When the Biblioteca José Vasconcelos opened last May, the Alberto Kalach-designed campus was hailed as a cultural gem for Mexico City—and, at 500,000 square feet, it became the largest public library in Latin America. But one year later, the $100 million complex has shut its doors amid water leaks, flooding, and political scandal.
Government officials closed the library in March after its unfinished water filtration system began leaking, causing damage to elevators, marble floors, and walls. Then, just one month later, construction nearby caused a pipe to burst that flooded the library’s bookstore, a separate building also designed by Kalach that had been the only part of the campus to remain open. Repairs are underway now, but the political finger-pointing has only just begun.
Critics accuse the administration of former Mexican president Vicente Fox of rushing construction so that the project would open before a hotly contested election last summer. “The main problem is that the building is not finished,” observes Ignacio Padilla, the library’s director. In addition to the water filtration system, the list of more than 3,000 unfinished tasks includes completing construction on some restrooms as well as landscaping a 280,000-square-foot botanic garden.
With the capacity for 1.5 million books—although only 500,000 are on the shelves—the 125,000-square-foot library building features an aesthetic of austere concrete walls and floor-to-ceiling windows. Its main hall is a sparse atrium lined with internal windows that overlook classrooms and cultural space. The book stacks, painted military green, are suspended above the hall by steel girders. Fewer people used the facility during its first 10 months than expected: an average of 2,500 to 3,500 visitors a day, despite a capacity for 15,000 daily visitors. Observers blame this lackluster showing on the campus’s location, near the bland Buena Vista metro station north of the city center.
Although the bookstore is expected to reopen next month, and the library in July, the project’s woes may not ease anytime soon. In response to allegations about improperly spent construction funds, the Mexican House of Representatives has announced that it is launching an investigation. It is also looking into a fashion photo shoot held at the library. Saúl Juárez Villa, director of libraries, resigned following outcry that he permitted a department store to use the building as a backdrop in its promotional materials. Critics claimed the photo shoot was a misuse of public space and that library officials failed to follow proper government protocol.