Construction of the UNAM Central Library began in 1950 and the library opened its doors in 1956. Designed by the architect and painter Juan O’Gorman, it’s been classified as a masterpiece of functionalist architecture ever since.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Central Library collection includes some 428,000 volumes in the general collection and another 70,000 in the historical collection. Further archives include collections of printed and similar materials from prior to 1800.
The base of the building is made of the volcanic rock on which the building rests and the reliefs there reflect the motifs of the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico. The northern entrance to the building is adorned with a fountain in the form of Tlaloc, a god of rain and fertility, a motif repeated in other parts of the building. Garden dividers on the ground-level bear reliefs of the silhouettes of the gods, Quetzalcoatl and Ehecátl (a god of the wind) and a mask surrounded by snakes.
“From the beginning, I had the idea of doing mosaics with the colored stones in the blank walls with a technique in which I already had experience. With these mosaics, the library would be different from the rest of the buildings within University City, and it was given a Mexican character,” O’Gorman said of what turned out to be one of the largest mosaics in the world.
Made entirely with colored stones and entitled “A Historical Representation of the Culture,” (Representación histórica de la cultura) the mural covers the entire body of the building and serves as a codex. That’s to say, it’s a narrative of the history of the country and the national university.
The north wall of the building represents images of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican cultures and their deities. The theme turns around a life-death duality. The north side is illustrated with the face of Tlaloc framed by a pair of open hands. Scenes of pre-Hispanic Mexico, including the founding of Tenochtitlan are also presented.
The south wall depicts the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico and the Conquest, and a dual God and Devil. It also presents the physical trappings of that period of history, including churches, guns, maps, manuscripts and monks.
The east wall portrays Mexican modernity, with the Revolution as one of its themes. In the center, a model of the atom generates the principle of life. And the further duality of the moon and the sun look down from above.
The west wall presents the National University in all its finery with the coat-of-arms holding the most central position. Other allegories and representations include the studies of science, culture, sports and engineering.
UNAM’s Central Library is one of the most distinctive visual and architectural treasures in Mexico City. Telling tales of the distant past, the twentieth century and of the University itself, it’s as close as you’ll get to a true portrait of the entirety of Mexican culture.
More detailed descriptions are available (in Spanish) here: bc.unam.mx/murales
Author’s Twitter: @imissmaria
Though the internet makes lots more information available to lots more people, Mexico City libraries have simply not been supplanted. Charged with continually re-inventing themselves, and their places in the public imagination, one can still encounter eras gone by and great historical minds in a library as in few other places.
Knowledge, after all, belongs to everyone. Opening a book, reading it at a study, or just meeting in the silence of one these Mexico City libraries enhances concentration, and provides a welcome respite from everything going on out there in the world.
Of all Mexico City libraries, the oldest were part of the church and one or another of its offshoot organizations. Among these was the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, founded in the 1530s and surviving today as the Biblioteca José María Lafragua. Most of these ecclesiastical libraries were not truly open to the public, and Mexico had to wait for the National Library of Mexico, inaugurated by Benito Juárez in 1867 to enjoy the benefits of a truly public library system.
The list below is intended to let you enjoy some of that system, too.
Opened just ten years ago, in 2006, the Vasconcelos is visited by thousands for the sheer spectacle of its innovative design. Graced by the iconic whale from artist, Gabriel Orozco, it’s always a good library for art and visual spectacle. The facade retains something of a colonial appearance, but for sheer scale, and jaw-dropping space, the interior must be experienced.
We’ve written a lot about it in these pages, but the UNAM library with the Juan O’Gorman murals remains one of the most outstanding of all Mexico City libraries. As a UNESCO site with some 428,000 volumes in the collection, it’s the biggest in Mexico, but lots of folks visit just to see the facade and the surrounding grounds.
Opened by Benito Juárez in 1867, there’s still a good one million books inside, today administered by the folks from UNAM. Originally located in the San Agustín church in the city center, the current building was opened in 1979. Geometric, and massive, it’s an extraordinary place to visit.
Specializing in economic materials, this collection of some 86,350 books and 114,852 journals is administered by the Secretary of Finance and Public Credit. Founded in 1928, it’s one of the cities true public art spectacles. Inside the main nave of the old Oratory of San Felipe Neri “El Nuevo,” the baroque façade outside is just the beginning. Inside, the murals are futuristic, and not to be missed.
One of Centro’s truly outstanding historical buildings, for centuries it was the convent of the Clarisas from the 16th century. Today it’s something like a “Library of Congress” with a stunning collection of publications and artifacts, but also with a lush, deep, dark intellectual interior, that beckons from centuries past.
Address: Tacuba 29, Centro Histórico
Photographs this page: Flickr – Creative Commons
Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood has for a millennia history offered resistance, rebellion, and hope. Tenochtitlan relegated dissidents to Tepito’s crooked alleys. The “brave neighborhood,” even hundreds of years later, is still marginalized and bent on survival. Somehow residents seem to bear that history in the very DNA.
With a reputation for violence, deprivation, and overcrowding, some of the great characters of Mexican history have come from Tepito. The cradle of Mexican boxing, in the 1970s an important literary movement emerged in Tepito, and the neighborhood has contributed as much to the culture of the city and country as have many, much wealthier places.
Among all the stories of people whose hard work is performed with an enviable dignity, there are thousands of women who carry out similar work for their families. Resident Mayra Valenzuela Rojas remarked, “In Tepito there’s a matriarchy (…) Every woman has her own story. Each of us is a spark, but together we are lighting a candle for Tepito.”
German photographer, Anja Jensen, is currently exhibiting her work in a show called “Ciudadanas-Caminamos a oscuras” (Citizens-We Walk in the Dark). Having spent months in Tepito, she’s documented the women challenging the stereotypes of the neighborhood.
Jensen was assaulted and threatened, but she was also clothed and cared for by the women who opened their stories and lives to her. The result is a series photographs, “Las Cabronas de Tepito,” (Bad Girls of Tepito) a collective portrait of the matriarchy whose fervor makes the neighborhood better and regularly improves the lives of the people living there.
The photographs will be exhibited through February 12, 2017, as part of the Mexico-Germany Dual Year, at the German Pavilion on the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, in Roma Norte.