The National Library of Argentina — A Premium Example of Brutalist Architecture

This article will focus on the National Library of the Argentine Republic in its most modern incarnation. The origins of the library extend back to 1810 when Buenos Aires became the capital of Argentina. The building that preceded the current one still stands on Mexico Street in the Montserrat Ward of Buenos Ares, it was this building that the literary luminary, Jorge Luis Borges, inhabited as the library’s director from 1955 through 1973.

The new building was designed in 1961 by Clorindo Testa, an accomplished architect of mixed Italian / Argentine heritage [1, 2]. Testa was a member of one of the first graduating classes of the School of Architecture at the University of Buenos Ares, his first design commission coming at the age of 28 in 1951. His architectural philosophy was rooted in the work of Le Corbusier. While his design of the National Library is convincingly Brutalist, Testa also incorporated a distinctly Argentine connection to the natural world in the building.

The library is placed on the top of a hillside park and resembles, at least in a crude way, the form of the trees whose space it shares [1, 3]. The corner stone of the current building was laid in 1971. Three companies were responsible for the thirty year construction period; Compañía Argentina de Construcciones, José E. Teitelbaum SA, and Servente Construction SA. It took a year to move the materials from the former library to their new home [4].

The architectural style of the building roots it in the period between 1950 and the mid 1970s. Brutalism was a child of the general Modernist Architecture movement. Examples of Brutalism resemble fortresses and are predominantly made of concrete. This aesthetic and practicality of available materials made it a favorite of socialist governments of the time. The term describing this style of architecture was first used by Hans Asplund, an Uppsala architect. The architectural historian Reyner Banham then picked up the term and popularized its use. Testa’s philosophical model, Le Corbusier, designed in this style. Characteristics of Brutalism include modular elements, specific zoning for different building functions, liberal use of concrete without aesthetic treatment although Brutalist buildings also include other materials such as brick, glass, steel, and stone. Many examples of Brutalism can be found on North American college campuses, as there was a large amount of construction at these institutions during the period when this architectural style was popular. One fine example is the University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library [6].

The design of the project was meant to preserve the surrounding biological diversity throughout the building’s lifetime and the library’s natural progression of growth. The majority of the building was built below ground, for these reasons [5]. The bulk of the library’s collection is also housed in an underground archive that branches out similar to a tree’s root system. The ‘trunk’ of the library houses the administrative offices and work spaces, to open up into the canopy-esque reading room at the top of the structure [3]. The façade was constructed with the aforementioned favorite of Brutalists, reinforced concrete. The structure was designed in two distinct foundations, the direct and indirect foundation. The direct foundation is designed to support the weight of the collections, the boiler room, and the librarian offices. Continuous beams placed directly on the ground support the slab, columns resting on the slab support the upper mezzanine that houses the collection. The indirect foundation supports the majority of the load (7800 tons) and is designed with four cores, supported by 13 piles each. The piles are approximately 4 foot in diameter and extend over 80 feet from ground level. Upon entering the library, one encounters the Jorge Luis Borges Auditorium, the Leopoldo Marechal Showroom, and the main library desk. The 2nd floor is for administrative offices, the 2nd floor mezzanine housing mechanical equipment. The 3rd floor houses the audio library and media center. The 4th floor is home to the library’s extensive and diverse archival collection. The 5th floor is the Mariano Moreno Reading Room and a general fund of books. The 6th floor contains the Reference Collection and the Gregorio Weinberg Reading Room, along with more administrative areas. The penthouse contains more mechanical equipment and the offices of the building engineers. The roof area gives access to elevator equipment penthouses, cooling towers, and a reservoir. Below ground begins the library school, with 3 classrooms, academic library, and the Augusto R. Cortazar Conference Room. On this first basement level, the preservation and restoration workshops and microfilm collection are also housed. There are two subbasement levels, which, as has been mentioned, house the main boiler room for the facility [5].

The National Library of Argentina is an interesting example of both form and function. All of the building’s intended functionality was included in the design, as well as a degree of future-proofing for the library’s growth. A consistent problem for many libraries, both current and in the design phase, is accommodation of the physical collection. While it is inarguable that a great many analog information resources are being replaced with digital versions, this does not eliminate the need for space. Indeed, it only adds to the design problem. Digital resources need an infrastructure for both storage and consumption, machines that not only require physical real estate but also new accommodations for climate control. Library and media center design continues to be a challenging and enriching design challenge as these facilities evolve.


[1] National Library of the Argentine Republic Wikipedia Page

[2] Clorindo Testa Wikipedia Page,_Buenos_Aires

[3] Smartplanet Blog — Clorindo Testa

[4] Biblioteca Nacional / Historia

[5] Biblioteca Nacional / Arquitectura

[6] Brutalist Architecture Wikipedia Page

Image Sources

[1] View from Austria Road

[2] Clorindo Testa

[3] View from the Plaza Mitre

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