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Tucson's Mercado San Agustin designed to draw community together

Tucson's Mercado San Agustin designed to draw community together

From the From Mount Lemmon to Mission Garden: Tucson's favorite places series

Favorite Places series featuring local architects speaking thoughtfully and personally.

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The arrangement of the courtyard at Mercado San Agustin creates a comfortable, semi-intimate environment that draws people in.

There are several really great spaces in Southern Arizona, one of my favorites is really an unlikely candidate for me.

My architectural education was firmly rooted in midcentury modernism, learning from some great professors that had direct experience with the modern masters like Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Lou Kahn.

Michael Becherer

I’ve also traveled enough in Europe to have seen many of the spaces that inspired them and were created by them. There is continuity of space, proportion and scale that resonate from era to era. The modernists knew this; you can see it in Kahn’s Salk institute or Corbusier’s La Tourette.

In Tucson, that space for me is the courtyard of Mercado San Agustin, designed by the firm Moule & Polyzoides.

Distillers at Whiskey Del Bac harvest several barrels of whiskey on, Oct. 2, 2020. The process includes checking fluid levels in the barrels, tasting for quality and pouring the whiskey into a vat where water will be added before going onto bottling. (Josh Galemore / Arizona Daily Star)

The whole notion of the Mercado seemed odd to me when I first heard about the project. I thought “why would you build that there?” I hadn’t been in Tucson for very long and I didn’t understand the intent or vision of how downtown was evolving.

At the time, that area of the west side was barren, with the old landfill site to the south. The larger vision wasn’t clear to me. After the construction of the mercado, I was amazed at how the space was a magnet for people.

The basic building massing and the semiformal arrangement of the courtyard space created a comfortable, semi-intimate environment that simply draws people in.

The mercado gives Tucson a public space that encourages spontaneous interactions.

The informal arrangement of the commercial spaces at the perimeter of the courtyard gives the visitor a sense of mystery and discovery as they wander from space to space.

The sensitive attention to the scale of the space makes it just large enough to feel like a public space, but just small enough to give the individual a sense of security.

It’s one of the most active public spaces in the city on a consistent basis, throughout the day on any given day of the week. This wasn’t by accident, this is through good design and careful attention to scale, proportion and massing. I believe it’s also because this building gives Tucson a public space that encourages spontaneous interactions in a way that we don’t often see.

Again, my preferences lie with modernism, but in looking at the influences of the modern masters, Greek villages and Italian hill towns, these types of spaces are built into our communal DNA. The proportion, scale and massing resonate with us on a core level that creates a sense of comfort, security and community.

The proportion, scale and massing resonate on a core level that creates a sense of comfort, security and community. Mercado San Agustin, 100 S. Avenida Del Convento, on September 28, 2020.

The Sonoran influences of the mercado play into these same notions — the design ties into these core elements of good design, and the result clearly resonates within us.

As we move out of this global pandemic, our community needs to have more spaces like this throughout the community. Spaces that encourage our community to come together in a way that makes us feel safe and secure. Spaces that belong to all of Tucson but feel like they were designed for each of us individually.

Michael Becherer is a member of the American Institute of Architects, the AIA Southern Arizona 2020 president, and principal at Swaim Associates LTD Architects AIA.

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