Both are named after José Vasconcelos.
The first is quite famous, so many of you are probably familiar with it. It’s the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, the municipal library of Mexico City that opened in 2006. It has gotten plenty of press, making Tripadvisor’s list of the 15 libraries to visit before you die, named the most cutting-edge, modern library in the world by the American journal Architectural Record, and placed second by the US magazine Newsweek among the most innovative libraries on the planet. Designed by modern architect Alberto Kalach, the exterior appears unremarkable at first glance, but entering it takes you into an overwhelmingly new-futuristic scene that looks straight out of a sci-fi movie.
The library is symmetrical and designed to look as if the stacks were floating in space. A massive whalebone sculpture by Gabriel Orozco hangs in the center. Apparently there are some 600,000 volumes in the collection, but the library can hold up to two million books, so there are still shelves that are completely empty.
The library has computers available for public use, study desks, lounge areas, and even rooms full of children’s books.
The lines of orderly stacks are definitely a highlight, but it’s a little scary the higher you go up, since the walls and barriers are kept to an absolute minimum. It was probably even more terrifying for me because I had small children with me.
Camera photography is prohibited, but you can snap photos with your smartphone, so many people visit the library as a tourist attraction.
The second library is the Biblioteca de México José Vasconcelos, which is a national public library of Mexico. It is an incredibly historical building, the polar opposite of the Biblioteca Vasconcelos.
This one isn’t famous, so foreign tourists rarely visit, but it’s the perfect place to stop when you’re out buying souvenirs since it’s located right across from the Ciudadela Market.
The collection is divided among several rooms, each of them with a different theme. Some are in a classical style, for example, while others bear the names of famous authors. Because they’re each designed differently, it’s fun to go there even if you don’t know Spanish and can’t read any of the books. There’s even a quiet central courtyard, giving the whole place a relaxed, slow-paced vibe.
Both libraries bear the name of José Vasconcelos, a lawyer born in 1882 in Oaxaca who is also known as a politician and philosopher. He served as the first minister of public education after the revolution, and worked hard to construct schools and libraries. Dissatisfied with the idea of the superiority of the white race, he opened the walls of public buildings to the artists of the muralism movement that I wrote about in my last post.
The reasons each library took his name are complex, but I think it’s fascinating that the two buildings that are so completely different in how they feel and the impression they leave on visitors.