The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco
Housed in a historic former library at the center of Riverside, The Cheech is the first public space in the United States dedicated to celebrating Chicano art and culture. WHY’s design for the structure is inspired by extensive engagement with artists, activists, and local residents, and it was clear from the start that The Cheech would offer something very different from a typical “white box” gallery. Instead, this is a space infused with sabor – flavor, vitality, and radical hospitality.
The 1964 New Formalist library was transformed to showcase the collection of the comedian Cheech Marin, comprising over 700 paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures by artists including Patssi Valdez, Sandy Rodriguez, Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, and Gilbert “Magú” Luján. The site in its entirety conveys the spirit of The Cheech, with outdoor spaces encouraging art programming, impromptu performances, and experiences of all types – from lowrider shows, to quinceañeras, to outdoor sculpture.
The project retains the civic history of the former library as a vital site of gathering for the community, making space for multiple intersecting cultural narratives. Rather than applying a dramatic, top-down approach to transforming the building , WHY worked closely with Page & Turnbull’s historic preservation team to identify a series of carefully localized interventions, addressing each point sequentially to reinvigorate the structure while preserving its historic character. This approach – which WHY terms Acupuncture Architecture – acts to defragment the spaces and improve circulation, bringing a new openness and flow to the spaces.
The guiding principles of the design were developed through a series of community outreach workshops which engaged a diverse cross-section of stakeholders from the city, including artists, educators, activists, business owners, and local residents. Additional programming featured a pop-up presentation as part of the Riverside Art Walk, inviting passersby to comment on the project and learn about its prospective impact on the city. The sessions were a chance for stakeholders to articulate their hopes about what The Cheech could be, as well as discuss key concerns and ensure that the design allowed for uninhibited expression of Chicano culture.
"It was realized beyond my dreams. I look at the museum now, and the architecture is quintessential modern Mexican and Chicano. I think the spirit of being Chicano is seeing what’s in front of you and turning that into part of your art culture— that’s the spirit I wanted to convey. That spirit can incorporate different elements, it’s defiant of the word 'no,' and it’s always looking forward and evolving."