Judging by the handful of drawings available, the 35-story office development headed for downtown’s Block 185 is worth getting excited about. Its curved, sail-like shape might be the most interesting skyscraper design we’ve seen in Austin since the Frost Bank Tower — not that we’re ignoring all the other competition around town.
But when I came across these illustrations, my first thought was “Hey, that looks kinda like the Nahua Tower!” — which gives me a pretty great excuse to tell y’all about the Nahua Tower, one of Austin’s strangest and most impressive towers-that-never-was.
The subtly Mesoamerican-influenced design of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center near Rainey Street in downtown Austin is one of the city’s most interesting pieces of non-tower architecture — but what if it had a tower, too?
That was the vision of Thomas Bercy and Calvin Chen, co-founders of local architecture firm Bercy Chen Studio, who back around 2007 proposed that the MACC expand its current facilities by building a mixed-use tower atop the area currently occupied by the center’s surface parking lot.
Known as the Nahua Tower, presumably after the indigenous Nahua people of modern-day Mexico and El Salvador, the structure’s mound-like earthen base, which Bercy understatedly describes as a “green roof,” would house additional event and exhibit space for the MACC, along with restaurant and retail operations.
Above these facilities rose a 28-story condominium tower with a tapered design intended to evoke, according to Bercy, the architecture of stepped pyramid structures built by pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations at sites like Teotihuacan and Tikal.
“The shaft of the tower was a abstraction of the stairwells that flank the sides of the pyramids. The actual steps became ample terraces facing downtown. The tower was capped by a temple-like headstone that terminates the structure and hid the mechanical system and other systems on the roof.”— Thomas Bercy, Bercy Chen Studio
Bercy says the project was discussed at several meetings with the MACC’s advisory board as a potential direction for the center’s growth, but the recession of 2008 led the Nahua design to be indefinitely shelved — and the new plans for expansion don’t include a tower component. Ten years later, the images and videos in this article are about all that remains of the project, even though it’s unclear if a building this wonderfully strange would have ever made it far from the drawing board.
Its design, despite looking straight out of the “Evil Buildings” subreddit, was incredibly distinctive and unlike anything else we’ve seen in town since — at least until Block 185, which shares some elements of the pyramid style, though perhaps not in quite such a striking way. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d say it certainly would have qualified as a “signature tower.” We can only hope that Block 185, as the Nahua’s spiritual successor, brings a similarly bold look to the skyline — but even then, I’d do almost anything to bring this tower back to life.