The “citadel” that gave its name to the bustling Ciudadela neighbourhood in Mexico City didn’t start with military intentions. Commissioned by Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa, one the last Viceroys of New Spain, the Real Fábrica de Puros y Cigarros de México was built between 1793 and 1807, one of six state-owned tobacco factories in the vice-royalty.
The Neoclassical, single-story cigar factory is organized around a series of interconnected interior courtyards, where tobacco leaves were hung to dry. This network is surrounded by low, single-story buildings with square massing at the corners that resemble bastions, lending the complex the appearance of a fortress. This is not surprising, given that although the factory was designed by Spanish architect José Antonio González Velázquez, it followed an initial plan by military engineer Miguel Constanzó.
This military subtext soon took prominence during Mexico’s War of Independence, when the factory served as army headquarters and artillery bunker. It also functioned as a prison, and it is there that national hero José María Moreos was held before his execution. After independence, the cigar factory continued to serve as a military complex, earning it its Ciudadela title. During the Mexican Revolution in 1913, it was the setting for the coup leading to the “Ten Tragic Days” of the revolution.
In 1946, José Vasconcelos Calderón, the cultural leader of the Mexican Revolution and director of the National Library, petitioned the government to grant his institution a more permanent home than the disused church that was sheltering it since its creation in 1884. Instead of a new construction, the government instead proposed the use of the Ciudadela. Vasconcelos’ plan to move the national collections there never materialized either. Instead, the library that eventually opened within the former tobacco factory had a different mandate: it was to be a public library, with the mission of coordinating all libraries in the country. This did not come to fruition until 1983, when the national public library network was created, with the Biblioteca de México in its center. In 2010, the library was renamed “José Vasconcelos” to honour its founder. Confusingly, his name also graces the nearby Biblioteca Vasconcelos, built in 2006 by Alberto Kalach to expand the Ciudadela‘s offerings.
In 1987, notable architect Abraham Zabludovsky transformed the complex by adding translucent canopies to the large open courtyards and transforming them into breezy reading rooms. In 1995, Francisco Pérez Salazar converted one of the many rooms of the labyrinthine complex to host the 32,000 documents of the Fondo México, dedicated to the country’s literature, history, sciences and art.
By 2010, the building had fallen into disrepair. Alejandro Sánchez and Bernardo Gómez Pimienta of Taller 6A were tasked with revitalizing the complex and establishing a master plan. The project incorporated the personal collections of five prominent Mexican thinkers, which were each given a dedicated room designed by a different architect, as well as a specially commissioned artwork. The table below lists the details of the five Bibliotecas Personales.
|Biblioteca José Luis Martínez||Alejandro Sánchez||A vuelo de tinta (A flight of ink) by Betsabeé Romero|
|Biblioteca Antonio Castro Leal||Bernardo Gómez Pimienta (BGP Arquitectura)||Los tres métodos de la creación (The three methods of creation) by Alejandra Zermeño|
|Biblioteca Jaime García Terrés||José Castillo Oléa & Saidee Springall||Tiempo sostenido (Suspended time) by Perla Krause|
|Biblioteca Alí Chumacero||Jorge Calvillo & José Vigil||Mural de cerámica integrado con anclajes al muro (Ceramic mural anchored to the wall) by Gustavo Pérez|
|Biblioteca Carlos Monsiváis||Javier Sánchez Corral & Aisha Ballesteros||Piso de mármol (Marble floor) by Francisco Toledo|
Renamed Ciudad de los libros y la imagen (city of books and images), the building reopened in 2012. In addition to the five personal libraries, the Fondo México and the generalist public library of over 150,000 volumes, it also includes a children’s library, a library dedicated to visually impaired patrons, theatres and exhibition rooms, a bookstore and the central offices for the national public library network.
To facilitate navigating the complex, Taller 6A reopened some of the patios that had been covered by Zabludovsky and rejuvenated the axes of circulation that had been used by the tobacco workers and soldiers who had walked these paths in previous centuries. The centre of the compound is anchored by a monumental sculpture by Jan Hendrix hanging from the ceiling of the centre court. The result is a series of breezy open patios planted with trees, a joyful labyrinth that invites visitors to get lost in a good book.
I visited la Ciudadela in May 2018, when I took the photos displayed here.
This post is part of a series on adaptive reuse in libraries. See the list of such projects I am maintaining or view other posts in this series.
- von Ziegler, J. (2016). La Biblioteca de México, institución nacional. El Bibliotecario, 103, pp. 3–9.
- Brooker, G. (2017). Reprogramming. The city of the books. In Adaptation strategies for interior architecture and design (pp. 18–21). Bloomsbury Visual Arts.
- Broome, B. (2012). Bastion of Knowledge. Architectural Record, 200(9), pp. 96–96.
- Rey, I. (2013). The City of the Books Master Plan. Architect.
- Leñero, I. (2019). Visita a la Biblioteca de México. Proceso.
- La Ciudadela Library of Mexico and Repository of History. (n.d.). Mexico City. Retrieved February 7, 2023
- Frearson, A. (2014). Mexican library renovation by Taller 6A with bookshop covered in boxes. Dezeen.
- The City of the Books by Taller 6A. (2015). Architizer.
- Nashed, L. (2019). The quiet oasis of the «Ciudadela». Laure Nashed Architect Journalist.
- Deans-Smith, S. (1992). Compromise and conflict: The tobacco workers of Mexico City and the colonial state, 1770-1810. Anuario de Estudios Americanos, 49, pp. 271–309.
- Ros Torres, M. A. (1979). La fábrica de puros y cigarros de México (1770-1800) (Anuario II, pp. 109–125). Centro de Investigaciones Históricas. Instituto de Investigaciones Humanísticas. Universidad Veracruzana.
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!