Our project will create a place in San Antonio, Texas for the continued cultivation of the musical tradition known as Conjunto. Literally meaning “ensemble,” Conjunto could refer to any group, but as a genre of music it is tied to a unique hybrid form of Mexican-American folk music that sprung up in South Texas in the nineteenth century. During this era, farm workers of Mexican, German and Czech heritage mingled in the fields and shared their musical traditions; Ranchera songs melded with polka beats, driven by the interplay of the Spanish twelve-string guitar (bajo sexto) and the accordion. The resulting musical form persisted as the signature sound of the working class and as a soundtrack for weddings and other family gatherings, reaching the height of its popularity in the mid-20th century. Conjunto is closely related to genres like Tejano (which incorporates rock elements) and Norteño (it’s northern Mexican cousin which focuses on ballads or corridos). However, having lost the infrastructure of radio stations, record labels and a Grammy category that might help maintain its influence, Conjunto is in crisis.
San Antonio has long been one of the centers of Conjunto, still hosting an annual music festival. Beginning in the 1950s, Lerma’s Nite Club was a key venue for Conjunto as it was one of the few clubs at the time that would employ Hispanic musicians to play to integrated audiences. In the last decade, Lerma’s has ceased operations as a music club and, despite being on the National Registry for its Art Deco facade, faced possible demolition in the past few years. A coalition of advocacy groups recently secured funding to restore the building and convert it into a cultural center.
Our studio will take this development as a starting point to reimagine Lerma’s as the anchor in a new complex focused on Conjunto music. The program will include a 30,000 square-foot building with associated exterior spaces. The project will incorporate elements of an adaptive reuse of the original Lerma’s Art Deco building as well as both indoor and outdoor performance spaces, a recording studio and educational spaces for teaching instrument lessons and dance. Also included will be a music library, housing for traveling musicians and a community space to serve the neighborhood. The site will become a hybrid as well, one mixing old and new structures while conjoining enclosure and garden.
Lerma’s is in San Antonio’s Westside neighborhood in a strip with significant history, but little abiding character at present. Our intention is that this development might also revive the latent potential of the place and its surrounding community. We will travel to San Antonio to visit the site along with notable historic and contemporary buildings. We also plan to make excursions to Austin and a border crossing into Mexico.
At a moment when the status of generations-long Mexican-American residence is being undermined and an agenda of division and walls is being pushed forward, we would like to focus on inclusion and building bridges. Architecture cannot resolve these complex issues, but we believe it has a critical role to play.