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Mexico Theater Complex Blends Interior, Exterior

By Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D.

Mexico's Cineteca Nacional complex has been reinvented with an expansive steel- and glass-roofed plaza and an outdoor recreational and viewing area.


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The 80 by 40 m courtyard roof of the updated Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City appears to float over the existing structures, unifying old and new spaces. © Rojkind Arquitectos, photo by Paūl Rivera

February 11, 2014—When, in 1982, a fire consumed Cineteca Nacional, Mexico's film archive and theater complex, almost all of the archives at the national repository were destroyed along with its buildings. The complex reopened shortly thereafter in temporary quarters that had been converted for the use, but it was not until 2011 that work began to completely overhaul the site and reimagine it as a center where people could come together as a community to watch films. As part of the project, surface parking on the campus was transformed into parkland and outdoor viewing areas, while a new massive steel roof that appears to float over older theater-screening buildings now unifies the complex, blurring the line between interior and exterior space. 

Largely built over the course of a ten-month period in 2012, the Mex$358-million (U.S.$35-million) project is now undergoing its final touches, and it is expected to be complete by summer.

"It was a temporary facility that was converted to house the Cineteca Nacional," says Gerardo Salinas, AIA, a partner of Mexico City-based Rojkind Arquitectos, who completed the master plan and designed the new elements of the complex. "So, it was never ideal for them, and the Cineteca Nacional kept growing and growing." Prior to the renovation, the site had an attendance of about 600,000 ticket-paying visitors a year, according to Salinas.

Additionally, 3,500 people crossed the campus daily as they walked to and from one of the city's nearby metro stations, Estación Metro Coyoacan. This ebb and flow of pedestrians and traffic had to be accommodated in the new design and the number of casual visitors to the campus affected how the design team envisioned its transformation. "That was really [how] this whole idea of turning this into outdoor spaces became so critical," Salinas says.

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Offering a 750-person outdoor amphitheater and screens that can turn the park into a movie venue, the campus has become akin to the community’s backyard, according to designers. © Jaime Navarro

The complex was already the largest national film archive in the world, Salinas says, before the renovations began. "Last year alone they had over 750,000 people here, and when they finish the three new theaters, they are expecting over 1.2 million people a year as visitors." And this number includes only those visitors who actually purchase tickets, he says; additional local residents use the outdoor aspects of the campus for leisure activities.  

Prior to the renovation, the campus comprised a series of stand-alone screening rooms and film vaults, as well as the parking lot. The screening rooms did not have lobbies, which posed problems: "When it rained, the only place there was to hide was in your car, so the people used to wait in the car before the movies started, because there was no place to be sheltered from the rain," Salinas says. 

An 80 by 40 m roofed plaza that was created as part of the design resolved this issue, combining interior and exterior elements to provide a large space for people to gather during inclement weather. The roof's steel structure is clad in high-gloss aluminum panels and topped with a 6 mm thick clear glass layer, which provides rain cover; perforations in the aluminum panels allow daylight to enter the space from above and visitors inside the courtyard to view the sky. 

"The roof is the element that ties the old theatres to the new theaters," Salinas says. "It basically becomes an outdoor foyer for the movie theater. You can be under shelter from the rain and from the sun, and one minute before the movie, you can just walk to the movie theater and go right in." 

The roof structure uses a cascading grillage of steel beams supported on long-span plate girders, according to Chris O'Hara, P.E., SECB, a principal of Boulder, Colorado-based Studio NYL and the engineer who designed the roof structure. It is the most structurally complicated element of the renovation, he says, because of the high seismicity in the region and the fact that it had to "float" over older buildings on the site.

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The complex includes a new six-story parking garage, parkland in areas previously dedicated to surface parking, and a steel roof that blurs the line between interior and exterior spaces. © Rojkind Arquitectos, photo by Paūl Rivera

Mexico City is located in a silt-filled "bowl" that is surrounded by volcanoes, and was initially swampland that was drained centuries ago, according to O'Hara. "So you have a very, very deep rock strata and it's like the equivalent of taking San Francisco and putting it on an 80 foot deep bowl of Jell-O," he says.  

Because the variability in the density of the soil and rock strata affects how different lengths of seismic waves move through the region, the structural engineers used response spectrum design to create the roof structure, O'Hara says. This involved using multiple software platforms, including RISA-3D (produced by RISA Technologies, LLC, of Foothill Ranch, California) and Robot Structural Analysis (produced by Autodesk of San Rafael, California). This method takes the actual seismic wavelengths and amplitudes that a site would experience in an earthquake and applies them to the design model, according to O'Hara.

The existing structures that the roof had to float over predate the massive 1985 Michoacan, Mexico, earthquake, which measured magnitude 8.0 on the Richter scale, and do not meet the earthquake codes that were implemented after that devastating event. The existing buildings were strengthened with reinforced steel trusses to handle vertical loads, but "we couldn't put any lateral load into [the existing] buildings, so the roof actually rests on Teflon-pad slide bearings" atop their roofs, O'Hara says. "We don't transmit any seismic loads."

"We had to make it so that that entire [steel] roof would just cantilever out horizontally from a lateral standpoint, and then we bring all of the load back into [an] angled truss that comes down," Salinas explains. "That's actually like a large moment frame the way it's been designed, so it has a pinned base where it meets the foundation and the concrete, but the truss elements are designed to take all that seismic load and flexure as a moment frame, even though it is trussed up." 

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The courtyard roof’s steel is clad in aluminum panels and topped with a clear glass canopy, which provides rain cover. Perforations in the aluminum panels allow daylight to enter the space. © Rojkind Arquitectos, photo by Paūl Rivera

To save costs and help meet tight construction deadlines, the steel members were designed in repetitive sizes and shapes, O'Hara notes. Also important was the manner in which the steel members were laid out so that "as an element cantilevers and rotates over its support, the back end tries to pick up larger plate girders," O'Hara says. This optimized the amount of steel necessary by creating situations in which the elements behaved as if they had shorter spans. "We're actually propping them up by using the deformation of other parts of the structure to help lift [them]. And the whole thing was just this big cascading element, almost like a lamella, but triangular in how it deals with load distribution," he says. Standard concrete footings support the structure.

To free land for the new buildings and parkland on the site, a six-story parking structure that can accommodate 528 cars—25 percent more than had previously been available on the campus—was added. The existing parking lot was then opened up for development, adding 40 percent more space to the footprint of the campus. The new project also added four new screening rooms that each seat 180 and updated the existing screening rooms with current technology. Overall the complex can now seat 2,495 visitors in indoor theaters. 

The design team also added a 750-person outdoor amphitheater, in addition to outdoor screens that can turn the park into a movie venue. Two new film vaults were also added to the site, increasing the complex's archive capacity by 50,000 reels of film.

Now that the work is almost done, the design team is enthusiastic about how it has already changed the community. "It's a very democratic, very social space," Salinas says. The ebb and flow of nonpaying visitors has also swelled. Commuters still walk back and forth across the campus in the morning and evening, medical staff from a nearby hospital stop by to eat their lunches, students hang out at the park in the afternoon, and moviegoers attend free outdoor events in the evening.

"It's become an incredible space," Salinas says. "When we proposed this originally, the government authorities were very doubtful that the outdoor amphitheater could be used by everyone—affluent people as well as people with less resources." But that is precisely what has happened, he says. 

"It became a total success for the Cineteca," Salinas says. "It has almost become a backyard for the community."


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