At a time when digital information is replacing almost every kind of printed document, iPhones, iPads, Kindles and other similar portable devices have become books. It is hard to imagine the concept of a mobile library without immediately thinking of downloading its volumes from the Internet. Many people would regard it as an anachronism to think that a library could still have any relevance as an architectural typology in the face of the digital upheaval that has changed the ways we approach information and objects, transforming entire industries, such as the video, music and printing industries.
Unlike the idea of electronic books and digital collections, the A47 mobile library is a counter-current notion. It champions the physical nature of the printed book, which it supports with a full cultural programme. A truck carrying over 1,200 volumes of visual art and culture, the A47 travels the streets of Mexico City, providing the residents of various neighbourhoods in the capital with access to its contents.
The A47 Mobile Library is a project developed by the Fundación Alumnos47, a civil society organisation that brings learning communities together around contemporary artistic practices and visual culture. Given that the foundation's major project is to build a public contemporary art museum by around 2014, it seemed reasonable to use a mobile unit to activate the museum's existing collection until the building to house it is completed.
Designing this unit turned into a veritable challenge. How do you take something so opposite to a piece of architecture as a lorry and turn it into not just a library, but a structure capable of hosting an entire spectrum of cultural activities? Looked at in this way, the archaic idea of building libraries started to regain a sense of modernity. Working on this premise, Mexican architecture studio PRODUCTORA came up with the design for a cultural centre within a 20 square metres space on board a Freightliner M2 20K lorry — a travelling building.
The lorry operates primarily as an itinerant collection of contemporary art books. However, beyond this use, every centimetre of its 20 square metre surface area is harnessed to maximum effect to achieve true functionality of space. The bookshelves have left their traditional form behind, instead being dismantlable trays floating above the library users, visually crowning the interior space. The free plan becomes a flexible, transparent platform that relates directly with the urban and social context. The lorry is a forum that can be used as a venue for an endless number of activities: book presentations, film clubs, poetry readings, workshops, as well as the opportunity to consult its bibliographic holdings.
The floor of the lorry comprises a series of mobile platforms giving access to the bookshelves, allowing the space to be re-arranged according to the different activities taking place. The micro perforated sheet surround acts as a permeable membrane that merges the outside and inside, making the space an exercise in honesty with its environment. From the street, one's view of the transparent intricacy that suspends the large solid volume allows a glimpse of the diverse range of titles inside, while also acting as an urban beacon through the night. This illumination — produced by the lorry's own integrated electricity generator — provides a reassuring glow when the streets fall dark, and announces the start of its nightly programme.
Famous names such as Lola Álvarez Bravo, Paul Strand, Roland Barthes and Laurie Anderson are among those to be discussed in the workshops that give purpose to this modern device. There are story readings and drawing sessions for children, while for adults there is the historiography and oral history of the colony. The raised platform of the A47 allows users to make use of the library in much the same way that an actor appropriates the stage.
It is through this quest for new purposes that users experience the change in the idea of what a library means. Far from being an inert archive, the A47 mobile library is a living organism enabling new approaches that turn imagination into a collective memory. This is a lorry that uses whatever changes exist in the city to create its stage. A mechanical insect that, when night falls, can fold away its legs, stow away its stories and continue with its journey. María García Holley