For some, the National Library building is an eyesore. For others, it’s an outstanding feat of architecture. This hunk of concrete has been controversial since its inception.
The National Library is one of Argentina’s most prestigious cultural institutions. Great men of letters have served as directors, like Jorge Luis Borges, Mariano Moreno, or Paul Groussac. I wonder when, if ever, we will have a great woman of letters as director. Founded in 1811, it is also one of the oldest institutions, whose origins go back to the birth of the nation.
Just like the budding nation, the Library has had a long and convoluted story. It has been housed in different buildings along these two centuries. The latest and definitive location is that of 2502 Agüero Street in the tony neighbourhood of Recoleta. It sits at the top of a barranca that slopes down to Avenida del Libertador and the parks of Palermo, in the general direction of the River Plate, which can be seen from the 5th floor.
In 1961, the authorities organized a competition for the best design for a new building. The renowned architects Clorindo Testa, Francisco Bullrich and Alicia Cazzaniga came in first. The current events of the intervening years paralyzed the project and the building was finally inaugurated only in 1992. The overall design follows the tenets of Brutalism: the use of raw concrete, glass and steel and the modular elements that represent specific functions (warehouse, reading rooms, offices, the School of Librarians, etc.). One of the main guidelines was that the building should safeguard its green surroundings.
The land on which it sits belonged to a rich family and was confiscated by the State in 1937 to build a Presidential summer residence. Juan Domingo Perón and Evita lived here until 1955, when Perón was ousted by a coup. Evita died in this house in 1952. After the 1955 revolution, the government decided to demolish the residence for political reasons. The plot stood empty until the construction of the National Library began.
At the bottom of the slope, near the place where Evita passed away, there’s a 65 feet tall granite and bronze memorial. It depicts Evita leading the masses.
Above, on the Library’s esplanade, there’s another sculpture that honours a significant 20th century figure: Pope John Paul II. The 1998 sculpture was donated by the Polish Union of Argentina as a sign of gratitude to the country for receiving Polish immigrant with open arms, especially after World War II.
The Plaza del Lector joins the National Library with the Museo del Libro y de la Lengua –the Book and (Spanish) Language Museum- This lovely park has references to famous books, like the hopscotch drawn on the floor that refers to Rayuela (Hopscotch) written by Julio Cortázar. The plaza is an ideal place to sit in the sun, read the newspaper over coffee at the café, and just relax. It is surprisingly quiet given its proximity to busy Avenida Las Heras.