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Biblioteca Juana de Asbaje y Ramirez
Colonia Joya de Aqua, Juitepec, Morelos, Mexico, 2001

The Biblioteca Publica Municipal Juana de Asbaje y Ramirez in Colonia Joya de Agua sits in a small, rural community with 800–1000 inhabitants at the very edge of the town of Jiutepec. Almost lost in a large, pastoral valley, Jiutepec was once known for great estates created around the ruins of old sugar mills as fantasy palaces for the internationally wealthy. Today it is still one of the city’s most prosperous suburbs, but also one of the fastest growing urban areas in North America. Perched alongside this realm of plenty is the little village of Joya de Agua, which houses working people employed in the industrial sector of CIVAC. Although the colonia is modest, CIVAC supplements its economic shortfalls, and therefore it has fairly good services and is relatively uncontaminated in contrast to previous Design/Build Mexico sites.

This library project came out of a realization by some of the women in Communidad that there were very few libraries in any of Cuernavaca’s squatter communities. The city was in the midst of building a large general library downtown but people in the squatter settlements, particularly children, have limited access to central Cuernavaca. Buses cost several precious pesos and most children, whose parents work all day, often cannot ride alone. In addition, schools in these communities rarely have library collections. This leaves 300,000–400,000 people in the squatter communities without easy access to books.

During a slide presentation about Design/Build Mexico in my twin’s fourth grade class in Seattle, I happened to mention this library idea. The forth-graders were immediately touched by the notion that there were children elsewhere without libraries in their schools. One little girl raised her hand and said she had a lot of extra books she didn’t need and she would like to donate them, and before I knew it the entire class was making pledges and offering to come down to build the library themselves. When our university students and the people at Communidad in Cuernavaca heard about this enthusiasm they were convinced this would make a great Design/Build project. The elementary school in Seattle took on a book donation campaign and we made the library the 2001 Design/Build Mexico project.

What distinguishes Joya de Agua is both its geographic isolation among much wealthier neighborhoods and the rural quality it is able to maintain. The extremely hilly terrain inhibits dense development, so informal homesteads are relatively spread out. Drawn by this abundance of open space, the government has built several public schools in this neighborhood. There is a large technical high school and an elementary school that each serve the larger industrial region. Therefore, although the library site is physically isolated from the larger squatter settlements and sits in a lower-density neighborhood, it serves a wider community by the proximity of these other public institutions. The schools use the library as an extension of their services, and parents of students in the schools benefit from its programs and books as well.

The Design/Build Mexico students faced more extreme time constraints that year than in any year previous. The opportunity to do a short two-week project in Havana, Cuba had arisen, which would subtract two weeks from our time in Mexico (see Urban Agricultural Center project). No delegation from the University of Washington had studied in Cuba since the onset of the Cold War, and we felt that this was an important opportunity for the Design/Build program and the larger university community, both pragmatically and symbolically. We scheduled the students to spend the first two weeks of the winter 2001 program in Cuba and the remaining eight weeks in Mexico working on the library. This left only seven weeks for the students to design and build the library, and they met this immense challenge by executing a design that was elegant in its total simplicity. The concise, thoughtful building diagram made it possible to create a strong piece of architecture in a very short amount of time.

The library site is at the entrance of a popular soccer and play field, so it made sense to the students that the building should act as both a public facility and a gateway into this community space. The building is positioned such that its short side faces the main road and its broad side runs along the access road to the soccer field so that car traffic reaches the field along the south side of the building. In response, a pedestrian pathway was created on the north side of the building to disperse access to the field along both sides of the library.

The building form is created by four great walls running perpendicular to the access road, which support an expressive curving roof that, like most of our buildings, dips to the south and rises toward the north to optimize solar conditions. Within the building, the four walls divide the 2000-square-foot building into three main interior spaces along a linear axis: the entrance and check-out area, the children’s reading room, and the adult reading room. On the exterior, the four great walls emerge through the building envelope to become fin walls. On the south side of the building the fin walls are punched to create a long loggia along the access road, which further shades the building from the hottest sun. A reflecting pool runs along this entire side of the building and the great walls taper from the roof into the pool. On the north side of the building the great walls become fins that deflect the late-afternoon sun.

The curving roof also provides unique daylighting opportunities within the building. It becomes a light monitor that carries the high light from the north down to the south. The curving form allows light reflected from the pool at the south to bounce onto the underside of the curve toward the north. Therefore, the light is equally extraordinary from both the south and the north, and the roof glows all day long. Although it is a massive, formally dominant concrete presence, it becomes immaterial because of the softness of the curve and the illumination. The roof also captures rainwater and distributes it to channels in each of the four great walls, where it is carried into the reflecting pool.

Two artists joined us that year as instructors, as well as several students from the art school; their collective interest in details and finishes enriched the simple building diagram. Jim Garrett, a premier metalsmith in the U.S., donated a month of his time to help students build the gates that create the entry thresholds into the library. In addition, he encouraged students to incorporate furniture into the building design; they built a concrete counter set on a steel I-beam frame and finished it with tile fragments for use as a check out desk. They also created several individual metal desks with this same technique. The artists created a big mural with the kids from the community, which now hangs in one of the great rooms.

The formally expressive building had the potential to dominate the simple landscape, but we had a good contingent of landscape architecture students that year who took great measures to create seamlessness between the building and the site. They observed that the reflecting pool to the south of the building enabled a successful transition between walls and earth and created a similar condition on the north side by planting pocket gardens in the nooks created by the fin walls, softening the building where it meets the ground. In the entry courtyard at the east end of the building they saved a great shade tree, around which they developed a highly detailed yet subtle garden space. Square pavers cover the ground; the geometry of these is broken by the inclusion of giant rocks collected from the site, a channel of tiny pebbles where the garden meets the site wall, and plantings including donated palm trees and cactuses. Along the site wall adult-size benches are broken by child-sized seats, all cast in concrete and topped with pavers.

The simplicity of the building’s formal diagram makes it a very concise but highly resolved project. It exhibits more finished elements than any of our previous projects yet took less time to build. It straddles the border between having a modern, simple functional diagram because of careful editing, and being a building of great sophistication thanks to thoughtful detailing.