the building, creating shaded space for an open-air classroom, exhibition, studio, or dining space. The project also defines an outdoor axis along an existing footpath, drawing pedestrian activity around the building to a sunken theater and community garden along the bayou.
Light Box Theater
Isabella de la Iglesia
Light Box Theatre aims to bring natural light into TBH, a former supermarket with a deep floor plan and few exterior windows. In counterpoint to the existing black box theater with controlled lighting, independent “light boxes” are slotted into the building’s shell where the box office and practice rooms currently exist, offering flexible spaces for MECA’s performance or education programs. By relocating the studio, which currently faces the parking lot, to the building’s rear, a series of new airy practice spaces are created along the bayou. These culminate in a final inhabitable light box that opens the full height of the building to the waterfront.
Contemplating an expanded idea of performance, this proposal explores both ephemeral and permanent forms of architecture, the occasional event and the daily activity, the relationship between spectator and performer. The theater’s existing interior spaces are reinterpreted through the addition of theater curtain and ceiling track. A field of floor-sockets is introduced to the existing parking lot, allowing outdoor market tents, projection screens or festival structures to be erected by MECA and the community. A new platform stair to the north offers a series of mini outdoor stages and classroom space and establishes a new presence for MECA Houston along the bayou.
About the Author
Amelyn Ng is an Australian architect, cartoonist, and 2019-2021 Wortham Fellow at Rice Architecture. Her work seeks to untype architectural formats, systems, and practices, and values working across disciplines with diverse constituencies. She is currently working on two grant-funded research projects on social justice issues at Rice University. Recent writing can be found in e-flux Architecture, PLAT, Critical Planning Journal, MONU, and the Journal of Architectural Education.
 Molly Glentzer, "Why is there no major Latino cultural center in Houston?," Houston Chronicle, January 12, 2020, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/culture/main/article/Why-is-there-no-major-Latino-cultural-center-in-14966634.php.
 This is explicitly expressed by Andrés Jaque, Program Director of Columbia University GSAPP's Advanced Architectural Design program: "The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated what I feel is a growing collective concern to consider architecture as a means with which to address a set of crises— climatic, societal, and territorial—that should be put at the centre of our perception as a discipline." Dean of the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments Renée Cheng has also called for a rethinking of architectural pedagogy and practice on social and climate justice terms: "In communities, acknowledge the authority of the lived experience of residents and use their definition of justice to define project needs. We must accept that a building is not always the only answer and that design is not always the most important expertise." In another interview, Dean of the School of Architecture at USC Milton Curry considers social practice a key part of the future architect’s work. See Fabrizio Gallanti and Andrés Jaque, "PAN SCROLL ZOOM 5: ANDRÉS JAQUE," Drawing Matter, December 16, 2020, https://drawingmatter.org/pan-scroll-zoom-5-andres-jaque/. Renée Cheng, "Renee Cheng: Change Agency, Value Change," Architect, September 11, 2020, https://www.architectmagazine.com/practice/renee-cheng-change-agency-value-change_o and "Milton Curry, Dean of the School of Architecture at USC, speaks with Deem’s founders about the meaning of social practice," deem, no. 1, Winter/Summer 2020, https://www.deemjournal.com/stories/milton-curry.
 Andrés Jaque, "Rearticulating the Social," e-flux Architecture, August 31, 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/positions/280206/rearticulating-the-social/.