Sticks and Stones

­A new public library tries to heal a war-torn Colombian town.

Villanueva, Colombia, a small town 130 miles east of Bogotá, has long been caught in that country’s bloody 44-year civil war. It is known for its oil and its frequent spasms of violence; in 2001, right-wing guerrillas kidnapped 200 local farmers. Unsurprisingly, the town’s school system is in shambles. In an effort to right Villanueva’s sinking fortunes, the Colombian government turned to architecture. It’s a formula that has worked here before: Medellín, in the west of the country, sloughed off its reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous cities with an aggressive program to build more public spaces, including five libraries. So in 2005 the Ministry of Culture and the Colombian Society of Architects launched a contest to bring new libraries to three underserved cities in the oil-rich Casanare region: Yopal, Paz de Ariporo, and Villanueva.

The 37,000-square-foot library commissioned for Villanueva—two enormous wood-and-stone blocks, one on the ground and the other raised on pillars—was built piece by piece by the community it serves. The focal point of its minimalist concrete-and-metal interior is an outdoor plaza; in a town that has been a playground for rival paramilitary groups, the library has become both a refuge and an agent of change. The architects who designed it are unlikely mediators in a civil conflict: Carlos Meza, Miguel Torres, Alejandro Piñol, and Germán Ramírez are all recent graduates of Bogotá’s Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. They beat out 122 other teams from around the country, a surprise even to them. “This was our first project out of school,” Meza says. “We had to use our first check to set up an office.”

Perhaps because they were learning themselves, they relied heavily on the community around them, training locals to help with the construction. “We wanted people to feel connected to it, so we used the language they were used to, the local vocabulary,” Meza says. On one side, a metal cage holds loose boulders from a nearby river; the other side is a lattice of local timber. The library is earthy and spare, planting Modernism’s clean confidence in the blood-soaked dirt. “Public libraries are centers of social change,” reads the Ministry of Culture’s brief for the project. “They work for—and with—the society they belong to.” That is exactly what the architects had in mind, according to Torres: “We wanted it to look like it was born from Villanueva.”

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